Last week I shared tips on writing for the web, or, as I affectionately referred to all of us, writing for online monkey minds. Reading on the web is a different experience than reading the printed page. Online reading is informal, interactive and interruptive; it requires a different style of writing. In my monkey mind post I discussed writing for scanners, not readers, and the importance of headlines and formatting.

No matter the medium, you want to hook the reader and get to the point quickly. On the web, it’s even more critical because we feel less loyalty to a web page than we do to a magazine or book we’ve purchased, so we’re apt to click away as soon as you bore us.

Imagine talking to your reader.

The web feels different than a magazine, newspaper or book. We talk back there, get replies and have conversations. When you write for the web, use a more conversational voice than you would for the printed page. It’s okay to write in the first person, whereas that would not generally fly in a printed article.

Pay attention to your voice. Using “you” is fine. When I write blog posts, I imagine I’m giving advice, sharing ideas or having a conversation with a friend or colleague. I use “you” throughout my posts because I’m talking to you. I can’t see you, but I imagine you there, listening. This is perfectly healthy.

For organizations, especially in blog posts, don’t always refer to yourself as “we.” It may be appropriate at times, but “we” can sound awfully impersonal. Some readers may even hear it as a royal “we” if they’re in an unforgiving mood. As a reader, I want to connect with a person, the writer, not to a faceless institution represented by “we.” It’s far too anonymous and nontransparent.

However, I use “we” frequently when I write about topics that concern my community, for example, when I write for the association community about a membership issue. That’s an inclusive “we” in the sense that “we’re all in this together.”

online writing blogging web

Multitasking... 57 tabs open... (photo by John Ott)

Oh, you think you’re funny?

We might be funny to a few people, maybe. If we’re lucky, a dozen or so might get a chuckle from our brand of humor. Humor works online because it’s informal and conversational. A little humor entertains us and keeps us reading. But if you want to get a point across, don’t go overboard with humor unless you’re a comic genius with a humor blog.

Sarcasm, however, doesn’t always translate. I find sarcasm hard to resist because it’s part of my usual schtick. But in real life we use inflection, stress, timing and facial expressions to make our zingers stick. Online, we only have this: ;-) Tread carefully so you don’t unwittingly insult your readers.

I’ve seen writers convey sarcasm by stretching out a word with extra vowels so it reads how it would sound in a sarcastic tone. Others will add a “heh” to their sarcastic remarks, or use sentence fragments to instill the same sense of timing they’d use in real life.

You’re not done yet!

When I’m done with a piece, I use the Find tool to look for instances of passive voice. Passive voice will suck the life out of your writing. I search for the following words (and suffix) and change them where I can: be, was, is, were, are, -ing.

Keep tightening it up. Look for redundancies and unnecessary words and phrases, like “that” or “some.” Does your word order make sense?

When in doubt, look it up. Keep dictionary.com in your bookmark bar so you don’t use the wrong word by mistake. Find grammar resources to help you with those pesky little rules you tend to forget. Don’t worry, this happens to everyone; we forget because our brains are too full.

Here are a few to check out:

Finally, read it out loud. Or at a whisper. How does it sound? Any awkward spots? Jargon? Corporate-speak? Are you bored? You’ll be amazed how well this technique works.

I heard someone say recently on a Twitter chat: “Perfection is the enemy of good.” So true. There’s always something to edit in that final draft. But summon your strength and make it the final final. Click Publish and move on unless you’re chasing a Pulitzer.

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Click it! Click it now!

Next time I’ll get into comments, trolls, copyright, fair use and all that good stuff.

 

Writing for the Web series

Does this sound familiar? You settle in to read something online. You first scan the screen, and then begin reading a long paragraph of text. Soon you realize you’re no longer reading; instead you’re thinking about dinner or your draft picks. Click, close tab.

We all do this. Reading on the web is informal, interactive and interruptive.

  • Informal – our family and friends are here, anything goes.
  • Interactive – we are used to ‘talking’ back via comments or feedback buttons.
  • Interruptive – we are easily distracted by email alerts, links, instant messaging, social networks and open tabs.

