Blogging and Readability: Writing for the Web

Blogging, email newsletters and articles for the web all carry their own set of rules which you should know about and adhere to if you want your customers and followers to read and share your material.

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People read differently on a screen than they do print, which means that in order to get the best out of your written content, it’s necessary to learn how. The idea is to allow for a good level of engagement and for information to be presented in such a way that the reader can take it in quickly and easily.

Let’s have a look at some of the techniques that you can employ to make sure that your readers love your work and keep coming back for more.

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Headlines that work

Starting at the top, headlines are of course the thing that will attract readers in the first instance, so they should be highly clickable.

This means you should:

  • Keep headlines short and snappy where possible, under six words is the general rule
  • Present the headline as a ‘problem solver’
  • Make it entertaining
  • Ensure it appeals to the reader on an emotional level. For example, laughter gains the best response as it makes people feel happy, but something that provokes anger also works well

Problem solving headlines always do well, which is why you come across many headlines that begin with ‘how to’ or ‘5 tips for’. These types of headlines give the immediate impression that you’re offering a solution to some kind of problem that the reader has.

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Readability matters

Many writers make the mistake of not considering readability scores when writing for the web, yet this is hugely important. You can use Flesch Kincaid scoring to determine readability; most sites should write to high school level. This isn’t a case of ‘dumbing down’ your writing or content, it’s about ensuring that it’s simple to take in when someone is skimming, which web readers all do.

When writing, remember one basic rule: if you have to stop or pause when reading the piece in order to take in a word or information then you have just lost a reader. The piece should flow naturally with the use of simple language and you should never attempt to get highbrow when it comes to the words you use.

Flesch Kincaid scoring

In Word, you can enable readability scores in proofing tools, or you can use a third-party plugin such as Grammarly’s. You can also of course use the formula above to work it out yourself if you’re happy with doing the maths.

Write for your audience. If you have a highly technical product, then you may want to do some industry pieces that are targeted towards a certain audience that has an understanding of your product, but take care not to alienate readers with the use of jargon, overly technical terms and difficult to understand language.

 

Passive voice versus active voice

The passive and active voices are the voices of verbs. The use of the former should be kept to a minimum wherever possible as it doesn’t engage the reader in the same manner as the active voice.

So, if you say Jack kicked the stone, then this is the active voice as the subject is carrying out the action, whilst if you say the stone was kicked, this is the passive as the action is just being carried out.

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Formatting content for best effect

As I mentioned earlier, online readers like to take in information quickly, skimming over the text in an F-shaped pattern and concentrating the majority of their efforts towards the top. This means that formatting is extremely important for the web, as huge blocks of text will quickly see people leaving as it comes across as hard work and intimidating.

This means that you should follow a few basic rules to ensure that the piece is easy to take in:

  • Short sentences and paragraphs should be used
  • Paragraphs should be no more than 6-8 lines deep with clear white space in between each
  • Sub headers should be used to break up text and draw the eye naturally downwards
  • Bullet points should be used to further break up text

This allows the reader to skim much more easily and will engage them much better than a big block of text ever will. You’re aiming to present information in short, bite-sized chunks to gain the best effect.

Heat mapping

The above heat mapping study by Jakob Nielsen showed that the same ‘F’ pattern was used when the eyes of online readers were tracked. The first shows an ‘about us’ page, the second a product page and the third search results. As you can see, the pattern is clear in the first two examples and a little more scattered in the third.

Keep in mind that most people read more ‘above the fold’ (top of the page), so try to ensure that the first couple of paragraphs are well-crafted and grab the reader instantly.

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Opinion pieces

Unless you’ve already established yourself as some kind of authority then you should avoid opinion pieces, as well as anything that’s overly promotional (for general blogs and articles, not for email). We all have an opinion and it can be very cathartic to have a good old rant online, but you first need to build trust with your audience.

Until you do, stick to facts and ensure that you back this up with referencing where possible. If you’ve taken information from an online source, then link to it, preferably ensuring first that it’s a good source from a site that many people in your niche will recognise. This will help to build your reputation as someone that gives good information, leading to you becoming a trusted source of information.

Writing for the web should follow the KISS rule – keep it simple stupid – write to your audience at all times, using buyer personas from the marketing department. Format well, include references and above all, come up with ideas that are a little out of the norm but popular. Do this and it’s likely that you’ll see a huge jump in engagement (so long as you’re also distributing the material well) and you can begin to establish thought leadership.

  • Thanh Binh Hoang

    I think it is based on the content and writing.

    People nowadays are overwhelmed with all the information and stuffs.

    They are looking for something fun and shock like Miley Circus twerking.

    Binh

  • KatarzynaPietka

    Hi Lloyd, please accept our apology if you feel insulted – this definitely wasn’t our intention. I must say you’ve used some pretty serious words to express your opinion. I think the audience’s needs is what we should focus on and what many audiences actually look for is quick and easy-to-use information to be read and processed in minutes. It is your privilege – as an author – to select the best writing style for your audience if they’re looking for something more sophisticated.

