How do you write engaging content that will attract attention and turn prospects into customers?
Whether you’re writing a quick Twitter update, an in-depth blog post, or a crucial sales page on your site, you want to do it well. Maybe you’re a copywriter, looking to brush up your skills with writing online. Perhaps you’re an SEO, and you don’t really consider yourself a ‘writer’ – but it is actually bound to be a large part of your job. In this guide, we’re going to go through what you need to know in order to create great online content, from planning it out to formatting it well for online consumption.
If you’re used to business writing or academic writing, or even if you’ve written for print (perhaps a journal article or a book chapter), then you will have learned that writing for the online world is quite different.
When people come to your website, they’re often not looking to read every word.
They might be trying to find a specific piece of information – or they might have clicked on a link to one of your blog posts from Twitter or Facebook while idly browsing. If they’re on a computer, they might well have multiple tabs open; if they’re on a phone, they might be glancing at your website while waiting for their coffee. Either way, they’re almost certainly distracted. Your aim is not to get people to read every word. After all, would you prefer that they slowly and carefully read your entire blog post … or that they sign up to become a paying customer?
Your aim is to help readers get what they need from your content.
That means writing in a way that makes it easy for them to quickly scan the text and pick out the parts that are most relevant to them. Of course, some readers may want to read every word – but many won’t.
Your website also needs to be found by the people who would benefit from it. This means writing in a way that search engines can easily understand (which is part of the process of Search Engine Optimization, or SEO). The good news here is that lots of the things that make for good online writing, in general, are also great for search engines – so you don’t need to do anything unusual or write in a way that would sound odd to readers.
We’re going to cover lots of specifics later, like how to choose the right words and how to format your text for the online world, but before we get into that, we’re going to look at a fundamental aspect of good writing: structure.
Planning and Structure
Even if you’re writing something very short, like a 200-word blog post or a 20-word tweet, it’s still important to plan your piece.
While you might not need to outline short individual pieces, you may have an overall plan or pattern for your updates. For instance, you might decide that on Facebook, you’ll have a schedule of updates like this:
• Monday – link to your blog post for the week
• Tuesday – pose a question to your followers
• Wednesday – link to someone else’s blog post or resource
• Thursday – share an interesting fact about your business (“Did you know…?’)
• Friday – funny cartoon or meme related to your business area Planning benefits both you and your reader.
By planning your writing, you’ll never start with a blank page: instead, you’ll have at least a rough idea of what you’re going to write. Planning also benefits your reader because when you plan ahead, you tend to create better-structured content. Your social media posts, blog posts, and other content will be focused and to-the-point – without any unnecessary digressions or omissions.
Planning is crucial when you’re working with other people. You might need to run an outline past an editor to check they’re happy with your ideas, or you might be commissioning content from freelancers or guest bloggers who need a brief before they can start writing. You may find that planning doesn’t come to you naturally. If that’s the case, you might want to work from a template that you can use again and again (and modify to suit your needs).
The Three Elements of Every Piece of Content
Almost all pieces of content – and certainly those longer than a paragraph– should have these three elements:
• Introduction – Get the attention of your reader (or viewer) and set out what’s to come
• Main body – the bulk of your content: the ideas or information you’re sharing
• Conclusion – summing up and (ideally) suggesting a subsequent conclusion for your reader We’ll be looking at this in more detail, specifically as it applies to blog posts, but you could use it for other types of written content too, including longer social media update.
Structuring Blog Posts
There are lots of ways to structure your blog posts and we’re going to take a look at two key options, the ‘classic’ post and the ‘list’ post:
The Classic Post
The `classic` blog post explores a particular idea or argument. It should normally be divided into sections – a good example when looking at something like what it’s like to work at a digital marketing agency? which has these subheadings:
• The benefits of working for a digital agency
• The key qualities of an agency-based digital marketer
• The dynamics of working at a digital agency
This type of post can be difficult to structure because you might feel that you have lots of information to share about a particular topic – and no obvious order in which to place it.
It’s a good idea to come up with three to five key points you want to make, or angles you want to explore, and use these as your subheadings. As with every blog post, you should have an introduction at the start and a conclusion at the end.
The List Post
The ‘list’ post presents a numbered list of ideas, tips, mistakes, or similar. This type of post is very popular with readers and with content marketers, as it’s an easy format to produce and easy for readers to scan. It can still lend itself to in-depth content, though.
With a list post, the main body of the post is the list. Each point in the list is normally set out with a number, a subheading, and an explanation of the particular point. This way, a reader can easily scroll down the page to find a specific point they are looking for, or to see if the article covers the topics they are interested in.
Again, you should have an introduction at the start of the list post and a conclusion at the end.
Why Subheadings Matter
While you don’t have to use subheadings in order to have a well-structured post, they’re a very helpful tool for busy readers.
Subheadings ’signpost’ the reader to key sections of your post. They can act as a mini-blog post title, creating interest, and making a clear promise about what the reader is going to gain from reading that section of your content.
For readers who are skimming for information, subheadings are easy to spot and take in.
They’re also helpful for readers who are going slowly, as they help them to orient themselves within the post. If you’re reading a list post, for instance, it’s particularly helpful to have the subheadings numbered so that you know how far you’ve got and how much is left to read – and so you can refer back to specific items within the post.
Subheadings should normally be in Header 2 format (if you have nested subheadings beneath these, you can use Header 3). Search engines will pay attention to Header 2 text, and it’s a good idea to use keywords in your subheadings: that way, they’ll work well for search engines but (just as importantly!) they’ll also help readers to quickly spot what they’re looking for. However, do make sure the keywords you are using are relevant to the content – avoid keyword stuffing.
Here are the subheadings from Belinda Weaver’s Copyblogger post 5 Practical Time Management Tips for the Chronically Time-Poor:
• “Ugh. Another post about time management?”
• “#1: Know your work zones”
• “#2: Be clear about your priorities”
• “#3: Create a time map”
• “#4: User calendar blocking to level up”
• “#5: Allow time to drift”
The first subheading moves from the introduction into the ‘why’ behind the post (and structurally, it’s often a very good plan to include the ‘why’ before the ‘how’, because that way, you give your readers a clear reason to read on). The next five subheadings are the five key points on the list of time management tips
Writing Your Content
Once you’ve outlined your content, it’s time to write it. With a good outline in place, this is really just a case of filling in the gaps – so hopefully you’ll find it easier to write now that your ideas are mapped out in a structured way.
It can be tricky, though, to know exactly how to phrase things. Writing for the online world can feel quite different from the sort of writing you might do when sending internal company emails, or (on the other end of the formality spectrum) when texting a friend.
One useful way to think about your writing is to make it ‘conversational’ – as if you’re having a friendly chat with the reader. There are several easy ways you can do this:
• Use the words ‘I’ (and ‘me’, ‘mine’) and ‘you’ (and ‘your’, ‘yours’) in your writing
• Use contractions, such as ‘don’t’ for ‘do not’ and ‘I’m’ for ‘I am’
• Avoid formal language
• Be open to a response
We’ll go through some examples of these:
Using ‘I’ and ‘You’
In some styles of writing (particularly academic writing), you might be advised to avoid using words like ‘I’, and not to directly address the reader. Online, however, it almost always makes sense to use ‘I’ and ‘you’ – because these make your writing more direct and accessible.
You can also use ‘we’ to align yourself with the reader and position them as part of your community.
Here are some examples of ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’ in use:
“When I blog, I know a single post or podcast is unlikely to have a reader trusting me completely.”
(from How to Build Trust with Your Blog, Darren Rowse, ProBlogger)
“There’s a little growth hack that every ecommerce site should be using. It’s the easiest hack… it doesn’t require money, you don’t need a following, and it works instantly. But you know what? No one is using it.”
(from One Simple Hack That’ll Boost Your Ecommerce Sales, Neil Patel, NeilPatel.com)
“How have algorithm updates evolved over the past decade, and how can we possibly keep tabs on all of them? Should we even try?”
