How many times have you been drawn in by an internet headline and have found yourself reading a post/page that's seriously lacking in depth? And how many times did you continue pushing yourself to read it all the way through, hoping that the post would surprise you with insight (any insight, darnit!) by the end? (I swear this is not one of those posts.)
I've done this. And been let down, many times. It's infuriating, and pretty sad. We're all better writers than this. Down with the disappointing internet content!
I've seen lots of it working here at BlogMutt, a blog writing service, where much of my brainpower is spent thinking about how to write content for the online consumer better.
You know what I'm talking about. We're looking at you, lifeless verbs like "provide" or "offer," and nothing-phrases like "in today's digital age" or "content is king." Actually, these words/phrases don't flat-out suck, but they stand for missed opportunities to hook in and truly interest a reader.
Now, I'm excited to share some brilliant nuggets from Joanna Wiebe's recent Tutorial Tuesday (I'd recommend signing up for one) all about turning decent copy into kick-ass copy. She's boiled the way to do this down into four very actionable tips.
We'll drill down into it further, but here are the four techniques to get a reader to start AND keep reading:
- Word choice (/syllables)
- Punctuation & sentence length
- Hooking throughout
- Organizing or grouping supporting topics
Here's to sucking less as writers!
4 Techniques To Draw A Reader In & Keep Them Interested
Much of Joanna's wisdom references Virginia Tufte's book, Grammar As Style (from the 18th century, now tragically out of print). The objective of the writer, according to Mrs. Tufte, should always be on keeping a reader focused, and structuring your text/copy to do just that.
Joanna takes this a step further, saying, yes, absolutely keep your reader focused. BUT...the potential for distraction is so much higher now (and attention spans lower) than in the 18th century as we write for digital media consumers. There are distractions everywhere! Everywhere! And just a one click away...
1. Word choice
The words you choose should be simple, straightforward, and decrease friction for the reader. This means you should write at a 6th grade reading level, max.
Seems low, but think about it. By keeping the word choice compelling and to-the-point, you'll keep readers reading. Anything above the 6th grade reading level is academic. And think about how eager you were to read any academic paper in school.
As Joanna puts it,
"Putting a lot of syllables together is NOT the stuff of great writing, it's the stuff of academic writing."
For all you word nerds out there, this will be challenging. You've got the vocab and knowledge of grammar rules, and you wanna show that off. However, "if it's you putting on a show of knowing grammar [and big words], that's only for you. That's just gonna be for you." (Can you guess? Joanna again.)
To combat this, alternate single-syllabled words with polysyllabic words. You don't need a fancy-sounding word when a clear, more conversational one will do the trick.
2. Punctuation & sentence length
Varying the structure of sentences is the key idea here, in terms of length and also punctuation mark used.
How can you strategically incorporate sentence fragments, to really make your writing more interesting to read? Mindfully break up your paragraphs to play with flow, and bookend longer ideas/sentences by really short, fragment-y thoughts. Why? To give your readers a mental break. That's it.
See? Your brain is resting easy as you absorb the concepts above. You have the fragments to thank for that. :) (Emojis help with this, too, if your brand will allow them.)
3. Hooking throughout
Yes, this idea applies to all portions of a post/page, but it's most important in the intro. The very first concept should be an idea that a reader already has had. Be inclusive, approachable, and conversational with it, but fresh in how it's expressed for a dash of novelty.
Do not start a reader right out the gate by feeling like they walked in on the middle of a conversation, which instantly separates them from the discussion.
This then extends throughout—keep your reader caring and following along. How? Sandwich a new idea in between two approachable ideas, tease future concepts, and pepper in hooks that are familiar from earlier in the post, or are more conversational, humorous, or punchy in sound. Or, give some thought about what hooks you as a reader and use some of those strategies.
Again, with the ultimate goal of avoiding distraction and keeping your reader focused, organization is major. The flow of text should be natural and fluid, keeping categorization and/or clustering of ideas thoughtfully grouped. Tangents, be damned! If you must bring up subpoints along the way, hammer 'em out with enough background, and quickly move on and don't turn back.
If it doesn't read smoothly to you, you'll lose the reader due to confusion or (gasp!) sloppiness. This is why the editing and writing steps should be separate processes (see below).
What these do NOT mean:
- Be a grammar stickler. Instead of dwelling in the mires of correctness like a grammar troll, use the rules of grammar to help you make things sound better. (Pssst...this probably also means using words that "aren't correct" for the sake of sounding more conversational.)
- Edit as you write. The first step should be about slapping words down on the page, and then the editing step afterward can be dedicated to the readability/awesomeness/de-crappifying of that first draft. Per Joanna: "First you write, and then you edit in the awesome. That's where the awesome happens—in editing. Writing is about getting the stuff on the page." Read more on how to write an advanced blog post here.
As a good writer (and one having read these techniques at that), you differentiate yourself by knowing the rules and using them to your benefit. (A lot of people writing online don't know these rules at all.)
So, let's fight the crap-tide that is the internet content ocean.
Bottom line: Keep your reader focused. Fight distraction. Only then can you finally write something that will resonate, and thereby educate.