If we write our online content the same way we write for the printed page, we’ll lose our readers, except for our mothers and a few diehard fans.

Write for scanners, not readers.

We read differently online. I think we all know this intuitively, but it’s also been proven in studies. We scan. In eye-tracking tests 79 percent of users scan any new page they come across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.

We scan in an F-shape: first, horizontally across the top, then horizontally a little lower, and finally vertically down the left side. The photo below shows results of web usability eye-tracking tests. The redder portions are the ‘hot spots’ where most eyeballs land.

Why is this important? If you want to hold your reader’s attention, format your text and write in a way that will do that.

writing for the web online reading freelance raleigh

F-shape online reading pattern

Hook them with headlines.

Headline writing is a skill coveted by print and online writers. Do a Google search on “writing headlines” and you’ll see how much advice is out there on writing headlines for blog posts, articles and marketing copy.

Amidst all the online noise and distractions, we want our headline to hook the reader and draw him into our content. A good headline needs to give a sense of what the reader will get for their time. It provides an ‘information scent.’ It also helps if it’s clever, controversial or promising. If you want to improve your headlines, Copyblogger has oodles of posts on the subject.

Break up your text.

Readers like lists and bullets. They break up the visual monotony of one paragraph after another and make the content more alluring to read.

Lists posts are by far the most popular posts on many blogs. Check out the titles of the Popular Articles on Copyblogger’s home page:

  • 8 Bad Habits that Crush Your Creativity
  • Do You Make These 7 Mistakes When You Write?
  • 10 Effective Ways to Get More Blog Subscribers.

List posts like these promise takeaways in an easy to read package. An uncommitted visitor can scan and digest before deciding to settle in and read.

Readers also like bold subheadings. Subheadings tell the reader what to expect within the text and visually break up paragraphs.

Use short paragraphs and sentences.

Aim for paragraphs that are five lines maximum. It might not always happen, but it’s an ideal to keep in mind.

Keep your sentences short. Use limited punctuation. Parentheses, especially, can cause a break in reader attention.

And my favorite: sentence fragments are okay.

Does it sound like we’re dumbing down writing? Possibly, but what we’re trying to do is appeal to the distracted web reader by making the text visually appealing and conversational – an enjoyable online reading experience.

online writing reading web freelance raleigh

Photo by Laineys Repertoire

A few more formatting tips

Left justify your text. Don’t use indented paragraphs.

All of you who grew up with typewriters, stop using two spaces after a period. A period is followed by only one space. Using two spaces is a dead give-away that you’re older and perhaps haven’t kept up with the times. And before you accuse me of ageism, just know that I too had a college prep typing class in my senior year of high school. I adjusted, you can too.

If you have a few lines of quoted text, set them off from the rest of text in block quotes. If you want to add more visual relief, italicize the block quote.

Break up your text with photos or graphics but only where it won’t interrupt the reading flow. Graphics sometimes take longer to load so don’t overdo it or your reader will leave before they even arrive.

Next time, I’ll share guidance on voice, links, trolls, copyright and more.

Do you have any other tips to add?

 

Writing for the Web series

When I first decided to have an at-home retreat week, I had in mind the relaxed yet energizing experience of my stays at Red Mountain Spa. But how would I replicate that experience without morning hikes in southern Utah’s glorious red rock landscape, frequent massages, fitness and wellness classes and a dining room serving delicious and healthy food?

I’d have to dial back my expectations. I decided to focus on my writing business, specifically planning, marketing and learning. Yet I also wanted to include retreat-like activities and lots of reading. On Monday morning, the first day of my retreat, I put together a schedule that would keep me on that productive track. It was ambitious.

  • Morning walks in good weather
  • Daily yoga and meditation
  • Read four excellent books – details below
  • Set goals for the rest of the year
  • Develop a marketing plan
  • Work on a few other business planning, educational and organizational projects
  • Create a visionboard illustrating the life I want to create for myself
  • Read dozens of RSS feeds and other resources about marketing, writing and other freelancer concerns.

Things don’t always go as planned.

