You’ve Got to Read This: August 30, 2011

How often do you unplug? How many social media platforms do you participate in? Are you feeling a bit burnt, overloaded and stretched thin trying to keep up with it all? Yeah? Then, quick, read this short post by Simon Mainwaring at Fast Company: Top 10 Ways to Keep Social Media from Driving You Insane. I like #7, Refresh.

Cindy King collected advice from several Social Media Examiner writers in 21 Dangerous Blogging Mistakes (and How to Fix Them). Don’t steer away because the post focuses on mistakes, it’s really an excellent primer on effective blogging. Pay attention to Mistake #9, Bad Writing. (Said with just a bit of self-interest.)

Instead of a blog post, my next recommendation is a Prezi. What’s a Prezi? A more visually appealing alternative to PowerPoint. Maddie Grant at Socialfish shared a Prezi by Carie Lewis of The Humane Society. It’s the best advice I’ve seen about Facebook in a long time: Why I Don’t “Like” You. You need to read this if you, your business or your organization has a Facebook page. You’ll thank me, or Maddie, or even better, Carie, later.

You can always count on Andrew Hannelly at TMG Custom Media for good advice, the kind of advice that people normally pay for. If you want to know why your email subscribers stop subscribing, he’ll give you seven reasons. And, he’ll tell you what you can do about it. If you follow his advice, and it works, at least buy the man a beer.

I’ve always been a language nut. I’ve studied Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Chinese, and learned enough of a few others to get by as a tourist. Can I speak any of them now? Heck, no, if you don’t use it, you lose it, cliché, but true. One of the cool things about studying languages is the insight it gives you into how other people perceive and deal with the world around them. When you study Chinese, it’s like traveling to another culture’s brain without leaving your living room.

I was reminded of that when reading this interesting post by Emily Badger at the Miller-McCune blog, Rescuing Endangered Languages Means Saving Ideas. Here’s what she means by that:

“Language systems don’t merely translate universal ideas into different spellings; they encode different concepts. And when we lose a language, we risk losing those concepts. A lot of concepts are on the edge of oblivion — out of about 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, half are projected to disappear by the end of the century, if not sooner. That’s an amazing amount of knowledge.”

That’s all for this week. Go learn a language and happy reading!

raleigh freelance writer blogger copywriter
photo by Mike Licht

You’ve Got to Read This: August 23, 2011

It’s a big week here at Reid All About It, I’ll tell you why later.

But enough about life for now, let’s get back to business. If you have trouble coming up with good content for your organization’s blog, you’ll like these 5 Sources for Great Blog Post Ideas by Joseph Wesley Putnam at Blogtweaks. Sources #1 and #4, concepts you explain and questions you answer, both rely on listening and capturing. Make it a habit to capture post ideas whenever and wherever you get them — in a computer file, on a notepad or in your phone. The more you train your mind to listen, the more ideas you’ll get.

Once you have a good topic, review The Ultimate 8-Point Checklist for Remarkable Content by Pamela Seiple on the Hubspot blog. There’s no use writing about something unless the topic is worthy of your readers’ time.

I love Twitter. It’s my favorite social media platform by far. However, many people on Twitter don’t know how to use it, don’t give a hoot about their followers or suffer from a combination of the two. Peter Shankman lists The Top 10 Things That Need to Die on Twitter. I don’t usually like “rules” posts that mandate how we should and shouldn’t tweet, but I agree with Shankman’s list, except for #6, Foursquare check-ins. I don’t mind seeing where my friends are, unless they’re checking in at the office (seriously, who cares). However, I stop following people if their twitter stream contains more check-ins than any other type of tweet.

Claire Celsi asks us to: “Challenge yourself never to send another standard press release again.” She wants us to use our skills and creativity instead to get our news in front of reporters, and gives Six Alternatives to Sending a Press Release. If you absolutely must send a press release, I wrote earlier this year about ways to improve a press release’s chances of piquing interest.

