About a decade ago I lucked into a job as a technology journalist. I had no journalism experience / qualifications, but I could string a sentence together and was madly passionate about ‘the internet’. Still am, for that matter.
I had to learn on the job: it was very much a case of in-at-the-deep end. I remember doing a lot of reading to understand how users read online, and how best to write. A lot of the standards set by the likes of Jakob Nielsen still apply today.
Nowadays writing is a part of what I do, but it isn’t my whole job. But I still manage writers on a daily basis and wanted to share some of the rules for web writing that I’ve embraced, adapted or created.
Before we begin I should point out that Yossarian remains my foremost literary hero and rules are always there to be broken. These 23 ‘rules’ are just guidelines that you can adopt if you see fit. They work for me.
The Braindump rule
One of the best ways of writing an article is to quickly pour out your thoughts, and then to finesse the finer points once you have a structure for your post. That’s how I’m writing this one: I’ve written out the rules and am now filling in the detail.
The Write The Opening Paragraph Last rule
I often start an article by writing an introduction, only to completely change it after I’ve finished the piece. Don’t labour over your opening: it will pretty much write itself once you have the bulk of the post in the bag.
WRITING & FORMATTING
The One Comma rule
This is fairly new one. Multiple-comma sentences can often be reworked to just include one comma. Keeps things nice and concise. There are all kinds of exceptions, so this one is certainly not set in stone.
The Short Sentences rule
Shorter sentences are better than longer ones. If in doubt, use a full stop and move on. That is all.
The Lo-fi Punctuation rule
This follows on from the last rule. Econsultancy is in the business of sharing guidance and ideas and our best practice research needs to be digestible for it to sink in and make a difference to the reader. Excessive punctuation suggests that sentences might be overly-long and complicated, when they need to be to the point and simple.
The Five-Line Paragraphs Might Be One Line Too Many rule
When I see a page with numerous 15-line unformatted paragraphs my right hand starts to twitch. I subconsciously think about hitting the ‘back’ button. This isn’t about my inability to read a dense paragraph, it is about the writer making it easy for the reader. Aesthetics are so important online: first impressions really matter. Try to break up your articles into bite-sized chunks. Avoid multi-idea sentences and paragraphs.
The Wiggly Left Margin rule
Some articles need to be longer than others. Pay attention to the formatting of these posts. A long article with all paragraphs lined up neatly, flush to the left margin, is going to be more of a challenge to read than one all broken up. Here’s what you can use to help mess things up a bit, to keep the reader’s eye interested: indents, bullet points, quotes, numbered lists, pictures and videos.
The Sub-Headers FTW rule
Again, these help break up the page and sort your page content into easily-digestible chunks and are great for readers who skim your page before tuning in properly. This article obviously contains 23 of them, which should hopefully help make it more readable.
The Bold As Highlighting Rule
I use bold to highlight certain phrases / words / sentences, particularly in longer articles. It’s about identifying some of the key takeaways, rather than about being rubbish at making my points stand out. It’s not about shouting either: bold is not the bastard child of CAPS LOCK. It just helps readers to make sense of a page when skim reading it, and provides a neat anchor for the eye.
The Awesome Adjectives In Headlines rule
Headlines that include awesome adjectives tend to attract a lot more interest / clicks / retweets / links than those that avoid them. For example, ’16 bitchin shortcuts and commands for Twitter’ beats ’16 shortcuts and commands for Twitter’. Adjectives can be highly persuasive. Try to incorporate them into your headlines.
The Look Before You Leap Into That Headline rule
Any self-respecting writer will check out Google before deciding on a headline. What do you want to rank well for? What does the competition look like? What’s the search volume looking like for the query you’re aiming to reflect? How can you stand out from the noisy crowd?
The Keyword Phrases rule
I optimise my headlines around keyphrases, rather than individual keywords. Front load keyphrases for maximum impact.
The One Line Headlines rule
I tend to use maybe six to eight words in a headline, to try to keep it on a single line. Nothing is worse than overdoing it by one word, which appears as an ‘orphan’ on the second line. This is mainly for aesthetic reasons, but think about retweets too (you want to leave 30-40 characters of extra space for the tweeter to add a comment).
The Change Your Headline Once For SEO Uplift rule
This is a new one that I’ll be experimenting with on a new WordPress blog. After saving a post as a draft I can change the headline without changing the URL. So it’s possible to write a long keyword-rich headline to start off with, only to chop it down after you’ve saved or published the post. Keyword spamming in the URL structure is not cool, but removing ‘Google’ from a ‘Google Adsense’ headline (to leave the ‘Google’ in the URL) seems perfectly acceptable to me.
TONE & VOICE
The Plain English rule
Avoid jargon. Say what you see. Don’t dress things up too much.
The Conversational Tone rule
Not so much a rule as an affliction. I basically write as I think / talk. I think that’s ok for blogs, and maybe ok full stop.
The Humour rule
Sometimes it may not be appropriate, but a little light humour can work wonders, especially when dealing with seemingly dry subject matter.
The Personality rule
It is essential to define your own voice and to allow the reader to get to know you a little bit. It’s a noisy world out there and I prefer to read articles with a bit of verve, rather than straight-down-the-middle news reporting. Try to stand out from the crowd. Dare to be different. Show a little leg. Refer to Yossarian now and again. Whatever it takes…
The Death To PRspeak rule
When digesting a technology press release the first thing you do is strip out all of the bullshit. The very last thing you want to do as a writer is to describe a company as ‘world-leading’. Leave that to the PRs.
WRAPPING IT UP
The Check Yo Facts rule
I’ll often write an article quickly, without worrying too much about the fine print. But before publishing it is wise to tune into the specifics, and to make sure what you’re saying is accurate. Sounds obvious, I know, but it is hugely important.
The Am I A Dickhead? rule
This follows on from the above fact-checking rule, but also extends to the copy on the page (not just typos / grammar issues, but formatting too). After publishing I self-edit my posts probably five or six times on average. That’s how many mistakes I’ll find. Spellchecker is never enough, folks. The law of irony means that I’ll have no doubt left at least one error in this post…
The Internal Link rule
I try to add at least one internal link per article, and often write articles simply to support other pages on our website. Don’t miss the chance to push readers towards other interesting content. Keep an eye open for linking opportunities before you hit the publish button.
The Invite Feedback rule
I tend to finish articles on a ‘What did I miss?’ or ‘What do you think?’ question, to encourage comments.
So, with that in mind, what do you think? What works for you?
[Image by dbdrobot via Flickr. Various rights reserved.]