5 Keys to Writing for an Online Audience

PhotobucketI rarely teach the basics of online writing to anyone except my university students. At writers conferences, as well as on my own blog, I get so focused on people’s desire to succeed in traditional forms (books, journals, articles, etc) that I don’t consider addressing the craft and technique of online writing.

It’s a mistake I need to remedy.

Online writing skills are critical, particularly since authors need to be increasingly adept at online marketing and promotion—see here.

Here are 5 basics to keep in mind, whether you’re writing for a website, blog, or social media—anything from Facebook to YouTube to Reddit!

1. Brevity is your friend.

Less than 20% of text gets read online. Put your word count on a strict diet.


2. Make your content scannable.

  • Online readers are typically task-oriented
  • Get to the point quick
  • One idea per paragraph (even one-sentence paragraphs are OK)
  • Add white space, subheads, lists, and/or quotes
  • Headlines need to be literal

Speaking of headlines …

3. Clear and direct headlines get more clicks.

If you want to be read, you need great headlines (and great subheads, too).

If people are confused by your headline, they won’t click on it or read further. This even applies in situations where people know and trust the brand or author.

To ensure you haven’t become lazy: Look at your last three headlines on the platform where you’re most active. What message does it send? Is it a message compelling enough to hook a new reader?

You may complain, “Literal headlines are sooo boring!” Sorry, but Google doesn’t understand humor. Humor can’t be searched. Leave cleverness and wordplay out of headlines, which are critical for SEO.

Side note: Go read “This Is Why We Can’t Have Funny Headlines (A Poem)”

4. Categorize, tag, and annotate your content wherever you go.

If you’re using a popular blog or content management system (e.g., Blogger or WordPress), then you should be categorizing and tagging the content on your site. This helps both you and your readers find stuff.

When using other sites, such as YouTube, Flickr, or any social network, you have the same capability to categorize and tag. Never forget to do so! And while you’re at it, take the time to write a full description of your content, plus add metadata, such as alt tags, captions, locations, dates, etc (your choices will depend on the content or site functionality).

Being thorough pays off—your content can be better searched and indexed. Which brings us to the final point.

5. If search engines can’t find you, then you don’t exist.

Heeding points No. 3 and 4 help search engines locate your content—that is, it helps your search engine optimization, or SEO. If you’re a serious blogger, then I recommend investing in a WordPress theme with rock-solid SEO, such as Thesis.

I recently exchanged messages with a colleague who said that all of his company’s book titles, blog post titles, and press releases were being routed through a SEO team for approval. While I think that’s overkill (and potentially even damaging, but I won’t get into that here), always remember that the keywords that go into your headlines, categories, and tags are critical for discoverability in the online world. You may have the best content ever, but if Google can’t find it, then you’re missing out on potential new readers.

A final note

Some longform content (the kind you find through Byliner or Longreads) aren’t as beholden to these principles, at least not in the same way as blog-driven or social network content. There are always exceptions to every rule. But think long and hard before assuming you are an exception.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s ul_Marga


About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. This fall, she's proud to be offering two creative nonfiction courses from experienced university writing professorsFind out more.


  1. says

    Thank you for the great advice. SEO scares most writers because we don’t understand it and yet it is so critical to success in social media. Your posts and your blog have helped me enormously in understanding publishing and social media. Sorry for the adverb. Thanks again!

  2. says

    Your blogs are the TRUTH sent from above. I never fail to learn from your teachings. You’re a walking, talking, WRITING Baedeker of good practice. Much appreciated, Jane.

  3. says

    Not only did you deliver clear and useful advice, you followed the tenets you espoused in doing so. Once again, I bow to your mastery. (See how my comment follows rule #1?)

  4. says

    I would include a 6th basic: at least one photo or illustration that embodies the idea of the post. Generic photos are better than nothing, but a really good illustration makes a post memorable. An added advantage? The post is searchable in text and image. Plus there’s a good chance for links through Pinterest. The class that improved my online writing the most was one in photography.

  5. says

    Hi Jane,
    I know how this sounds, but the title of your post should have been: 5 keys to write for Google. And we both know that online audience is not restricted to SEO designed high altitude readers…
    It is still very useful… as always.

    Some french non-SEO oriented reader/writer

  6. says

    Thanks, Jane. My headings tend to be idiosyncratic, so this is useful advice amongst the plethora of advice in cyber space. My seasoned brain can only take a little bite of advice at a time. I’ll soak up the rest by osmosis :)

  7. says

    Absolutely right, Jane. I was the editor/content person for a university’s main website for a few years, and brevity is a necessity. My advertising background helped, I think, in quickly adapting. Short paragraphs broken up by bold subheads to help the scanners are standard web content best practices. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. says

    Great and useful advice! I found you through a Facebook link that grabbed my attention. I will continually work on my brevity! ;)

  9. says

    These are great tips I will keep in mind for future writing. Quick basics are easy to remember and to use, and the easiest to adopt as habits. Brevity is my biggest challenge in anything, but I’m learning!

  10. says

    Thanks, I needed that.
    Treasure trove of solid advice.

    And the winner is: Number Three!
    Who would have thought that, in an attempt to be witty and astute, google would find writers obtuse?

    Thank you for this fine example of online writing. I don’t know when I have followed so many well-placed links with such substantial result.

  11. says

    Thanks Jane, as always some good advice

    SEO is so evil, isn’t it? Always having to think about search engines when all we want to do is create some good content. Oh well, who said life was supposed to be easy

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  12. says

    Just discovered your site – looks like I have a lot of reading to do. So far love everything I’ve read. Thank You!

  13. says

    I really like your comment:

    “If search engines can’t find you, then you don’t exist.”

    In his book “The Dip”, marketing guru Seth Godin stated the following relating to SEO results:

    “Being average is for losers. Being better than 98 percent
    of the competition used to be fine. In the world of Google,
    though, it’s useless. If you are not going to get to #1, you might as well quit right now.”
    — Seth Godin

    Perhaps this is overstating it a bit but Seth makes the important point that it is a competitive world and it will continue to be so. If you aren’t prepared to put in the time and energy to ensure that your blog or webpages get on the first page of Google searches for important keywords, then you may be wasting your time.

    And in regards to “Brevity is your friend”, I couldn’t agree more. Many of the Internet marketing gurus say “Content Is King.” I always have to correct them by saying that is not quite true.

    In fact, “Snackable Content Is King.”

  14. says

    This piece was timely. Since merging my website and blog, I’ve had somewhat of a difficult time keeping to these rules. I am always conscious that I need to keep it brief but the words often run amok. This article will go into my stash of must read (over and over again).

  15. says

    Great article. I’m already subscribed to your blog and I have to tell you that the pop-up on your landing page is really really annoying every time. Not annoying enough that I don’t read your posts, I guess, but bothersome, nonetheless and unnecessary since your posts are interesting enough to motivate readers to look for your subscribe button.

  16. says

    I think this is great advice. I am a journalism student and I have been told these same principles constantly. Whether writing for a personal blog or online edition of a newspaper, this advice is imperative. I hope it will help make my writing more appreciated and widespread. Thanks!

  17. says

    Thanks for the helpful post Jane! I just started a blog about my literary work and writing, and I am still working on creating titles that relate to the topic. I didn’t think too much about categorizing and adding detail tags, but now that you mentioned it, I will go back and add detailed tags. I also agree with making articles detail, brief, and to the point, with pictures and bullet points/headlines, so the reader can easily and quickly read the article.