Gayle C. Thorsen shares Ten Time Management Tips for Nonprofit Communicators. Don’t pass her by because of the word “nonprofit.” Her tips apply to anyone whose plate is too full, to-do list is too long and schedule is too busy. I can vouch for #3, Monday morning me-time. Give it a try.

You’ve strategized, read how-to posts, made editorial calendars and stressed over it, but still you can’t find the time or talent to write your organization’s blog posts. Don’t worry, the folks at Calvert Creative explain how busy leaders can blog without really blogging in The Number One Way to Kill Your Business Blog. The number one killer is not writing at all, turning your blog into a ghost town. Their answer: get help. Agencies and freelance writers, like me (ahem), can help you get your blog up and running again.

I have a very big special birthday coming up on Thursday, so I’ve been more reflective than usual. A few younger friends also celebrate birthdays this week, so this morning I imagined what words of wisdom I’d share with them, if they asked. “Fly your freak flag,” that’s what I’d say. I can’t take credit for those wise words, they’re from Joe Gerstandt, who every Friday encourages his readers, followers, friends, acquaintances and friends-he-hasn’t-yet-met (like me) to let their freak flags fly. You’ll have to read the “love note” he wrote to us last Friday to find out what that means: Put It Up In The Air. Hoist it up, friends!

raleigh freelance writer blogging content copywriting
photo by nataliekbeats/flickr

You’ve Got to Read This: August 16, 2011

I’m back from the beach and plowing through emails, blog posts, conference tweets and more. Thanks to Andrew Hanelly at TMG Custom Media’s Engage blog, I found seven ways to tame the beast: 7 Steps to Dealing with Information Overload.

If you’re coming back from vacation to blog editor duties, you’ll appreciate the advice in this post from Sarah Arrow at For Bloggers by Bloggers, especially if your blog relies on several contributors: 7 Laws That Make Your Multi Author Blog a Success.

When I tweeted out the link to this post, I described it as my best read all day. Noah Brier says the number one question he gets from brand marketers is: “What should I tweet about?” He goes on to write in Want to Tweet? First, Teach Your Brand to Speak at AdAge Digital: “What eludes brands so persistently in new media comes to people naturally.…The content people are sharing, unsurprisingly, is the content they are consuming.”

Ian Greenleigh laments the state of company websites in Quit Blogging Like a Tech Company at Dare to Comment. After posting product release notes and press releases, he says, “They discover how easy it is to blog about themselves. But no one reads it, or cares. Sooner or later, when that ROI never appears from the ether, they give up. And then they’re really blogging like a tech company, because they’re actually blogging so infrequently, it’s a sad little ghost town of quarterly posts.”

Why are Restaurant Websites so Horrifically Bad? asks Farhad Manjoo at Slate. Using hideous examples from some top-notch restaurants, he shows how the design and content fails miserably. The topic was picked up by the readers of Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish who pointed out the weaknesses of artist and college websites as well as restaurant sites. Although the posts are good for a laugh, there is a lot to learn here. Take a hard look at your organization’s website when you’re done.

My last one is for office refrigerators and bulletin boards everywhere, by my online association pal Jeffrey Cufaude: Anyone Can: So Why Not You? I’ve always been fond of #5: “Say what everyone knows but is afraid to bring up.” Who wouldn’t love #12? “Bring in a healthy snack for what will be a very long meeting.”

You’ve Got to Read This: August 2, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve written a curated post. If you or your organization have trouble finding time to write a post or figuring out what to write about, consider publishing a weekly curated post. As a reader, I love them – my favorite bloggers filter their information stream and select some of their best reads of the week. It’s just like Twitter but instead it’s all in one place and delivered via my Google Reader.

So how do you find great content? Well, it’s funny you ask. Mike Stelzner wrote about eight ways to do just that on Social Media Examiner.

I’ll let you in on my little secret for having great content to share on Twitter. You can scoff if you want but it’s been working for me for years. I explain it all in my post about tweeting like a real tweep.

Bob Leonard shares good basic advice on how to repurpose content you already have – speeches, white papers and sales presentations. He also explains how to find and curate content.

