“Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”
The above quotation is from the style guide of the Kansas City Star, the newspaper where Ernest Hemingway began his career. Hemingway found the advice so effective that he adopted it for all his subsequent work as a novelist and journalist. And it’s advice that is still applicable today, whether you write blogs, magazine articles, product reviews or marketing copy. While succinct, snappy and upbeat writing will get you a long way, naturally there are other factors when it comes to producing engaging and entertaining online content. The sheer amount of material that barges onto our timelines and into our inboxes has changed the way we consume written content. This is a major factor to consider – if your article succeeds in grabbing the attention of a reader, they may only read a tiny portion of it before clicking away. To minimise the chances of this happening, your content has to compel the reader to continue. Here are five ways to make that happen.
Writers – particularly those lacking in experience – often lose sight of who they are writing for. Before you begin typing, ask yourself just who it is you’re trying to reach, and what kind of demographic will be interested in engaging with your content. Identifying a primary audience is usually straightforward, but engaging a secondary or hidden audience can increase your reach as a writer. For example, when writing a website for a company that sells hospital equipment your target audience is probably existing and potential customers – purchasers. On the other hand, your secondary audience is much broader and may include doctors or other medical professionals, journals, or other companies who may be interested in your services in the future. Your content must be tailored to be accessible and interesting to all these disparate groups.
The Inverted Pyramid
Most of us have an extremely short attention span when looking at web content, and we decide to read or abandon a website within seconds. A content writer’s job is to impart some relevant information to a reader as quickly as possible. This means you need to structure your copy as an upside-down pyramid – broad, general information in the heading and introduction, supporting details in the middle, and any asides, tangents or wisecracks towards the bottom.
A reader may get the information they need from scanning the very top – this might satisfy them, or it may pique their interest sufficiently to get them into the fine print. Those who read on have one of two reasons for doing so – in-depth knowledge (those who read the copy word-for-word) or selective knowledge (those who continue to scan).
Show, Don’t Tell
In the world of literature the “show, don’t tell” rule challenges writers to illustrate something about a scene or character that could be made as a simple statement. Chekhov said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Your online content can benefit greatly from the application of the “show, don’t tell” rule. As an example, imagine you’re writing a website for a deli. If you say “This is the best salt beef bagel in town,” you are simply making a statement. But, by writing a product description where you mention “tender, succulent beef that melts in the mouth, perfectly balanced with piquant, English mustard and juicy gherkins,” you’re showing the reader just why that bagel is the best in town.
Telling is the hard sell, a major turn off to anyone thinking of investing their time into reading your article. By showing you are not only describing the product, but you are also creating a narrative the reader can insert themselves into.
We talked about short sentences and paragraphs in the introduction – if they’re good enough for Hemingway they’re good enough for you too. Short sentences are effective, and aiming for around 35 words or less means that your content will be accessible to a much broader audience. Every sentence should have a purpose – too many articles repeat the same point in different terms, and this is something that readers will pick up on easily. You may have a wonderful vocabulary, but nouns and verbs are much more effective than flowery adjectives and adverbs, even in product descriptions. Remember, the message is crucial, and it can get lost among long rambling sentences.
Much online content aims to get the reader to engage with something, be it a product or service, subscribing to a newsletter, or simply watching a promotional video. Your writing should leave the reader wanting more. The call to action should be simple and succinct, letting the reader know exactly what is expected of them and what they will get. Most importantly, check and double-check that the information or link is correct and the content is actually working.
If you’ve read this far, well done to both of us! Remember, great writing is a skill that is only achieved by practice and perseverance. The more you do it, the better you get, and the more of your character will come out in the text.