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Writing for the Web: Not as Hard as You Think

Quick tips for a (sadly) essential skill.
Not unlike tying your shoes, writing for the web is simultaneously simpler and trickier than you think it is. (Don’t mock. The whole “around the tree” thing still baffles me. Rabbit ears all the way).

someecards.com - Learn to tie your shoelaces. Because you really need to quit trippin.

It’s like not-web-writing in a lot ways, but the main difference is your approach to your audience. A web audience is typically going to give you a lot less grace and patience. The nature of the internet is dynamic and quick; no one wants to linger on a single blog post.

With the preponderance of stuff on the internet, especially spurred on by rise of content marketing, this particular skill is more important than ever.

The simple solution, of course, is to outsource your web writing to people who already know this stuff. It’s a perfectly valid strategy. Here at Mack Web, we tend to split the duties 50/50 with our clients. We encourage them, as the true experts on their products, services, industries, and company cultures, to be involved in their content generation.

We usually get pretty good results this way. And, through trial and error, we’ve managed to figure out the most-encountered sticking points.

Now it’s time to get unstuck.

No need to re-invent the wheel.
The thing is, of course, that this writing-for-the-web-stuff is a topic that has been covered by…just about everyone ever. I’m pretty sure that if you go check out the Lascaux cave paintings, some of them will turn out to be the correct formatting and focus for web writing. It’s a practical topic on which nearly everyone is allowed their own opinion. (Which, in a fun meta-twist, makes it nearly perfect for blog dissertations).

Probably the best of these was done by Distilled just a few weeks ago. It goes pretty in-depth on the research, the value, the process, and even the formatting of writing for the web. It’s a good read and it’s more comprehensive than what I’m doing here. I recommend that you check it out if you’re one of those curious types who likes to, y’know, know things.

That said, if you’re a Mack Web client (or if you work with an agency that operates similarly to ours), you may not actually need to know all of those things for yourself. We tend to do a lot of the prep work on your behalf.

If we’re releasing you into the wilds of blog world, we should have outfitted you well with things like audience, purpose, outreach, guiding questions, and maybe even some keywords.

So what follows here isn’t the whole guidebook. Guidebooks give you the entire history of the place and its chief imports and exports and the obscure species of fish you might find if you decide to go snorkeling.

This is just the highlights, the quick tips and guidelines like “don’t forget to lace up your hiking boots” and “don’t walk your dog near standing water unless you want to provide a tasty canine treat to the alligators.”

These are a) the most important tips to remember when writing for the web and b) the ones we find ourselves repeating most often when we’re helping out our clients.

1. Put the first things first. And in the middle. And last.
Before you get started, do make sure that you know the audience and purpose of the post. Even if you’re not the one doing the research, please review the data and keep that in mind as you’re writing it.

With every point that you include in the post, check back to make sure that it relates to your central idea and that it applies to the audience you’re writing for.

In other words, if you’re writing a post with tips for house-training a pet monkey, don’t go off on a tangent about the history of circuses in the early 1900s. Your audience doesn’t really care about how much canvas they used to make the big top. They just want their bonobo to stop leaving them ‘presents’ in their shoes.

2. Start strong. End in triumph.
Your introduction is important. There are approximately a kajillion blogs and websites out there. Nobody has time to read them all. You need to give them a reason to spend the next ten to fifteen minutes reading yours.

Your opening doesn’t have to be long or epic. But it does need to catch and keep their attention. Otherwise, they’re going to bounce off your site and hit up Pinterest instead.

(And really, pep talk aside, who can blame them? Where else can you find this stuff:

Source: lolchamp.com via 3milly on Pinterest

).

The recommendation that I find myself giving over and over is that your intro can go one of two ways:

A) It can be so spectacularly interesting, intriguing, funny, or bizarre that it practically compels attention, even if it’s a little off-topic. My high school journalism teacher once went absolutely gaga over an article that started with, “There’s a killer lurking in our halls.” The article was about the ridiculously ginormous wasps that had infested the art building, but that opening got a lot more attention than “The administration would like all students to steer clear of the east wing.”

(No, I didn’t write the article. In high school I mostly interviewed my friends and made up crossword puzzles. There’s a reason I didn’t go into journalism).

B) It can immediately address your audience’s pain points. “Are you tired of your monkey crapping in your favorite shoes?” or “No one wants to find monkey droppings in the dishwasher.”  Quick, direct, and attention-grabbing all the same.

The way you close the post is also important. You’ve relayed your information. Now what do you want them to do about it?

Sometimes you’re going to have a specific page you want them to visit or a contest you want them to enter.

Maybe you’ve got more information on your Google+ profile or you want them to share their tips and tricks or even horror stories on monkey potty-training.

End with something that encourages engagement of some kind, something that prompts a response.

3. Style does matter.
I’m not going to overdo it on the formatting rules, but here’s the down and dirty:

  • digestible chunks: no huge block paragraphs,
  • interesting, informative, and frequent headings,
  • if you can manage it, break it up your sections with some relevant graphics, and
  • smooth transitions from one point to the next.

4. Try not to be boring.
I tried to think of a nicer way to say that, but…then I didn’t.

Oh well.

The point stands.

The truth is that sometimes, depending on your industry, you’re going to be writing about some fairly technical or serious things. You don’t want those posts to be overly goofy or even chatty. You can’t always use a charming or informal voice. (Although, if and when you can, do).

What you can do, is read what you’ve written out loud before you post it. Are there sentences that you fall asleep or lose your way in? Does it sound like something someone would actually say or does it sound like jargon or promotional mumbo jumbo?

It is absolutely possible to write like an actual person without losing your professionalism or your credibility. Hold onto that belief, set it as a standard, and you’re going to do just fine.

5. Avoid those things up with which we shall not put.
Which is my somewhat perverse way of saying: mind your grammar, kids.

This is another one of those things that should go without saying and yet…no one ever seems to go without saying it. So here’s me, saying it: check your grammar, check your spelling, check your punctuation. You’ll find that reading your post out loud is going to help you with that too.

And that’s all, folks.
Seriously, that’s pretty much it. There’s a lot of rules about writing and web writing. There are probably classes you can take and lots more tips and tricks out there. Most of them are good and useful and excellent. Guidebooks, right?

This is just the stuff we thought you should know. To keep your dog from getting eaten by an alligator, y’know?

Are there things you struggle with that we didn’t cover? What is your pet web writing peeve? Let us know and we’ll see what we can do.