Now you might be thinking, “Nice, but how do I find the time to do all this stuff?” The Nonprofit Blog Carnival, hosted this month by Britt Bravo at Have Fun Do Good, gathered several posts about time management. I haven’t yet dipped into it but wanted to share it with you. I’ll pick a few favorites for a future You’ve Got to Read This post.

Or, you might be thinking, “Ok, I get the need for fresh useful and interesting content. But I don’t have time to write.” No problem, you can tell your story through a ghostwriter. The Winn Group (more accurately, their ghostwriter) explains what to look for in a ghostwriter. But, psst, you don’t need to contact them to find a ghostwriter, give me a holler instead.

If you write about social media, you might wonder how to spell some of its newfangled lingo. ReTweet or retweet? Fear not, Kerry Jones of Bluegrass Media gives us The Grammar of Social Media. Turn it into a one-pager and tack it up on your bulletin board.

And now for something completely different, the most awkward 404 page on the Internet (love it!) by Steve Lambert. Save this one for when you have several minutes to watch, it’s worth it.

raleigh freelance writer blogger content blog ghostwriting ghostwriter
Steve Lambert helping lost website visitors

Writing for the Web: Links, Drinks and Dinks

The cliché people say, “Teach what you know.” I know enough about writing for the web to share it, so here’s part 3 of my series.

But before we get started you should know this: although I know enough about writing for the web, and even do it for a living, I’m still learning. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning about writing, but I’m willing to share what I know.

(Never trust anyone who says they know it all. If they don’t know they don’t know, what else don’t they know?  Hmm…)

In part 1 of this series I gave advice on writing for scanners, not readers, and the importance of headlines and formatting. Part 2 covered the voice of online writing, humor, sarcasm and the final edit.

Spread link love.

Why do online writers include links in their blog posts? They do it to:

  • Provide additional resources for the reader.
  • Reference a credible or authoritative source to back up a statement or to give credit for an idea.
  • Lead readers to related posts on their blogs or elsewhere. Links within a post to other posts on your blog will help your Google ranking.
  • Share the spotlight by linking to (and promoting) the posts of other bloggers. A link to another blog will help increase the other blog’s Google ranking. The link in your post will show up in their stats as an “incoming link.” Spread the love around!

When you share a blog post on Twitter, shorten the URL by using, or another URL shortener. These services also track clicks on your links so you can see how popular your posts really are.

writing for the web online blogging freelance writer raleigh
Photo by Rojer (flickr)

Encourage comments and conversation.

Blogs are social media because the comment box provides an opportunity for conversation with your readers. You’ll get to know your regular commenters, read and comment on their blogs and follow them on Twitter. Perhaps one day, when you’re in the same city, you’ll meet up in real life for drinks.* That’s how I got to know many of my friends in the association community.

[*This is why I could sneak ‘drinks’ into the title of this post. Do you know how hard it is to find a word related to ‘conversation’ rhyming with ‘links’? Have a better idea for a title? I’m all ears, in the comments. See how I did that? Encouraging you to comment?]

If you do a Google search on “increase blog comments,” you’ll know by the number of results that encouraging comments is a constant challenge for most blogs. Most of us read a post and leave without making a comment. We’ll take the time to share it on Twitter but we won’t leave any trace of ourselves on the post itself. What can a blogger do to change that?

  • End posts with questions that elicit more than yes/no answers.
  • Write about a controversial topic or express an unusual view, i.e., provoke your readers to comment.
  • Solicit reader anecdotes, solutions and examples about the topic.
  • Don’t require registration for commenting. Most comment widgets require a name, email and optional web address – that’s sufficient.
  • Remove barriers to lively conversation. If you have a good spam filter, consider automatic approval of comments; you can always delete a comment if it really gets under your skin and that’s your policy. If you go with automatic approval, make sure you’re notified about new comments by email, in case something questionable gets through your spam filter.
  • Be a good citizen by responding to all authentic comments — the ones that say more than “nice post.” Otherwise you’ll look like you don’t give a hoot about your readers. There’s one exception to this rule which I’ll explain in a little bit.

Defend your blog against trolls and their relatives.