Unless you’re writing a post that’s very much about your personal experience (e.g. a case study of how you accomplished something), it’s best to use ‘you’ more than ‘I’ in your post – that way, you’ll be focusing on your reader.
When you talk, you almost certainly say ‘don’t’ rather than ‘do not’, and ‘I’m’ rather than ‘I am’ – at least some of the time.
In some formal types of writing, you might avoid contractions – but for online content, it’s very normal and expected to use them. If you don’t, your writing may seem stilted. With social media, too, contractions help you to fit your message into a slightly shorter space – ‘do not’ takes up six characters, but ‘don’t’ is only five characters.
Some common words you can contract include:
• Do not = don’t
• It is = it’s (don’t confuse this with ‘its’, the possessive)
• Cannot = can’t
• I am = I’m
• I will = I’ll
• Are not = aren’t
• Shall not = shan’t
• Had not = hadn’t
• Will not = won’t
Here’s an example of the use of ‘it’s’ (twice) in a tweet by Copyblogger:
Of course, it sometimes makes more sense to spell words out in full – you don’t have to use contractions every single time. If you want to place emphasis on a word, for instance, you might write it out:
Make sure you check the box once you’ve read the terms and conditions. Do not click the back button at this stage.
Avoiding Formal Language
It can be easy to slip into a quite formal or jargon-ridden way of writing, especially if you’re creating static pages (like the About page or Contact page) for your website.
While this is appropriate or even expected for some businesses – customers would expect a certain degree of gravitas from a law firm, for instance – for most companies, a friendly, informal style works best. Here’s how formal versus informal language looks:
Formal: Upon joining, you will receive a detailed dietary preferences questionnaire to complete. This allows your personalized diet plan to be tailored to your specific needs.
Informal: When you join, we’ll ask you a bunch of questions about what you like to eat. These let us make sure we’re giving you a diet plan that suits you.
Note how formal language tends to use words that we wouldn’t normally use in everyday speech, like ‘upon’ and ‘utilize’.
It can sound a bit jargon-y – perhaps in this instance, the company has what they internally call a ‘dietary preferences questionnaire’, but that doesn’t really mean anything to the potential customer.
Informal language is clear, direct, and straightforward. It uses the sorts of phrases that people would use when talking to or writing to a friend – in this example, ‘a bunch of’ is an informal way to say ‘a number of’. Using informal language tends to make it easier to incorporate keywords, too. When people search the web, they’re often describing things in a fairly informal way – so they might look for “better sleep tips” rather than “best sleep practices”, for instance.
Be careful not to become too informal, like using slang terms people might not understand, and ensure you still write correctly and errorfree. Being Open to a Response One of the best opportunities (and also one of the challenges) of the online world is the amount of interaction it allows. When you put out a piece of content – whether it’s a blog post, a tweet, a Facebook post, and so on – it’s normal for people to respond.
One way to make your writing more conversational is to allow space for that response. That might mean asking questions – particularly at the end of your piece of content, but also perhaps at the start and throughout. It also means you should make sure you’ve got the resources in place to respond in a timely way so you can keep a conversation going with your prospects and customers.
For instance, in a Facebook post, you might write something like this to encourage responses:
Remember to back up your files… accidents happen! What tools do you use to run backups? Let us know your favorites.
If you’re struggling to find the right tone, you might find it helps to imagine that you’re writing to a friend. What sort of words would you choose? How would you explain things?
Understanding and Using Calls to Action
As well as making your writing conversational and engaging, you want the content you’re creating to perform well. You don’t simply want people to read your words and move on – you want them to read and then take some sort of action.
By including a ‘call to action’ at the end of your piece of content, you can prompt readers to do something that will help them move toward becoming a customer (or at least a useful lead) for you.
You might want to encourage your readers to:
• Sign up for a newsletter: (e.g. “Want our tips on getting a great night’s sleep? Just pop your email address in the box below and you’ll receive our free guide…”)
• Buy a product: (e.g. “Our latest T-shirt design is already selling out fast! Check it out here.”)
