For very short passages, technical writing tips are great. Keep words simple, sentences short, and use signposts in your writing.
But for longer copy, you have to do more than that.
Your writing has to make an impression, convince someone of something, and then, ideally, get the reader to do what they might not otherwise do.
So how can you do that?
There are many books and countless blog posts written on this topic. Sorting the useful tips from the noise is not easy.
At a very high level, though, writing online copy requires two approaches which may seem contradictory, but can actually help you deliver lively, yet relevant, online copy.
First, write for an audience
To write persuasive and compelling copy, it helps first to think about the people you are writing for.
- What do they care about?
- What is on their mind?
- What problem are they trying to solve right now?
- What can they accomplish by reading your writing?
Notice that doing this is not the same thing as keeping your words simple and your sentences short.
Writing for an audience means stepping back from your writing tools, assembling a logical structure, and checking, constantly, that you are writing something which your intended audience values.
Focusing on your audience offers three main benefits.
1. It will help you de-clutter your copy
When you have a clear idea of what you are writing and who you are writing for, you will feel confident to remove the ‘business speak’ which clutters writing and confuses readers.
Econsultancy has a list of banned words including ‘leverage’, ‘synergies’, and ‘learnings’.
Using these during a corporate meeting might seem normal nowadays, but you would never use them elsewhere, so they shouldn’t clutter your writing either.
2. You will grab your reader’s attention
When you prioritize your writing by featuring items which people are already interested in rather than what you want to say, readers will naturally be attracted to it.
According to numerous research papers, individuals pay close attention to and focus on things which they deem to be interesting.
3. You will keep your reader’s attention
Your readers are faced with the same distractions we all face: emails, messaging apps, notifications, even phone calls.
The competition to keep ahold of your reader’s attention is almost overwhelming to consider.
But if you write about something which the reader thinks and cares about, your writing can transcend these distractions and capture the reader in a virtual bubble, of sorts.
This really does happen. NPR, a radio network in the USA, has even come up with a term for when this happens, ‘driveway moments.’
These are times when a programme is so compelling that listeners stay in their car even after they have reached home to hear the end.
But you’re not done yet. Writing which only considers its audience can end up sounding like a essay written for a school assignment.
Yes, it will cover all the right points, but it will be lifeless. And lifeless writing loses readers.
This is where the paradox lies. In order to make your writing interesting, you have to forget pleasing your readers and write for yourself.
…then write for yourself
Writing for yourself means putting words down as they come into your head. Writing as you speak and think.
Somehow, this seems wrong. We are meant to write in order to attract and keep the audience’s attention. How will writing in our own voice accomplish that?
I will address this apparent contradiction at the end, but first have a look at the benefits you get from just writing for yourself.
1. Your writing will flow more naturally
If you bind yourself to writing only for someone else, then you will simply find it harder to write.
Writing is much easier when the only filter you use when deciding what to say is your own preference, not what you imagine someone else’s to be.
2. Your writing will sound more human
Back to the point about removing clutter. If you write in a way that makes sense to you, then you will naturally remove the words which make you sound like a corporate-speak robot.
Words and phrases such as mission-critical, touch base, and going forward (yes, all banned from this blog as well) never appear naturally when speaking with someone.
Writing for yourself will keep them out of your copy as well.
3. You will break rules and catch people off guard
The most important reason to write for yourself is that it makes your writing more interesting.
Letting your own cray-cray self into your writing captures attention because you, naturally, do not think or speak like anyone else.
So if you can deliver your own personal quirks through your writing, you will stand out from the crowd and be interesting.
Resolving the paradox
William Zinsser, in his influential work On Writing Well, discusses these two opposing approaches to writing.
He says that trying to do both seems like a paradox but explains that writing for an audience and writing for yourself are two separate tasks which you can do on the same passage.
One, writing for the audience, he calls ‘craft’ and the other, writing for yourself, he calls ‘attitude.’
When you are thinking of what you are going to say, you are practicing the ‘craft’ of writing and you should think of your audience.
When you thinking of how you are going to say it, you need to inject your own personality, your own ‘attitude’, and you need to think of yourself.
It’s easier said than done. Most, if not all, writers struggle with these opposing constraints.
Yet in order to capture and keep an audience, we must use both approaches when writing.
So how can a writer manage the paradox?
Every writer does it in their own way, but I’ve found it useful to:
- Think what you want to say and who you want to say it to.
- Put together an outline which covers your main points.
- With your outline in view, write a draft in your personal voice.
It takes practice, but allowing yourself to write in your own voice is liberating and will produce more interesting copy.
And managing this apparent paradox also makes writing online copy much easier, even enjoyable at times!