Words are all over the internet. In fact, if you could print the entire internet in pages, like a book, you would get an estimated 305 billion. For scale, that’s 203 million copies of War and Peace, or 74 million copies of the entire Harry Potter series.
With the internet’s flood of words comes a demand for people to arrange those words in a more-or-less pleasant way. That’s where you, the content writer, come in.
As with any type of writing, web writing has quirks and nuances that make it distinct from the other types of writing. However, web writing is far-and-away the youngest form of writing, with early internet service providers popping up around 1995. That means that web writing as a discipline is in its infancy—only about 20 years old. Compare that to book writing, which has had several thousand years to develop, or newspaper writing, which has had 450 years (and these are just rough estimates). As such, there’s no Chicago Manual of Style for the internet, but we do have a lot of insights that show us how you should be writing on the web.
So, whether you’re a pro or just starting out, here are some common mistakes to avoid when writing content for the web.
1: Not knowing your audience
Knowing your audience is one of the first rules of writing anything, period. It’s also the most important rule for web writing. If you don’t know your audience, everything else will fall flat.
For example, you speak to your boss differently than you speak to your friends; it should be the same when you write. Your audience consists of a specific group of people with specific interests. Knowing what those interests are and constantly keeping them in mind is key when writing. At best, unfocused writing will fail to resonate with readers. At worst, it will find itself without any readers at all.
When considering your audience, you must put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself, If I was reading an article about (insert topic), what information would I find the most useful? If you can answer that question correctly, you’re on the right path to writing something that will resonate with your readers, which can lead to a number of SEO-related benefits. Answer incorrectly, though, and you risk adding no value to your would-be readers. Think about it: the only reason you clicked on this blog was to read about some writing pitfalls that you, presumably a content writer, should avoid. If I fail to deliver on my title’s promise of a lesson, why should you stay?
2: Writing vague titles
8 out of 10 people will read your title, but only 2 out of 10 will read what comes after. Additionally, the right title can increase traffic by 500%. Knowing this, you should consider your title to be at least as important as the rest of your content.
Also, when a user finds your article through a search engine, they will see your title, a short description of your writing, and nothing else. If your title falls flat, the user will move on without ever giving your writing their attention.
A good title entices the reader to learn more while also providing satisfactory information about what the article is about. Under no circumstances should users click on an article and feel that its title misrepresents its content. Articles with bad titles sometimes attract many clicks but have low time-spent-on-page and high bounce rates. To Google, these are signs of bad content, and the rankings of articles like that generally drop.
There is no formula for a perfect title, despite what other articles say. There are some guidelines you should follow, however:
- Be as specific as possible: The internet thrives on specificity. Unique users search for answers to a specific issue and get results custom-made to address that issue. Vague titles attract either no attention at all or the wrong type of attention.
- You might have found this article by searching “how to write better content for the web,” for example. You had a problem, and this article presented a solution. If I had instead titled the article “How My New Job Helped Me Write Better,” you likely would not have found it, even though it addresses your specific issue.
- As the internet becomes saturated with similar content, specificity can help you to be unique and stand out.
- Use numbers (and numerals): You should use numbers in your titles as often as you can. Titles with numbers in them get more clicks than those without them. That’s because numbers are specific. Also, you should use numerals instead of typing out the number’s name (e.g. write 2 instead of two), because numerals act as eye-magnets. Cyrus Shepard explained 7 title tag hacks and utilized some of those hacks in the title of his post (that is very helpful)!
- Don’t use the first title you write: Since titles are so important, you shouldn’t just settle on the first one you write. Instead, try writing 25 and picking the one you like best. You could even A/B test titles by posting the same article with two different titles and seeing which one gets more clicks.
To illustrate these guidelines at work, we turned to a study Conductor performed in 2013. When surveyed, users preferred the title “30 Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful” over “What Are Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful?” by 22%. The second title is less specific, using no numbers and including a question, which is inherently more ambiguous.
3: Writing bad headings
Researchers have done studies on how users’ eyes move when they read a webpage. Those studies found that people read online in the shape of a capital F. This means that users’ eyes are drawn to headings and the top-left blocks of text. Users spend significantly less time on the words towards the right side of the page. People don’t read your content, they scan it.
Knowing this, it’s important to organize your content in a way that emphasizes your most important points. Paragraphs have the effect of organizing thoughts into easily digestible chunks, and headers make the structure and progression of an article crystal clear, even to a scanner.
Over half of all page views get less than 15 seconds of attention regardless of page length. Therefore, your headers must be short—around 4-5 words long—and they must guide a user through your writing in a logical way. If you have to make a reader work hard to find what they’re looking for, they’ll likely take their attention elsewhere.