• Contact you to find out more about a service: (e.g. “Want to know how we could help with all your design needs? Fill in this form to schedule a free no-obligation call…”)
• Read or view more content on your website: (e.g. “For more help perfecting your golf swing, check out our video…”)
• Share your content: (e.g. “If you enjoyed this post, we’d love you to share it on Facebook or Twitter.”)
• Leave a comment: (e.g. “What do you think? Pop a comment below to share your ideas with us.”)
Your call to action should, ideally, follow on in a natural way from the piece of content. For instance, if you want to encourage people to check out your products or explore your services, it’s helpful if your post is related to those in some way.
Editing Your Content
All content – however short – needs editing. Even a quick tweet should be proofread for errors, unless you want to risk going viral because of an unfortunate typo (typographic error, like spelling).
With longer pieces of content, like blog posts, it’s usually helpful to edit in three separate passes, where you look at your draft material in different ways:
• First pass: ‘big picture’ revision where you make any major changes needed
• Second pass: detailed editing, where you focus on individual sentences
• Third pass: proofreading, where you look for typos and errors
We’re going to go through some key things to look out for in each of these areas in turn.
1: Big Picture Revision
At this stage of the editing process, you want to look at your piece as a whole and consider whether you need to make any fairly big changes (like cutting a whole section or adding in some new material).
It’s often very helpful to have a gap between the drafting of your content and this phase of editing, so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes. If you can let it ‘rest’ for a day or so, do that.
Once you’ve let it be for a bit, read through the whole post (or piece of content) and look out for:
• Any tangents or digressions that aren’t really relevant – could they become part of another piece instead?
• Anything that the reader may not understand – you might want to include a short explanation, and/or a link to a piece of content that covers this in more detail.
• Any paragraphs that don’t seem to be in the right order or don’t flow well. Even if you planned your post carefully before starting, you still may find that there’s a better way to present information. Often it helps to give readers the ‘why’ before the ‘how’ of something, for instance.
Some people find it helps to print out their draft post at this stage, or to preview it on their blog (without publishing it) so they can see how it’ll look to the reader.
2: Detailed Editing
Once you’re happy that the major building blocks of your post are all in place, it’s time to move on and take a detailed look at each sentence. (It’s important to do this after the big picture revision so that you don’t end up spending a long time on sentences that you later cut out altogether.)
At this stage, you’re looking out for things like:
• Overly long or complicated sentences – try breaking them up into two or even three shorter sentences
• Unclear phrasing – reword where necessary to clarify things
• Jargon or technical terms – sometimes these are necessary and appropriate, but often you can get rid of them. If you do need them, it’s helpful to briefly explain their meanings.
• Repeated phrases or words – while repeating things for effect is fine, unintentional repetition can sound odd. If you’ve used the same word a lot, try varying it. (This doesn’t apply to very common words, like ‘the’ or ‘and’.) Use a thesaurus to find an alternative word if you can’t think of one.
• Clichés and well-worn phrases – it’s easy to include too many of these when you’re drafting your piece, but they’re often best avoided, especially if they’re making your writing quite wordy. Using a lot of phrases like “at the end of the day” or “only time will tell” can make your writing seem a bit bland or boring. You may not need them at all, or you may be able to find a better way to express your thoughts.
From an SEO perspective, this is also a good point to check that you’ve used your primary keyword (and any secondary keywords) in an appropriate way throughout your content, if you’re working on a post or page for your website.
Remember, you definitely don’t need to go overboard here: there’s no minimum ‘keyword density’ you should be aiming to reach.
Proofreading is the final stage of editing. At this point, you’re not looking to make changes or improvements to your text – you’re just looking out for any mistakes that need correcting.
These might be simple typos (where your fingers hit the wrong keys) or words that you’ve misspelled because you’ve confused them (e.g. ‘their’, ‘they’re’, and ‘there’ are easily muddled, as are ‘affect’ and ‘effect’).
Spellcheckers will pick up many of these mistakes, but not all. If you know that spelling isn’t your strong point, you might want to use an app like Grammarly to try to catch more errors. (Don’t take every single suggestion at face value, though, it doesn’t always get it right; you should make sure the suggested change still makes sense to you.)
