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.
Why?

  • 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 is the co-founder and publisher of Scratch, a quarterly magazine focused on the intersection of writing and money. She teaches digital publishing and media at the University of Virginia and is a full-time publishing consultant. Find out more at her website.