  • KatarzynaPietka

    Hi Thanh, thank you for your comment. You’re absolutely right that people are overwhelmed with the amount of information available all around, although I’m not sure I have any idea what email marketers could learn from Miley Cyrus’ twerking :).

  • http://cashwithatrueconscience.com/rbblog Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Kerry,

    Make posts scannable. Nice tips! Format, use headers, bold, underline, italicize, to make words jump off of the page at you. Grab attention spans, by leading off with an enticing title and dont forget, a picture is worth a few million words ;)

    Thanks!

  • http://markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

    Thank you, Ryan! :)

  • Bruce

    “Unless you’ve already established yourself as some kind of authority then you should avoid opinion pieces.”

    I could not disagree more with this statement. There is already far too much fluff out there – particularly in the marketing sphere – rehashed ‘advice’ that says the same thing over and over again, published by people who think they need to say it just because everyone else has. With all due respect you’ve done it in this article. I call it ‘marketers marketing to other marketers’ and it drives me insane.

    I don’t know why I clicked on this article… I haven’t seen anything in it that I couldn’t read, in more detail and with genuine evidence to support statements, elsewhere. But I am commenting to suggest you take that statement out or revise it because it will only contribute to the continuation of mediocrity in content.

    Why wait until you are an ‘authority’ before giving people the benefit of your insight, experience or knowledge? What you are saying is, “don’t think for yourself, just find something someone has said a thousand times before, dumb it down so you can’t be accused of plagiarism and publish, publish, publish!” No doubt you believe you are ‘driving engagement’ and being ‘relevant’ by doing this.

    Could there be anything worse?

    As an authority yourself you should be using your insight to publish meaningful and original ideas. At the very least you could talk about the above things in a new way or using interesting and real evidence to support your claims. And you should be encouraging others to do the same. Not create some meaningless guff about Jack kicking a ball and using a number in a headline (are you seriously saying that you think people should use MORE numbers in headlines??). After all you’re the experienced one aren’t you?

  • Sara-Ruth Wolkiewicz

    Hi Bruce, we are very sorry that you feel like this statement might have been insulting or downsizing to other, please accept our apology. These are however tips from a certain point of view, you are free to choose whatever you feel is right for you :) I do see where you are coming from, however I think that what the author was trying to get at is that sometimes people tend to throw out some “insights” that are not really insights because the people behind them do not have facts or experience behind these ideas.
    Everyone is free to think for themselves, we support each and every person that wants to share their thoughts. Once again, we are very sorry if this article was not to your liking.

  • http://markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

    Hi Bruce,

    I advise against opinion pieces because there are far too many good writers out there who make the mistake of producing opinion pieces which editors just won’t accept, especially if the writer in question has no real authority to back it up. This is something that in every writing class I have ever attended I have been advised against, from the small class that is run locally for budding writers, to my degree and other qualifications that I’ve taken. Of course, that’s not to say that I should take the advice of more qualified scholars than myself, nor that anyone has to take mine.

    These are tips and tricks designed to help those that don’t necessarily have the experience or qualifications get started in such a way that they will create words that people want to and will read. More importantly, it’s tips that will get editors to read. That means that it’s not the general fluff and filler, I said nothing about not providing insights, I myself despise the way that guest posting has created a slew of 300 word rubbish that were created with the intention of gaining a link. To me, that is what has been wrong with much of what has been written online in the past few years.

    As I pointed out earlier, it’s not a case of dumbing it down, you miss the point. Which is … write for your audience and not for yourself. People naturally read differently online, so ensure that your writing accounts for this; know your audience and what they want if you want to stand a chance of getting it right.

    We’re all different of course and I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy my own insights on this occasion, however, I’m pretty sure it’s been useful to others who perhaps have no idea how to go about writing for the web.

    Kerry

  • marielouiseflacke

    Regarding the readability formulas, it seems everybody in the communication field just re-discovered them… Unfortunately, nobody took the time to check them for pertinence/applicability.
    In an article published in March 1981 (!!!) , Janice Redish detailed the “Understanding the Limitations of Readability Formulas”.
    Excerpt: “Readability formulas assume that the text is composed of well-formed, grammatical sentences. A formula that counts only sentence length and word length or familiarity of the words is not sensitive to the order of the words or the complexity of the grammar. Sentences with misplaced clauses, dangling participles, or misused words will score as well on a readability formula as sentences of equal length that have none of these problems”.
    Any comment?

  • http://markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

    Hi Marie,

    Thanks for reading :)

    I haven’t read the entire essay yet although it does seem to be widely available. I think that readability scoring should be used as a guide more than an exact science when writing. If, as the excerpt suggests, there are misused words, or anything that really makes the reader stop and break up the flow then it should be removed. Personally, I always advise that if you aren’t sure about structure, then reading aloud will pick up any natural stumbles in the text.