4: Using paragraphs that are too long
Web paragraphs should be shorter than print paragraphs. I advise keeping your web paragraphs between 2-4 sentences. A general rule is that online, your paragraphs should look easy to read. That has the effect of making them appear inviting, no matter if they’re viewed on a desktop, tablet, or smartphone.
Some web writers take this idea a step too far and treat each individual sentence as a new paragraph, leading to articles that look like this:
Think about the last article or text that you read. Did it have well-formatted paragraphs or walls of text? Done correctly, paragraphs help to invite readers into your content.
By blurring the line between a sentence and a paragraph, you erase the paragraph’s power to form a relationship between sentences with similar or complementary ideas. It’s okay to use one-sentence paragraphs occasionally, but make sure you honor the paragraph. It’s a tool, so use it. Remember: when everything is a paragraph, nothing is a paragraph.
5: Not writing simply
You’ve probably heard the saying If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. Many writers are so delighted with their own wit that they garnish their writing with flowery language and dense words. The truth is, if you aren’t writing simply, you’re alienating your audience no matter who they are.
It’s not that web users are uneducated, it’s quite the opposite. In fact, about 70% of web users have high-literacy. By simplifying your language, you make your writing more accessible to everyone who reads it, no matter their literacy level. Remember, web users tend to scan text instead of read it. A good rule-of-thumb is that homepages should be easy for a 6th grader to read, and all other pages should be easy for an 8th grader to read. There are many tools that measure readability, but my favorite is the Hemingway Editor. According to the Hemingway Editor, this article is easy reading for an 8th grader.
6: Not outlining your work
Proper organization is key to writing well; if you aren’t outlining your work, you’re ensuring that your writing isn’t organized in the best way.
Outlining is also important because writing is hard. When you boil it down, there are three choices you make whenever you write something: what you say, how you say it, and where you say it. If you try and contend with all three at once, you will handle all three poorly. Outlining (and later, editing) your work allows you to break these elements down so you can focus on them one at a time. Once you have decided the structure of your writing, it becomes much easier to figure out what you should say and how you should say it. So, save yourself some trouble and outline your work.
7: Not spending enough time editing
Ernest Hemingway famously said “the first draft of anything is sh*t.” If one of the most storied writers of the 20th century believed in editing, you should too. While Hemingway didn’t write for the internet, his mantra stands.
If you tried scheduling a doctor’s appointment, painting a picture, and preparing dinner all at the same time, you’d do a lousy job at all three. You’re basically doing the same thing when you don’t edit or outline your writing. Editing has the power to make bad writing good, and good writing great. Almost everything you read—be it a New York Times article or a tweet—has likely been through at least two stages of editing.
If you don’t edit, you should want to. After all, it only makes writing easier. Instead of forcing yourself to get everything perfect on the first try, editing allows you to be creative in bursts and stages. Correcting a typo in a draft is much better than correcting a typo in writing that’s gone live.
To those who have never edited their own work: give it a try. After you finish a piece of writing, step away from it for two hours, or even a day. Then, come back to it. Read it with fresh eyes. Read it like you were reading it for the first time. You’ll inevitably find that there are things you wished you written differently; go ahead and change them. Your writing will thank you for it.
8: Spending too much time editing
If you had walked into Facebook’s headquarters in 2012, you would have seen a phrase painted on the wall: “Done is better than perfect.” But what does that mean? To put it another way: You’ll never make something that’s perfect; however, you can make something that’s as good as you can make it.
Many writers exhibit perfectionist tendencies—they don’t want to mark something as finished until it’s perfect. These people often spend too much time editing their work. I certainly do from time to time.
As a writer, your time is the most valuable asset you have, and you shouldn’t waste it. Editing vastly improves your work, but over-editing often just wastes time you could be spending on another body of work. To visualize this, think about your writing as an asset and the time you spend editing your writing as an investment into that asset. At first, the time you spend editing does lots to improve the overall quality of your writing. However, as time goes on, the time you spend on editing will have less and less of an impact on the quality of the writing. Eventually, the time you spend editing a piece of writing will have virtually no impact on its quality! This is called the law of diminishing returns.
You wrote what you did to serve a purpose. Eventually, you must let your writing go so it can serve that purpose. You’ll take the lessons you learned into your next writing, I promise.
Overwhelmed? Let Us Help
Writing is tough work. If by the end of this article your head is spinning, don’t worry. webFEAT Complete knows the rules so you don’t have to. If you’re a company looking for someone to help improve their web content, give us a call. If you’re a content writer struggling to make a name for yourself, we offer consulting: just send us an email with your name and situation and we’ll get back to you with more information.
On top of this, we build SEO into our writing, because it has the potential to assist in driving traffic to your website for leads, or to build credibility for your brand. Either way, our complete package of services can help to make your content, website, social media and general brand work together for more visibility on the web. If you’re curious about the possibilities, we’d love to start a discussion about your content and website situation.
Also published on Medium.