Everyone dreads the negative or angry comment. That’s a risk you take by putting yourself out there in the very public blogosphere. Pressing the Delete button isn’t always the best solution. I wrote a post for the Avectra blog that explains how to deal with negative comments from complainers, critics and trolls: Don’t Let the Haters Get You Down.

Banish the spam man.

The only exception to the “reply to all comments” rule is when a comment looks like link bait – a link embedded in the commenter’s name or inserted in the comment is used as bait to drive up their Google ranking with incoming links and to get people to click back to their website.

You’ll recognize these bottom-dwellers by their obviously spammy content or by the comment’s brevity, smarminess or poor English. Your spam widget should catch most of them, but every now and then one will slip through. To give you a sense of how they’re usually written, here are a few examples from the 68 spam comments dwelling in my spam filter right now:

  • I believe this web site has got very superb written articles articles.
  • Wow Your site is of the chain.
  • Hi my loved one! I want to say that this post is awesome, nice written and include approximately all vital infos. I would like to look more posts like this.

Amusing. It must work for them because they keep doing it. I’ve noticed an uptick in spam comments, especially on posts that were once featured on the WordPress home page. If you suspect a comment is spam or link bait, feel free to delete it; it’s your blog, you’re the boss.

Wow, where did the time go? We didn’t even get to copyright, fair use, Creative Commons and image sourcing. Don’t roll your eyes, this stuff is fun!

Writing for the Web series

Writing for the Online Reader, Part 2

Last week, I shared tips on writing for the web, or, as I affectionately referred to all of us online readers, 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 on the web, 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 usually 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.”

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 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.

writing blogging web online
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

How to Write for Online Monkey Minds

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 them 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 most 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 the page.

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.

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

You’ve Got to Read This: February 10, 2011

Innovation starts with self-critique (which is why it’s so rare), says Peter Linett. Go against your type, don’t put on “an exhibition that feels like an art museum designed it” or “a concert format that feels like a symphony orchestra designed it.” His litmus test for innovation: “I ask myself whether it feels like it was designed by that kind of institution, within its traditions, values, and personality — its comfort zone.What does a conference or work meeting look like that doesn’t feel like an association designed it?

Kivi Leroux Miller reminds us that we are not our target audience. Before communicating with that audience, do all you can to put yourself in their shoes – research, listen and seek advice of those who are like that audience. Just because you’re in charge, doesn’t mean you get it.

It kills me when an organization doesn’t get the fact that helping their staff connect to their members, prospects or customers is the smart thing to do. Janet McNichol writes about making association business cards social media-friendly but her advice works for any organization.

Lindsey A. Zahn has a very informative post on the Palate Press site about website scraping, copyright, fair use and wine bloggers. I’m seeing more and more sites that scrape content without permission and then get higher page ranking and increased advertising revenue. Bottom-feeders! As one commenter puts it, “it just pisses me off that our hard work and content is contributing to someone else’s bottom line.”

Please, don’t hire a social media director,” says Dion Algeri. He’s right. Too often organizations start their journey into social media by hiring someone to do social media. Instead hire someone to collect, curate, repurpose and create content. Hire a chief content officer. Ok, you don’t have to call it that, but focus on content as a tool to create conversation and connections.

In December I wrote about the Smithsonian’s censorship of a video in a National Portrait Gallery exhibition. In case you were wondering if anything was done about that ignorant decision, ArtInfo tells us, well, yes and no.

If your appetite for resources on nonprofits and social media is not sated, Beth Kanter shares a bunch from the Zoetica Salon, including posts on editorial calendars, strategy tune-ups, benchmarking and more.

I’m riveted to the news from Egypt. We (they, it’s all the same now, isn’t it?) are either on the cusp of something amazingly positive for that country, although the obstacles are formidable, or we are in for a huge disappointment if the military regime holds onto power. They are so intertwined into the political and economic infrastructure, it’s hard to imagine them ceding power at all. I created a Twitter list of  29, at last count, Egyptian activists and journalists worth following. Respect.

egyptian twitter list
Image by Nick Bygon
%d bloggers like this: