Writing to writers about how to write. . . I may have painted myself into a corner with this topic. Especially now that I’ve drawn your attention to it. . .
I’m not terribly concerned because this article will be flawless. Perfect. Each sentence will read smooth as a river-polished stone and lead the wayward reader (and writer) to success so grand as to eclipse every triumph they’ve ever known. By the end of the first paragraph, I’ll have earned the reader’s interest. By the end of the article, their respect. They’ll trust me like an old friend and bookmark this page under the title “Genius.” I may even save a few careers.
Am I coming off pretentious? Over-confident? Self-absorbed? I imagine so.
But did you have a reaction to the writing? Did it keep you on the page? Rouse your curiosity?
Are you ready to scroll down and prove me wrong?
As content writers, we have two jobs: get people on our client’s page, and keep them there. SEO is the obvious solution for getting people on the page, and several other blogs (like this great post from MOZ) cover that topic.
Once they are on our page, how can we keep them their?
The average web-user leaves a page within the first 30 seconds. If they stay beyond that initial threshold, the average time on site increases to 2 minutes or more!
It doesn’t seem like much, but that’s an eternity to the modern attention span.
To snag the reader’s attention and convert, we need engaging, fresh content that stands out from the litter of boring content on the web.
Now, I was laying it on a bit thick earlier. A voice that strong might be a bit overboard and become tiring, but it illustrates a point. Quality content needs to keep a reader scrolling, so we need something that makes our writing pop. Something that makes the reader curious, excited, or surprised. To do that, we need to be thoughtful and have control of the language we use. To that end, I’ve compiled 8 of the simple writing tools we use at Helix House to fine-tune our content. They are easy to employ, highly effective, and will bump up your writing from ‘good’ to ‘great’.
All of us are on deadlines, and it can be tempting to jump right into a project and start racing towards our word count. However, taking just a few minutes to do some simple pre-writing will tease out more ideas and help you structure your content in a more coherent and engaging manner.
I like to do a quick 5 minute free-write to squeeze all of my jumbled thoughts out of my head and onto the page. I don’t let my fingers stop moving for 5 minutes, and by the end I’ve discovered way more ideas on the subject than I had before. Of course, the writing itself sounds like a hot mess, but eloquence isn’t the point.
Word clouds serve a similar purpose as free-writes. In this exercise, I write down every word I can think of that relates to the topic and circle each one (just so they are easier to identify). Afterwards, it’s easy to relate the words to each other and figure out how your ideas will connect throughout the piece.
Which exercise fits your style of thinking? You’ll find with this extra bit of forethought that your ideas will flow naturally, and the topic will be more flushed out.
Both Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King have said that they use this thought experiment to find their unique and authentic writing voice. In Vonnegut’s case, he imagined writing for his dead sister. . . in marketing, we should probably focus on our living and breathing readership, specifically a customer avatar.
An avatar is a representation of the quintessential individual customer in your client’s specific audience. To create an avatar, consider who your broad audience is and list out their demographics, psychological traits, desires, hopes, fears, etc. which will whittle down your audience from ‘people who want to know about nutrition supplements’ to a specific person with personality. To learn more, check out our blog on customer avatars that goes more in-depth on the subject.
Think of it this way: instead of speaking to a roomful of people about your topic, it’s like having a conversation with one interested person. In which situation will your voice be more natural? When your tone is natural and tailored for the individual reader, they are much more likely to feel comfortable, stay on the page, and be interested in your content.
A low-quality blog or article will sound monotonous. This is because most sentences are the same length. They don’t pay attention to pacing and how the piece reads. The reader has to slog through writing that they know didn’t have thought put into it. The writer may think they are writing simply because they don’t use commas. In reality, it is just bad writing.
See how terribly boring that paragraph was? Without thought to pacing, reading through the content will be like trudging through the mud. Your writing should be dynamic: sentence lengths should vary, punctuation should be purposeful, and the pace needs to ebb and flow to keep the reader’s attention.
Now, this doesn’t mean we should disregard the rules of SEO–readability is important, and sometimes what we think is creative is actually just confusing and overly complex. We still want our content to be accessible to the casual reader. Too many commas and sentences the length of the Appalachian Trail will quickly drive people off the page.
One of the easiest ways to identify sluggish, unenergetic writing is to read the piece out loud. If the writing sounds robotic or is filled with run-on sentences, try playing around with the pacing to liven up the voice.
One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read the best writers. Outstanding essays, Pulitzer Prize winning novels, articles in the most prestigious publications–we need to consume a large variety of the very best writing. Consider it your homework. Based on people’s average reading speed, if you read for just 20 minutes a day you’ll be exposed to over 1.8 million words a year. One way to create space for reading is to cut back on social media. Would you rather read 1.8 million words of Twitter fluff, or devour world-shaping literature?
Besides buying books, there are a ton of other ways to access world-class writing anytime you want. One of my favorites is the website The Electric Typewriter (tetw.org). TETW compiles hundreds of essays by incredible writers–such as Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, and Malcolm Gladwell–that are all available for free.
Another option is an app called Wattpad. Wattpad is mostly a platform for amateur writers to publish their work, but the app also gives you access to classic novels. From Dostoevsky to Jane Austen, you can read incredible authors on your phone, anywhere you go.
When a reader enters a website, they want to know if they’ll find the information they need. Finding ways to include numbered sections and bullet-points lets the reader quickly identify the main points of the article.
Nobody wants to besiege what seems like an impenetrable fortress of text. People have a short attention span, and an itchy-trigger finger when it comes to pressing the back button on the search bar. Even if your sections have clearly labeled headers, numbers and bullet points are still a good idea. Google crawlers look for pages that they think are organized cleanly.
6. Edit for Concision and Precision
Have you ever had one of those moments when the content seems perfectly formed in your head? When you know exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it? When your fingers blaze across the keyboard and the perfection bursts forth from your mind like thunder?!
Unfortunately, though, our fingers and our brain aren’t always on the same page. No matter how easy the words come, there are still going to be mistakes. Before you hit submit, you should review your work and ask yourself a few questions:
Oftentimes, we wear blinders and can’t see the mistakes in our writing. After running through those questions yourself, have another person on the team take a run through the piece. They’ll be able to easily see where your writing isn’t concise or precise.
Writing is not easy. Creating compelling content that keeps readers on the page is not easy. Choosing one way of writing a piece from an infinite amount of options is not easy.
As content writers, we have a difficult job. However, that difficulty should motivate us to push the boundaries of our talent. With such a high skill ceiling, there is always room to improve. At Helix House, we have personally seen these tools pump our writing full of energy, and the results have shown. Test them out yourself and electrify your writing—your boss and your client’s will applaud you.
If you’re interested in working with an agency that values writing, delivers quality content and keeps readers engaged, Helix House would love to get in touch with you today!