According to my colleague, writing is a cruel and unusual form of punishment – and those who are very good at writing are all indulgent masochists. This very same colleague also happens to be a recipient of the prestigious PRSA Atlas Award for Lifetime Achievement. If there is anything that she has taught me in our two years of working together, it is that writing is not something that simply flows out of your brain and onto paper with ease. I’ve shared in her frustration as last-minute changes were made to press releases. I’ve seen how it can take hours for even the most seasoned professional to crank out an important document. But most importantly, I’ve learned that even those who love writing are actually secretly exhausted by it.
Sharing in her mindset is author William Zinsser. In his book On Writing Well, Zinsser describes how the process of writing is not supposed to be fun. Rather, it is an arduous task involving endless rounds of editing and reorganization in an effort to communicate ideas simply and with clarity.
Plain is Priority
People just don’t have the time for fluff anymore. Sure, using large words and complicated syntax may make you look smart at first glance, but it can actually deter people from listening to what you have to say. Writing in a manner that is easy to understand and concise is key. In an effort to make printed and online literature more accessible, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 states that all government information and services must be written in “plain language” to enhance citizen access. While this law only requires government communications to follow these guidelines, it is highly encouraged for other organizations to follow suit.
“Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”
– William Zinsser
More often than not, we tend to overlook the simple things because they seem “too obvious.” Contrary to what some may believe, this blatant approach is actually preferred. Living in an environment where we are unabashedly harassed 24/7 by stimuli, it becomes harder and harder to find things worth your time. Social media has altered the way in which we communicate. Clickbaity text, eye-catching graphics, and new niche vocabulary clutter social media feeds. According to The Washington Post, 59% of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked. Meaning, people appear to just share information based on headlines alone. So how can we write better to ensure value and click-through?
Setting It Up
Like any good piece of art, it really is all about how you prime and lay the foundation. In his book Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, entrepreneur extraordinaire Gary Vaynerchuk stresses 6 basic rules for creating successful digital content:
- Optimize content for its native platform
- Don’t interrupt or detract from a user’s experience
- Don’t make too many demands of the user
- Integrate pop culture to showcase relevance and understanding
- Use micro-content to make connections
- Be consistent and self-aware about your brand and message
It is also important to keep in mind your specific audience, as this can affect the language and tone you utilize. All writing should also take into consideration readability. To heighten readability, especially for mobile viewing, consider implementing structural hierarchy. This could mean integrating headings and subheadings to help identify different or connected ideas. Bullet points and numbered lists are also great tools for organizing information. Lastly, utilize hyperlinks to allow the reader a way to easily learn more about the subjects you are talking about. Together, these elements will help you create a strong piece of content that is easy to read and engage with.
What This Looks Like
To help show you what this all looks like in practice, I’ve sourced two articles that both talk about productivity, focus, and flow.
The first from Forbes, utilizes a stimulating stock photo to help grab attention. To further interest, it uses the intriguing headline “5 Ways to Increase Your Productivity At Work.” (Note the number 5 being used versus the word “five.”) In the article, there is a clear opener in which the author creates a foundation for the information she is about to convey. Following this, there is a break and a numbered list is used to communicate the 5 tips. Each section has a bolded headline to increase the transfer of information. The following paragraph is no longer than six sentences which keeps the audience engaged. Her active and casual voice makes it seem like she is a friend sharing what has worked best for her in the past. This article is also mobile-friendly and does not have any distracting ads intermingled with the body copy. For these reasons, I believe that this is a great piece of informational content.
The second piece, sourced from WordPress, pales completely in comparison. While the page utilizes a somewhat stimulating image and headline, the article itself lacks everything a user is looking for. Instead of being an actual article – it is a weird review of a different article (with a link hidden somewhere) and the voice is so colloquial and unprofessional I’d never come back to this website as a resource ever again. While it does utilize elements like hyperlinks and a bulleted list, their content just isn’t that useful. The website also does not prioritize the written content, instead, half of the screen is utilized to promote his blog and to follow his work. As a user who was looking for productivity tips and got none, it goes to show how headlines and interesting images might get the clicks – but if the content lacks, then conversion will not follow.
After reading this post, I hope that you can appreciate how well-written and well laid out content can make all the difference, especially in an online setting. It is always better to maintain a loyal audience than to rely on views from a wide array of people who may click your article only to never return to your site again. What techniques have you seen that have been enhancing your consumption of digital content? Let me know in a comment below.