After making my schedule I went shopping for the week’s groceries so I could truly retreat from the world. And then, a fantastic massage from Shannon at Spa Neo in Clayton, NC. It was a retreat, after all!

When I got home, feeling very juicy, that’s yoga talk, I enjoyed a delicious dinner with a few glasses of wine. Enlightenment came down upon me. “I haven’t had any lengthy time off this year and I won’t until August. What do I really want this week to be? What do I need for me?”

I started crossing items off the schedule.

Instead of doing what I should do, keeping up with my usual professional reading and all those other habitual activities, I decided to:

Let. It. All. Go.

I unplugged — no emails, no Twitter. I focused on reading my books, writing in my journal — most of it prompted by what I was reading, working on my visionboard — which involved lots of flipping through old cooking and fashion magazines and cutting out pictures, walking, yoga, meditating and just plain thinking.

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photo by Eryn Vorn

On Tuesday I worked on my goals for the year because that’s a whole life activity, not strictly professional. I adapted the method that Sherman Hu shared on Sarah Robinson’s Escaping Mediocrity blog.

But habits are tough to break.

Unfortunately it took me until late Wednesday to break my RSS habit — translation: reading dozens of blog subscriptions in Google Reader. I rationalized it by only reading from my writing and growth folders but I kept clicking on other posts, things I NEEDED TO KNOW.

I made the decision to stop being busy. I sought stillness. I let go my compulsion to keep up and be in the know. I didn’t watch the news and hardly read the paper. Since Jim and his daughter were away for the week, I was alone in my house. I was a bit like a monk on a silent retreat, except this monk talks to herself, the cat and the dog. And you know what? I loved it. I wasn’t lonely at all. I felt very fulfilled by what I was doing.

Here are some considerations if you’re thinking about an at-home retreat.

Do you like to cook? Do you want to? You may not, even if you usually love cooking like me. Plan ahead by having leftovers or easy-to-prepare meals and snacks in the frig or freezer. Don’t forget about snacks; remember, at the spa the dining room is always open.

Music? Silence? I enjoyed both. When my house is quiet, I’m lucky enough to be serenaded by birds, frogs and other woodland creatures. On Thursday I discovered some “spa” stations on Pandora that contributed to my relaxed attitude.

15-20 minute naps are sooo good and rejuvenating, take them whenever your energy lulls a bit. With my work lifestyle I suppose I could nap every afternoon but I’m still brainwashed by decades in the “real world.” I took a nap today; it did wonders for my late afternoon energy level.

writing blogging copywriting freelance writer blogger Raleigh case studies

Red Mountain Spa & Resort

Your reading selection will set the tone for your retreat so choose wisely. My four books echoed each other throughout the week. I found myself gasping at the synchronicities. Maybe it’s not so surprising since they’re all essentially about authenticity, joy, growth and creativity.

My friend Kiki wrote recently about finding “whitespace.” When we live our lives the way most people do, the acceptable way, the normal way, it’s difficult to claim the whitespace we need to reflect, play and grow. Because I have complete control over my life now (wait, haven’t I always?), I can make the time to do something like this.

But to do it, I had to plan well ahead. I had to make sure all my work was done, in its absolutely final state, and delivered to clients ahead of time. I kept my fingers crossed that no last-minute work would come my way that I would be tempted to take. I took the week off from my blogs. I kept my calendar clear. I was ready.

I’m doing it again if I can manage it work-wise, even if it’s only for a few days, hopefully in six months or so, maybe the next time Jim leaves town for a conference. Next time I’ll be able to slip into real retreat mode much more quickly.

Even though I didn’t do any “professional” activities during my week, I came out of it with new approaches to my day and lots of ideas. Plus I feel incredibly refreshed and relaxed. I’m reading books more now than I had before my retreat. I’m practicing yoga and meditating almost daily. It’s like I went to a spa!

This quote from Proust in Meditations from the Mat speaks to me now: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Joe Pulizzi at Junta42 shares a great idea for many organizations that’s also a natural fit for associations, and more imperative than ever since many have been losing traction in this area — Starting a News Service for Your Industry. Chief Content Officer? What a cool job that would be!