No tool can be a substitute for a human editor, though, and it’s still important that you read through your work carefully. If you struggle to spot your own errors (and most writers do), then try printing out your post so you can go through it line by line, or read it aloud. Alternatively, have a colleague or friend read it through with fresh eyes.
Formatting Your Content
Because your words are going to be read on the screen, it’s important to think about how they look physically. Here’s an example of the difference that good formatting can make, using an excerpt from Tribe SEO’s post Why We Rebranded (and the Lessons Learnt Along the Way).
Tim Ferris popularised the concept of the ‘minimum effective dose’: the smallest dose that will produce a specific outcome. For example, in his book The 4-Hour Work Week, he shares that “To boil water, the minimum effective dose is 100 degrees Celsius at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it “more boiled.” Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.”
So, by providing the minimum effective dose for SEO, each student efficiently learns the essentials to get the desired result they want. A copywriter gets their content read by people and search engines alike. A web developer creates beautiful code that is search engine friendly. A CEO can see that SEO is being done right and is contributing to the growth of the business.
Tim Ferris popularised the concept of the ‘minimum effective dose’: the smallest dose that will produce a specific outcome. For example, in his book The 4-Hour Work Week, he shares that:
“To boil water, the minimum effective dose is 100 degrees Celsius at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it “more boiled.” Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.”
So, by providing the minimum effective dose for SEO, each student efficiently learns the essentials to get the desired result they want:
• A copywriter gets their content read by people and search engines alike.
• A web developer creates beautiful code that is search engine friendly.
• A CEO can see that SEO is being done right and is contributing to the growth of the business.
The wording of the two examples is exactly the same. But the second looks much more attractive. It uses a link (which is useful, but also helps add visual interest), a blockquote, and a list of bullet points.
Some key formatting elements that you can use throughout different types of written content include:
• Bullet points
• Short sentences and paragraphs
• Bold text
• Italic text
• Capital letters
We’ll go through each of these in turn.
Adding images to your content can help provide visual appeal. A wellchosen image can be striking or funny – or it can offer ‘at a glance’ information (perhaps through a screenshot or graph).
Images help to create additional ‘white space’ on the page, making your text look more attractive and readable.
Many blog themes require at least one featured image for each post in order to display the posts correctly on the front page.
Social media sites have become increasingly image-focused, with clear evidence that tweets and Facebook posts with images do better than those without. (Instagram and Pinterest, of course, require an image in order to create a post.)
You can create images yourself, using a tool like Canva, or you can use free or paid stock photos from sites like Pixabay (free) or iStockPhoto (paid). Try to avoid choosing photos that look too generic or bland, and always ensure that you have permission to reproduce the images – falling foul of copyright laws can prove very expensive for your company.
Using Bullet Points
Bullet points are a great way to break up lists into easy-to-grasp chunks. They add lots of extra white space to your post and space things out to make them easy to read.
Whenever you have a list, consider using bullet points rather than placing it within a sentence.
Bullet points are particularly useful on sales pages, where you can use them to give a list of contents or benefits of a service or product. Many companies like to get creative here with the icon used for the ‘bullet’ itself –checkmarks are popular, for instance.
Using Short Sentences and Paragraphs
When you edited your content, you hopefully broke up any sentences or paragraphs that were too long. The formatting stage, however, is a good opportunity to revisit this.
Short paragraphs and short sentences are easier to read on the screen than long blocks of text. Many people will also be browsing your website on their phone or tablet – where even quite moderate paragraphs can look excessively long due to the small amount of space and the low number of words per line – so it’s important to take this into consideration.
Using Bold Text
Bold text is a great way to pull out key points within your text. This can be particularly helpful if readers are skimming: it lets them see the most important points at a glance. It’s possible to overuse bold text, though, and too much of it can make your text look choppy as well as make the emphasis less effective. Try to use it for whole sentences or long phrases, not for individual words or short phrases, and be fairly sparing with it.
Italics can be used to emphasize a single word or short phrase; they’re also a useful way to format text that you’re using as an example. You may want to place quotes in italics if you’re placing them within a sentence (rather than setting them in blockquote format in their own paragraph).
