Content Writing Masterclass – How to Take Your Skills to The Next Level
In the wake of the Google updates, the written content that you see on the web should now start to become much better quality than it has in the past. There are many talented writers out there and so in theory, it should now just be about them getting more cash for their efforts right?
Not necessarily. Even the best writers can fail if they don’t know how to write for the web and in my experience, despite many claiming that they can do just that, they can’t. Whilst having some kind of writing qualification may help, until recently, not many of these include digital content writing modules. So today we’re going to take a look at how to write for the web and what should always be considered.
In years gone by, web writers were really just employed for SEO content. This was all very well, but the inclusion of high keyword density made this a real challenge for many writers and resulted in work that was fragmented and read unnaturally.
With that in mind, if a client asks for keywords stuffed into the text, then the first job is to advise strongly against this. Personally, I won’t put my name to anything that requires this, as it doesn’t conform to Googles guidelines and is as likely to harm the writer’s reputation as it is the website.
However, that doesn’t mean that SEO shouldn’t be taken into account when writing your content, but it should be more about long tail phrases and those of a similar nature than individual keywords, repeated often.
Formatting and Layout
One of the biggest mistakes I see is that of formatting and layout. Reading on a screen is very different to reading a book and people naturally do it differently. This means keeping paragraphs and sentences short and using white space between paragraphs. The latter should also be made up of around six to eight lines for maximum impact.
Rule #1: If a reader has to stop and go back to make sense of a sentence, you’ve lost them.
This means avoiding flowery descriptions which use long words. Many writers pride themselves on their vocabulary and use it to its maximum potential. This is all very well, but a professional writer isn’t writing for a hobby, or all about you, so it’s necessary to write for your audience.
How People Read Online
There have been numerous studies carried out online on how people read on the web and many of these have used eye-tracking as a means to understand it. We don’t read from left to write, following the words as we go, but scan content to understand the thrust and meaning of it.
Take a look at the image below which is based on eye-tracking research by Jakob Nielsen, which used heat mapping to track the movement of the eye when reading online.
The study tested 232 users and recorded how they looked at 1000s of web pages and the results consistently showed that the dominant reading pattern was the ‘F’ image in the centre. The red areas denote the areas where the eye stayed for longer.
It was found that readers:
- First read in a horizontal pattern at the beginning of a piece
- Move to a place further down the content to read horizontally again
- Scan the left side to determine if the content is worth reading in more detail
Of course, the nature of the content was taken into account during the study and different types of page were used, including: ecommerce product page (the eye is drawn towards price), search results and a corporate ‘about us’. However, on all pages the F shape remained the most dominant.
Top Content Counts
Web readers spend 80% of their time looking at the content towards the top of the page and 20% below “the page fold”, which is the content that doesn’t appear on the screen and forces them to scroll.
This means that it’s important to capture the attention with a good headline and image, so that they have an immediate sense of whether a piece of writing is worth their time. If the content is useful to the reader, they are much more likely to scroll and read on. Text shouldn’t be centred and sub-headers should appear to the left, as this is where the eye naturally gravitates.
Know your Audience
Those with high literary skills are most likely to scan content, whilst those with lower literacy are more likely to ‘plow’. This is because the latter tend to have more difficulty understanding the text if they scan it and so are more likely to read each word, skipping over common connective words such as ‘and’.
As well as using white space and short paragraphs then, it makes for easier reading if you use:
- Bullet points
- Sub headers
- Use sub headers as ‘questions’
- In a paragraph, don’t use multiple concepts
- Use images that add meaning to the content
- Use links that also add meaning as the eye will be drawn to these
- Use contractions such as: can’t, won’t, there’s, it’s
Readability is something that’s been studied for many years and one of the most popular readability scales is Flesch-Kincaid.
The higher the score, the easier a piece is to read and the scale is calculated using the above formula. However, don’t worry if you’re all about the words and not the maths, there are plenty of tools available to help you calculate scores online. If you use Microsoft Word (and I’m sure other word processing packages), scores can be checked quickly and easily using the language menu.
Choose the proofing option and towards the bottom you can see that there’s a tick box to show readability statistics. Tick this and every time you complete a document, spell check it and your stats will appear.
Flesch-Kincaid scores can be worked out for the audience as below and you should bear in mind that these should be slightly higher for the web.
– easily understood by an average 11-year-old student
– easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students
– best understood by university graduates
This depends on your audience though, if you’re writing a highly technical piece for a corporate technology firm with a readership that is thoroughly conversant with all of the various associated jargon, then it’s going to be higher. If you’re writing for a general audience, then a score of 60-70 is just about spot on.
Linking and Referencing
Another common mistake in writing for the web is failing to ensure that you reference any material that you’ve used in your research. Whilst it’s possible that you’ve written about something you know inside out, even academics at PhD level are expected to provide research sources.
Linking back to your sources is vital in any form of journalistic writing and as such, if you use quotes, you must link back to the source of the information. That source should also be a trusted resource wherever possible.
For example, if we were to quote from Nielsen’s research, then we would do so like this:
If you squint and focus on the red (most-viewed) areas, all three heatmaps show the expected F pattern. Of course, there are some differences. The F viewing pattern is a rough, general shape rather than a uniform, pixel-perfect behavior (sic), Nielsen explains.
(sic) explains that I know that the preceding word is written for a US audience and basically just means that you’re aware of any mistakes in the spelling. You can also give context to a quote by using square brackets (which are also used when you change a word).
[Nielsen] told me that his eye tracking research is the most used on the internet.
Although this is a completely fictitious quote, in an interview, someone could have been quoted as “he told me” without Nielsen’s name being mentioned. So in order to make it understandable, the writer puts context into the quote, but makes it clear in this way that they are not directly quoted from the interviewee.
Reference Links and SEO
As we know, Google really doesn’t care much for duplicate content. However, its algorithms know how to recognise quotation marks to ensure that you don’t get penalised for quoted material and a supporting link reinforces this.
Links should be very relevant to the written content to show that they are there for a reason, to point to research and resources that are useful to the reader. As most blogs (we hope) write strictly within their niche, linking to industry-relevant material isn’t going to be a problem.
It will look natural to Google because it is.
Facts vs. Opinion
You may love to air your opinion but it doesn’t mean that others want to read it. Whilst you may be convinced that you’re satirical political ramblings will be a web winner, unless you’re established as an author then facts matter, not what you think.
Readers love fact and will find a piece useful and be willing to read on if you give them. Without them, you could say anything but how would anyone be expected to believe you? On your say so? No.
Finally, a quick word on fonts. Don’t make your reader squint, they will go away. Choose a font that’s easy to read to suit your formatting, otherwise all of that work you’ve done will be for nothing.
Writing for the web is a skill that has to be learned, just like any other and that alone is a good enough reason to employ a professional if you’re writing the company blog without knowing what you’re doing.