Social media can be a catalyst for positive organizational change. In this fascinating interview with Arthur L. Hue, author of Social Media at Work: How Networking Tools Propel Organizational Performance, at Thomas Clifford’s blog, we learn how using social media can foster staff engagement and motivation. Hue also believes it will be the key to recruiting and retaining Millennials.

Maggie McGary at Mizz Information is one of my favorite bloggers because she cuts through the bull, asks tough questions and gives solid advice. Her recent guest post on Socialfish is an example of what I mean – Five Reasons Why Facebook Will Never Replace Your Website.

An interesting article by Neal Gabler, Everyone’s a Critic Now, is another in a recent flurry of writing about the state of criticism, including a blog post from me. Gabler writes about the strange critical consensus on 2010’s Top Ten lists and the battles between high and popular culture. Be sure to spend some time reading the responses from critics. The whole argument about cultural elitism has really struck a nerve with me lately. I love being part of the “age of cultural populism” that Gabler describes, but I really detest the way some populists disdain the tastes of others, and vice versa.

Thanks to Adam Haslett’s recent article, The Art of Good Writing, I’ve added yet another book to my wish list — How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Haslett’s article itself is a treat for literature and word lovers.

My Greensboro pal, Danielle Hatfield at Experience Farm, shared a good post with her Twitter friends by Kathryn Williams, Working from Home: A Survivor’s Guide. Kathryn obviously knows the benefits and downfalls of a home office. Yes, I’m in yoga clothes right now but that’s because I plan to roll out the mat soon. Really.

If you’re an art lover who doesn’t have a big travel budget, you’ll love the Google Art Project. You can browse through 17 major art museums, including the Met, Frick, MoMA, Tate Britain, Rijksmuseum, Uffizi, Hermitage, Reina Sofia and Alte Nationalgalerie. Wow, studying art history is nothing like it used to be!

content social media criticism writing art

Glad she's safe! ~ flickr photo by Paul Mannix

Clay Shirky’s Foreign Affairs article, The Political Power of Social Media (registration required), is a fascinating read that rebuts and shreds Malcolm Gladwell’s view about the power of social media to facilitate change. Shirky doesn’t like our Administration’s “instrumental” approach — social media used as short-term action-oriented political tools with the focus on computers rather than phones — because it “overestimates the value of broadcast media while underestimating the value of media that allow citizens to communicate privately among themselves.” He prefers an “environmental” approach using social media as “long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere,” a role that media has played throughout history — providing access to conversation. His discussion of the conservative’s dilemma, formerly known as the dictator’s dilemma, reminds me of the fear of loss of control that many organization leaders have about social media.

Why not give Malcolm Gladwell a share of the spotlight too? In this 2-1/2 minute video (transcript provided) on Big Think, he discusses the creative urge to collect and consume what we come across, to not edit the chaos, but to embrace it. For who knows what nuggets of inspiration might lie within?

I would love to see organizations take to heart Soren Gordhamer’s Five New Paradigms for a Socially Engaged Company. Creating the organizational culture that will bring about these changes? That’s the challenge. Take for instance #2, Mindset. Yes, it would be great if staff had the right mindset for innovation. But how can an organization facilitate that when an employee is juggling a to-do list that’s three pages long. Nevertheless, these are important cultural concepts that must be absorbed.

My pal Jeff Hurt, a prolific writer and brain, explains Why People Join Social Networking Sites. Oh, you thought you already knew? Well, you might be half right, but let Jeff take you a little deeper to the root causes – motivation you need to consider when developing your community strategy.

I have a feeling that Josip Petrusa’s post, Attracting Millennials to Your Event and Why You’re Failing at It, will be the seed of one of my future blog posts. His reasoning applies to more than only events, think organizations too. Boomers may not like reading this, but his perspective is good medicine and rings a bit too true.

social media networking political millennials membership events creativity

Manila protest January 2001 ~ flickr photo by M.a.c.a.r.o.n.i.

I took a break during the holidays to enjoy time with my family and friends. I didn’t read much online but caught a few outstanding blog posts and conversations, particularly Joe Flower’s post and resulting comments about his decision to not renew his ASAE membership and a follow-up post by Maddie Grant. I’ll go into this topic further in my post this week at SmartBlog Insights.

