Writing for the web is a beast that we’ve had to learn to grapple with in recent years. And it’s certainly a different one to writing for print. It comes with specific guidelines.
You can be a talented essayist or poet and still find yourself struggling to connect with an online audience. That’s because many of the rules go out the window. Forget long drop intros, intricate descriptions and digressions.
We need to get to the point. Now.
So, without further ado, what is it that makes online writing unique?
1. Simplicity rules the roost
People are usually distracted when they read things online. They’re likely to have multiple tabs open. They could be taking a break from work. Or maybe they’re on their iPad while watching TV.
So they probably don’t want to have to make a massive effort to read your content. That doesn’t mean you can’t write about complex ideas - but try and think about doing it in an accessible way.
Keep sentences and paragraphs short. Break the text up with images. Don’t write too much. These are all useful tips to bear in mind.
2. The headline is crucial
A novel can have an ambiguous title; a blog post or eBook, not so much. The headline is your one opportunity to get the reader’s attention. It’s important to craft something compelling - but, ultimately, it’s about telling an individual what they’re about to invest their time in.
They’re thinking: why should I read this? How will this help me? We need to convince them that our content is worth their time – and more interesting than another article, the work they should be doing or the programme they’re watching.
3. So is the first paragraph
The headline alone isn’t enough to keep a reader hooked. If the first paragraph doesn’t engage them, they’ll be gone.
In these opening lines, we need to deliver on the promise made in the title – and add a little more. The reader is thinking: yes, this is why I should read this. This will help me.
Writing on Contently, Jason Steele says: "In contrast, the reader of a magazine or newspaper has made a significantly larger investment of effort, time, and money to select an article. So even if a magazine article takes a few paragraphs before getting to the nut graph, the reader is less likely to just flip the page and move on the way we tend to do with online content."
There's no time to beat around the bush online. The reader is either in or they're out.
4. Keywords matter
Keywords aren’t the be all and end all – but they do matter.
While we want to avoid keyword stuffing, it’s worthwhile taking the time to research the vocabulary that your target audience is using online. These are the words and phrases that will bring them to you.
Speaking on his podcast Rough Draft, Demian Farnworth says: "It’s about knowing your audience so well that you learn which words will grab their attention, earn their trust, and persuade them to subscribe to your newsletter, download your book, buy your product."
So use keywords in your headline and your body text; in your meta description and your alt text. Just ensure that they are relevant.
5. It opens up a two-way conversation
When we read something online we can respond in real-time to the author of the piece by leaving comments on their work.
Of course, we can react similarly to print writers – for example, by tweeting or emailing them. But that’s not the same as leaving a remark directly beneath a piece of content, potentially just moments after it has been published.
In some instances, this can leave you open to trolling. But, on a more positive note, it presents a real chance to engage directly with your audience, answering their questions and moving them a step closer towards connecting with you.
Online writing requires a different approach to print writing. An internet audience is distracted and surrounded by other temptations, so you have to make an impact in a very small window. But they're also ready to engage directly with you if you do manage to attract their attention.
But there's no time to digress. We need to tell the reader why our content matters. Now.