When you’re quoting from someone else, it’s normal practice to place their quote in its own indented paragraph – this is normally called ‘blockquote’ formatting on the web.
Different sites will have different styles set up for blockquotes. Here’s an example, from ProBlogger’s post How Being a Good Listener Can Help You Write Effective Sales Copy
You can see that the quote (from Robert Bruce, who writes for Copyblogger) is indented, with a dark blue line running down the left hand side.
Blockquotes add visual interest and appeal to your post, and they also make it clear when you’re quoting someone else versus when the words in the post are your own. They’re best for quotes of at least one full sentence: with short quotes, like a single phrase, it’s easier to just include them in quotation marks within a regular paragraph.
Using Capital Letters
With social media content, you’re generally quite limited in terms of how much formatting you can do.
While it’s not impossible to create bold and italic text to use on social media, it’s fiddly (you need to create it in Unicode) – but you can always use capital letters for emphasis instead.
Capitals are, however, harder to read than regular text and can come across as ‘shouting’ online, so make sure you use them sparingly. They often work best for a single word or a couple of words at the start of your social media post.
Here’s an example from the MANTRA DAO Twitter page :
Within a blog post, links serve several important functions:
• They add value for your reader – by providing additional information or resources.
• They help Google to crawl your site effectively (if they’re internal links to pages on your own site).
• They help you build relationships with other companies or websites in your field (if you’re linking out to other people’s content).
One feature of links that you may not have considered, though, is that they add visual appeal.
Links are almost always in a different color from the surrounding text, which makes them stand out. It’s worth considering them as a formatting feature, because this may affect how you use them – for example, you might want to combine links with bullet points, or ensure that links aren’t too long or too short (which can look odd and can make them hard to click on mobile devices).
It’s good practice to set links to always open in a new window. This way your reader won’t become distracted or confused and be able to come back to their starting point: your article or post.
If you’re posting on social media, it often makes sense to include hashtags (the # symbol followed by a keyword or phrase). These can be used in a wide variety of different ways – including for humorous effect – but in general, they’re a good way to help people come across your posts about topics they’re interested in.
Hashtags, like hyperlinks, also add visual interest to your posts and can be a great way to pull out some keywords:
It’s particularly helpful to use hashtags if your posts relate to a specific event, whether online or offline. Many announcements have an associated hashtag, for instance, and online events like Twitter chats may require you to use a hashtag in order for people to follow your posts correctly.
Creating a Style Guide
As you develop best writing practices for your website, you might want to record your decisions in a ‘style guide’. This is a document that details the way in which things should be written or formatted (when there’s a choice available).
For instance, you should decide if you always use US or UK spelling across all content you write. Another, minor, example is choosing to use the ‘Oxford comma’ or ‘serial comma’ when writing about three or more things in a row, like this:
My passions are digital marketing, electronic music production, and blockchain technology.
Others omit the final comma, like this:
My passions are digital marketing, electronic music and eggs.
Both methods are equally ‘correct’ – but a style guide can help you stay consistent across all your forms of content.
Style guides can also cover issues like how words are capitalized or hyphenated. This might apply to your brand itself or to key industry terms. For instance, you might decide to write “Search Engine Results Page” with initial capitals and to abbreviate it as “SERP”.
If you’d like some ideas to include in a style guide, The Guardian newspaper has a very comprehensive one (which starts with A here). As well as detailing their preferred usage, the style guide also incorporates lots of words that might be misused or misspelled. Note that it’s designed for UK English use.
Whether you feel like you’re a natural writer or not, following the tips in this guide can help you produce content that will work well online. Your posts will be clear and engaging; your website will be easy to understand; and your social media posts will sound like they’re written by a real person – not a robot.
Good online writing works well for readers and for search engines, too. You definitely don’t need to go overboard by stuffing keywords into your pages – in fact, this can make search engines suspicious. Instead, pick a focused topic that people are searching for, and use the sorts of phrases that they would naturally use. That way, you’ll be reaching people and engaging them… while at the same time helping search engines to find your content.