Here are the 10 things I do to help ensure I set myself up for success and write better content for the web.
1. Decrease the width of Word
Before I start writing a word, the first thing I do is decrease the width of my Microsoft Word document to about 4.5” wide. I grab the little “right indent” thingy in the ruler, and drag it to the left.
By decreasing the width of my page, I can better visualize how content might look on the web. I can immediately see that one sentence is wrapping to 5 lines, or a paragraph is getting too unwieldy, and then adjust.
2. Include a creative brief
At the top of my document, I include the following 5 questions:
- What is the purpose of this post/content?
- Who is it for?
- Why should they care?
- What is the primary takeaway?
- What are the measures of success?
I answer them.
Then, I start writing.
3. Write subheads that inform
In a perfect world, my audience reads every one of my carefully crafted sentences. But in my experience of moderating hundreds of usability tests, I know that is a far cry from reality. At best, people skim — not read.
I try to write as many subheads as I can to help break up the content and give it more visual interest. And I try to write a subhead in a way that the reader doesn’t even need to read the paragraphs below it. She can read just the subheads, and still learn something.
4. Begin with the end
This one is hard for me, I admit. I used to write a lot of fiction when I was younger. I like building up suspense and creating mystery… But you simply cannot do that on the web. No one has patience for that.
When I wrote a post about my most common usability study findings, it was hard for me to give away the answer in the opening paragraph. But I did it. I even went a step further and put it in the headline. But you know what? Confusing, Incomplete Content Creates the Most Usability Issues is my most popular blog post ever.
It pays to tip your hand.
5. Increase the font size of the opening paragraph
Maybe it’s my background in magazine writing, but I think it’s much easier to grab and keep someone’s attention when the opening line is big and bold and in the reader’s face.
It doesn’t hurt to bump up the point size of the remaining copy either. Reader fatigue is one of the most common usability issues that I see. Human eyes are put under enormous strain when forced to read a too-small-font across a too-wide-column.
6. Delete the introductory paragraph
Speaking of opening paragraphs… Whenever I begin a blog post or other web content, I’ll write an introductory paragraph, write the rest of the piece, then go back and delete the introductory paragraph.
Almost always that first paragraph is dry, boring, or full of fluff. So I just get rid of it, and get to the heart of the story faster.
Here’s the introduction that I originally wrote, then went back and deleted for this post:
“With fewer than 25 blog posts under my belt, I’m not quite a pro at blogging yet, but I’ve written a ton of web content for my clients and former employers.” Yawn. Aren’t you glad I deleted that drivel?
7. Make sure there is a CTA
You never want someone to get to the bottom of the page, and think “I guess that’s it” and promptly exit.
Every page of your website, every blog post, every FAQ should have a purpose and a call-to-action. What is it that you want the reader to do next? Don’t assume they will scroll back to the top of the page to look around for the next thing to read.
Tell them specifically what you want them to do. Pick up the phone. Read the next post. Complete a short questionnaire.
8. Write, write, write, and then save a copy
I like to write and edit as I go, but the real editing comes at the end when I check the word count and see that I’ve written 2,500 words. Whoa, Nelly.
I love all my words. Every single one that I lovingly and carefully knitted together. It’s hard to let go of the words sometimes. But it’s a must.
Rather than deleting my edited words forever, instead I save a copy, then chop the heck out of the original. That way, I’m not really deleting my (oh so brilliant) work and those now-edited words have a chance to find a new home someday.
9. Co-author and collaborate
Working on How to Create a Successful User Experience at Your Next Live Event with Susan Bordson was super fun and educational. So much so, I’ve been on the hunt for another writer to co-author a post with ever since.
Google Docs is the perfect tool for this type of collaboration. Susan and I were able to immediately see what the other one had written or edited, leave notes for each other, and even chat in real time as we each worked on different parts of the post.
If you have a chance to co-author a blog post, try to do it at least once for the experience and insight into how others work through their initial draft to final piece.
10. Use your thesaurus
When I was in 8th grade, I asked for a thesaurus for Christmas. Yes, I’ve always been a writing geek.
It’s been a long time since I’ve cracked it open, but I still religiously use a thesaurus every time I write. Did you know that if you right-click on a word, Microsoft will show you a list of synonyms?
Is there a truer word? A word that will ring with more authenticity, emotion, or impact? Make the extra effort and use your thesaurus to create a stronger connection with your audience.