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June 18, 2012

How to Write Winning Web Content: 10 New Rules

With its latest Penguin algorithm updates, Google has once again redefined the Internet. And the verdict is in: keyword-stuffed, SEO writing is dead.

This is great news for real writers. We can forget about writing for search engines, and write for human beings.

Even better, writers with a good understanding of the web have never been more in demand. If content was “King” pre-Penguin, it is now the undisputed dictator.

The new rules for writing web content are actually no different from those that have been best practiced all along: good content should communicate, entertain, inform and persuade. Good web writing is pithy, opinionated and brimming with personality.

Writing for the web remains different from that of any other medium. People rarely read web pages all the way through. Instead, they scan a web page, picking out individual words and sentences. Writers therefore need to be cunning and deliberate in the way we craft our web content.

Here then are the Top 10 New Rules for Writing Web Content in 2012:

1. Keep It Short & Snappy

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”- William Strunk Jr., Elements of Style

As an unwritten rule, web sentences shouldn’t contain more than twenty words, and a paragraph should not contain more than six sentences.

But don’t be afraid to inject some pace into your writing by varying the length of sentences.

The goal is to convey as much as possible with as few words as possible while still observing the rules of readability and a conversational tone.

2. Write in Plain English

“Plain English is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction.” – Professor Robert Eagleson

Plain English (or plain language) is all about clarity, brevity, and the avoidance of technical language. This is especially important for the web, so pledge to adhere to these two simple rules:

* Avoid jargon, slang, acronyms or abbreviations.
* Use familiar words wherever you can. (Don’t say ‘commence’ when you can say ‘start’.)

3. Eliminate the Passive Voice

Deconstruct any good sentence, and you’ll find a strong, active verb. Similarly, at the root of most confusing, awkward or wordy sentences lies a passive voice.

Sentences in the active voice are more concise than sentences in the passive. Strong verbs help the reader know who is acting and what is being acted upon. For example:

Her homework was chewed by the puppy. (Passive and dull-sounding.)

The puppy chewed her homework. (Active, clear and concise.)

If you’re guilty of passive-voice usage, here’s a free tool for you: To Be Verbs Analyzer.

You simply copy and paste your text into the box, which instantly generates a list of every time you’ve used the passive voice.

4. Front-Load Your Content

Front-loading means putting the conclusion first – followed by what, how, where, when and why. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because this “pyramid” method is standard practice for journalists.)

The first line of your article should contain the conclusion for the article, and the first line of each paragraph should contain
the conclusion for that paragraph.

This allows your readers to:

* scan through the opening sentence
* instantly understand what the paragraph is about
* decide if they want to read the rest of the paragraph or not

5. Group Ideas Together

Each paragraph should have just one idea, made up of just a few
sentences. This makes it easier for readers to:

* scan
* easily locate the information
* move onto the next paragraph without missing anything pivotal

6. Make Effective Use of Sub-Headings

A main heading tells readers what the page is about. The opening paragraph gives a brief conclusion of the page (because you’ve front-loaded the content). But within the page (or article or blog), break up your paragraphs with sub headings.

Descriptive sub-headings show your readers what each section is about. Sub-heads should be short and logical and help readers find the information they’re after.

There’s no rule for how frequently to use sub-headings, but a good rule of thumb is to aim for one sub-head every two to four paragraphs.

7. Utilize Lists

If you can, use lists and not long sentences or paragraphs to make your points.

Lists are:

* easier to scan
* less intimidating and more friendly to the reader
* usually shorter and clearer

8. Be “Bold”

Another way to help readers find information easily is to bold important words.

Just as bold text stands out so do italics, underscore and link text. But don’t use these emphasizing methods for more than a few words or a short phrase because it will slow your readers down.

9. How to “Instruct”

When describing an action or task, instruct clearly: Click This Link, Find Out More, etc.

Instructions should also follow a natural sequence of order that is both obvious and consistent.

Try also to instruct in the affirmative rather than negative, i.e. “Please wait for your page to load” instead of “DO NOT PRESS BACK!”

10. Write As You’d Speak

Liberate your writing from sounding stiff, formal and pompous. One of the easiest ways to do this is to write as you’d speak.

You generally should use contractions unless specifically asked not to, as they’re far more natural. For example, would you say: “I will not be able to go to the cinema tonight” or “Sorry, can’t make the film tonight.”

Similarly, usage of the impersonal pronoun “one” gives web content an unnecessary degree of formality. Unless you’re a royal correspondent, avoid “one” and use “you” instead.

And one final bonus rule:

11. Inject Your Own Personality

Amusing, emotional, controversial, scornful, passionate – whatever your thoughts on a subject, try to convey them. This will engage your readers and lend your writing authority.

Tell stories. Be opinionated. Tug at heart-strings. Good writing is fearless. Do whatever is necessary to hook your reader.

And don’t be afraid to break some of the rules of grammar – the kind of outdated rules that suck the very life out of writing, like “never use contractions” and “never start a sentence with ‘and.'”

Marianne Gonne is a freelance writer and marketing-savvy wordsmith with over 20 years of editorial and writing experience at the highest level. She helps web writers improve their skills and make more money writing online.