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The Dos & Don'ts of Web Content Writing Part 1

Separating the signal from the static

Once you’ve “moved into” your virtual space, you’re faced with more or less the same challenges creative writers face when setting out on their next story: what to write about and how. 

The Internet is a vast, sprawling, unpatrolled flea market of unsolicited, rarely 100% verifiable information. It’s like a sentient encyclopedia that grows while it’s sleeping. Except an encyclopedia can’t tempt you away from your search of the 2016 US presidential election results to the darkened alleyways of latex fetishes.  

Among all the garbage out there to ambush you—and there is a huge amount of it—there's also tons of credible sites, blogs and voices to read and learn from, and they’re all competing for the precious few minutes you have available in your day to sit down and dig into a good story. It’s your job as a reader of content to separate the signal from the static. As a writer, your mission is not to add to the static. 

This week at Storyline Creatives we'll be offering you 5 tips you can use to send out a solid signal when you write. 


PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH ROGERS | THE DAILY BEAST

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH ROGERS | THE DAILY BEAST

THE DOS AND DON'TS OF WEB WRITING: A LIST (KIND OF)

There are so many lists on the web I feel a little guilty adding to the pile. In my defense, this particular list is simply  11 common sense guidelines (divided into two parts) I apply to my own web writing and reading that I thought you'd find useful when approaching yours. 

We start, using typical short story technique, with the end: with titles and images. Ironically, sadly—however you feel about it—our primitive lizard eyes have the greatest say in what we choose to devote our limited reading time to. When we see something appealing, we read on. Usually the two first elements of an article we pay attention to are the title and the visual that goes with it. So it goes without saying, we need to make them good. By good, as always, we mean engaging.

Side note: Though they're the first things we look at as readers, as writers, titles and visuals are the final elements we should tackle, so it's a good idea to write first and then search for titles and images.


1. TITLES COUNT

Titles, I’ll admit, are a form of direct manipulation. People are attracted by the promise of being titillated, shocked, horrified, or receiving in a four-minute read life-changing knowledge they otherwise would have forever missed out on. And you have about half a second to attract them. This is where titles come in.

Titles are the facades of your stories and a rapid information filing system-cum-slot machine rolled into one. If done right, our eyeballs, scanning like threshing machines, will settle upon your title and we’ll engage, no matter what follows.

Sometimes, sure, titles don’t live up to their promises. An article with the title 12 REASONS WHY YOUR CHILD NEEDS TO LEARN PORTUGUESE TO SUCCEED IN LIFE is very likely double-fried bologna, but if it gets you to click, it’s accomplished its job.

Until you get to the end and you leave the nasty comments it deserves in abundance.

Which brings us to images.

“No matter how clever the link bait, if it does nothing more than cause a little buzz or drive-by traffic, then you’ve wasted time and opportunity. Any site can fool people once, even twice. I’d rather have one person bookmark my site, re-visit it, share it, and socialize it than have ten people come by for three seconds and leave.”
— Eric Ward

2. PICK AN ARRESTING IMAGE OR VIDEO

SHAUN ROSS | ELLE.COM

SHAUN ROSS | ELLE.COM

Images aren’t just window dressing. Or, rather, part of the web experience is the window dressing. Visuals are there because they do make our reads more pleasant. No one wants to spend too much time in a bare white room without any furniture or art on the wall. This can be alienating, especially on the web. Equally important is the fact that a carefully chosen image can get your point across for you before you even begin to write. This image can be your own photograph, a stock photo labeled for reuse, a stock photo you pay for or one of your own collages. Usually, if you're searching for a ready-made solution—a stock photo—it will help to think in terms of concepts and ideas, not necessarily in terms of objects alone. 

An example?

Look at the visual I used for this section. 

Did it work?

Or consider this short video from the Nowness series DEFINE BEAUTY. 