The Blizzard of 2010 hit Massachusetts last week while I was visiting my family. My hometown got a foot and a half of snow so I spent several hours shoveling. Newark NJ mayor Cory Booker also spent many hours with his shovel and mobile Twitter application. Amanda Hite wrote about his tweets to constituents throughout the storm — a “new standard for politicians.”

blogging writing twitter association membership

flickr photo by Kenna Takahashi

I didn’t make official resolutions this year (yet) but I’m thinking about changes I want to make in my life: make my health a bigger daily priority instead of taking it for granted; and make more time to think, read books and nurture my creative side. I discovered some of Virginia Woolf’s resolutions, thanks to a tweet from Ayse. I especially like, “to fill my brain with remote books & habits.” What a cool glimpse into her head.

The Virginia Woolf tweet trail led me to Tracy Seeley sharing the LA Times’ list of the literary resolutions of 37 writers and readers. Here’s one I’ll steal for myself, “To converse more with my books. To write in the margins.” There are even more entertaining resolutions in the list. Do you know of any other historical or literary icon’s resolutions? I’m sure I could google this but rather hear about your favorites.

I bet many of you have at least thought about fitness or wellness in the last few days. “This year I’ll exercise at least 30 minutes a day,” or “This year I’ll get out into nature more.” If this sounds familiar, and if you live in North Carolina, you’ll love Joe Miller’s blog, Get Going NC. He writes about hiking, running, cycling and other fitness and wellness topics.

This is the best thing I’ve read lately on writing blog posts. Carol Tice gives 40 simple writing tweaks for better blog posts. Bookmark it and keep going back to it; I just did.

Ali Luke shares several good ideas on ProBlogger on how to improve your writing by getting outside the blogging bubble. Perhaps you’ll find some fodder there for New Year’s resolutions?

One of the first posts I read this morning was by Lisa Johnson on the Food Blog Alliance. She writes about women, blogging, the ‘free’ issue and negotiation. If you’re a woman blogger or solopreneur, you’ll find lots to chew on here.

Chris Lake shares 25 reasons why he will leave your website in under ten seconds. If you have either autosound or a pop-up, I will leave in under two seconds, never to return. I’m amazed at how many so-called blogging experts make you click on an obnoxious pop-up before you can read their content. Are they really experts? I don’t know because I never stay to read their stuff. Yet the jerks must be making money from someone if they continue to use those ploys.

Arik Hanson wrote a very helpful post about finding content for your blog, 24 Ways to Feed the Blog Beast. Arik’s tips are excellent, but if you still find it difficult to overcome blogger’s block, it could be a symptom of a larger problem. You might need to sit down and think about your strategy. Who is your target audience? What are your blogging objectives? I’m revisiting these questions too as I shift my professional focus away from social media and toward freelance writing. My pipeline is suffering because I haven’t found the time to wrestle with these issues.

If you know what you want to write about but you lack motivation, read this rant from John Scalzi, Writing: Find the Time or Don’t. “I keep inspired to write because if I don’t then the mortgage company will be inspired to foreclose on my house.” I love his message, shut up and do it. Need more inspiration? “And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.” If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.” Yes, sir!

We’ll be inundated with posts about the approaching new year, but the good ones are worth sharing. Here’s one that appeared this week by Linda Formichelli, New Year, Fresh Start: 9 Ways to Recalibrate Your Business in 2011. It’s a mix of big picture and practical tasks to add to your to-do list.

Are you a supporter of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks? If you are, please tell me why. I’m curious. I get the freedom of speech argument, and if you read my post last week where I wrote about the Hide/Seek exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, you already know that. I understand the importance of transparency, I’ve written about that lately too. But national security and diplomacy often require secrecy; I don’t mind that. Not everything needs to be transparent and for good reason. When I read Why I Don’t Care About WikiLeaks, I got the feeling that Jay Dolan might be of the same mind. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out his blog’s holiday header.

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Merry Christmas! (flickr photo by Renato Ganoza)

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