BEYOND THE SKIN


3. START WITH A POINT AND DON’T WANDER FROM THE PATH

DAN CRYSTALIS | DEVIANT ART

DAN CRYSTALIS | DEVIANT ART

Whether you’re writing about high-protein meat substitutes or summing up Noam Chomsky’s views on radical Islam, your number one priority is to engage your readers. Readers who have a path to follow are more easily engaged. The moment you start to deviate from your course, into, say, a history of meat substitutes or a history of Noam Chomsky’s failed marriages, is the moment you begin to lose your visitors.

One way of streamlining your posts is to write good intros that encapsulate what you’re going to say and that give readers signposts to look for further on. Intros can also be stories that put you in the thick of things from the get-go.

Which brings us to our next point.


4.    MAKE IT INTO A STORY

Ok, I’m a writer. I love stories and it’s my default mode of writing. Personal preference aside, writing posts as narratives is a highly effective way of engaging your audience because story structure is naturally engaging. When I say naturally, I mean readers are helpless to turn back. Storytelling in blogs is a form of snake charming.

To see this technique in action, check out Amy Davidson's intro to her blog post on Michelle Obama. English prof turned cage fighter Jonathan Gottschall also uses storytelling technique in his Salon article My Own Personal Fight Club: How an English Professor Became a Cage Fighter (which is actually an excerpted chapter from his book, so it's cheating a little.)

The takeaway? 

Both use exactly the same technique to reel us in. They put us in medias res, or smack dab in the middle of things, from sentence one. They inject us into their stories.

As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, when I'm writing content for the web or for any other medium, I invariably turn to stories. I Was John Denver and Murdered People, a look at three simple techniques for engaging audiences with your web writing that are inspired by storytelling, was framed by—guess what? 

A story.

Does it matter that the story was actually true? 

Absolutely.

As we'll see below, when you tell stories based on your own personal experiences, you give readers something they're always happy to see in a blog: authenticity and sincerity. 

Still not convinced we're storytelling creatures? Give a listen to Uri Hasson at TED to see what's going on under the hood when we listen to stories.

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON COMMUNICATION

“A story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”
— Uri Hasson

5. MAKE IT PERSONAL

ROBERT DENIRO | TAXI DRIVER

ROBERT DENIRO | TAXI DRIVER

When I quit my job and opened up a creative writing space called Write CY last year, the idea of teaching people how to write stories wasn't universally welcomed or understood by other writers in the community. Some of them felt, and still feel, that teaching writing is nonsense.

As the director of Write CY, I was in an awkward position. I had to respond to those criticisms, but I had to do it in a way that was respectful of the opposite views they expressed. Simply put, I couldn't take the backlash as a personal ad hominem assault. Whatever I wrote had to clearly express my opinion about teaching storytelling and show why I thought it could and should be done. 

And it had to be a good read. As always, as a short story writer or a web content writer, by good, I mean engaging.

In the end, I chose to write a blog post about my personal journey to opening up Write CY, which also happened to be my personal journey to accepting the view that short story techniques could be taught. (Yes, in the narrative, I was once one of them, and there's no better story than the reformed convert's.)  

That particular post went viral (for Write CY) and I think I know why. 

It was personal. 

Not only was it personal, it was honest. I was laying myself on the line for what I believed in. 

The fact that it was told as a story? Even better.

The bottom line?

Personal is good. Personal is human interest. Personal is real. 

If you’re writing about a vegan dish you made, the story of how you actually made it—from rustling up ingredients in Nicosia to the quirks of preparation and the pleasures of sharing it with friends—makes for a compelling read. Much better than a simple how-to post, this becomes a journey post. 

Likewise, if you’re a writing about gender inequality on the job, framing it with your personal story of surviving prejudice or the story of someone you know well, brings the writing home, which is what people are looking for when they come to your blog.

Ditto for fashion writing. Have you been to the show whose trends you're showcasing? Frame the post as the story of that trip.

And that brings us to the end of this week's trip.

If you made it all the way down here, add to the life of our blog. Leave a comment! We'd love to have your feedback.

Stay tuned for next week's post: The Dos and Don'ts of Web Content Writing Part 2


Max's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based creative space dedicated to creative writing and community storytelling. Talk to him at: max@storylinecreatives.com.