Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.
New writer? These content writing tips for beginners can give you a leg up in sounding like a pro. But these tips are not just for rookies. I’ve been at this writing thing for a couple of decades and I keep this checklist at my elbow. I want my content to be easy to read.
One-third of U.S. adults say they “go online constantly.” And 85% of Americans say they’re online every day. Users are looking for information that solves their problems, offers solutions, or gives answers. But they don’t want to wade through complicated confusing language to get what they need.
In fact, a recent study reports that 55% of people spend fewer than 15 seconds on an online page before clicking elsewhere. When my online content is clear, I have a better chance of keeping my readers reading. Use these simple content writing tips to deliver streamlined writing like a pro.
Your opening paragraph has a single goal: get to the point right away. If you take 3 paragraphs or 3 screens to do it, then your reader will click off and won’t read the rest of your content.
Check the first word of each sentence and the first word of each paragraph. Are they the same? You’ll know when your content reads like this:
The beginning of each sentence should be different from the one before. The same word at the start of each sentence is too repetitive. The mark of a pro is variation.
But when you vary the first words of each sentence, your content reads more like you talk. For instance …
Check the words you use at the beginning of each sentence. Are they different? Variation — that’s the mark of a pro.
“Keep sentences short.” That is the first of ten clear writing principles recorded by American businessman Robert Gunning, the creator of the readability Gunning Fog Index. Fog being lack of clarity, of course. Once a sentence is 21 words or more, readers find it hard to understand. But research shows when the average sentence length is fewer than eight words long, readers understand 100% of it.
“You want to be sure you use a variety of sentence lengths to avoid boring your readers,” says writer and editor Bonnie Mills, writing in Grammar Girl. “Also make sure you don’t have more than one main point per sentence.”
Ditto for paragraphs. Or for paragraphs that are all the same length. Long paragraphs may be the norm in formal writing, like scholarly articles, business proposals, and legal documents. But online content? Not so much.
In other words, break up paragraphs. “If all of your paragraphs are long, you may lose opportunities to draw your reader in,” say our good friends at Grammarly. “When it comes to maintaining a reader’s attention, a good rule of thumb might be to avoid writing more than five or six sentences in a paragraph before finding a logical place to break.”
You may think you can fudge your way through writing by using fuzzy language, but you’ll only weaken your writing. Be ruthless about weeding out weasel words – those terms that equivocate. Weasels are vague qualifiers like generally, most, and probably. Writers use weasel words to avoid making direct statements.
Vague language means you’re uncertain about what you want to say … or you’re afraid to say it … or you want to have deniability … or you’re hoping to avoid criticism. You probably think you might somehow be relatively safe occasionally weaving in weasel words, but it’s basically just quite the opposite. Get rid of them.
While you’re at it, use your red pen to eliminate superlatives — those exaggerated expressions that overstate or embellish your writing. Replace “phenomenal,” “exciting, and “amazing” with a story, an example, a quote, or a fact that shows rather than inflates.
Replace adverbs (words ending in -ly) with a more descriptive verb. You’ll save on your word count. And your writing will be more expressive. For instance …
Jargon is insider language. It’s words or expressions used by a particular group of enthusiasts or in a profession. And while it’s tempting to try to impress a select group of readers with your linguistic prowess, those technical terms risk alienating many others. Use plain language. For example, replace fermata with hold when writing about classical music.
And while you’re at it, read through your content and clear the decks of cliches to make your writing as fresh as a daisy. Or should I say … read through your content and clear out the cliches. Your writing will be fresher and easier to read.
Conversational writing — it’s what we content writers are to strive for. Words tumble out when you talk, often in fragments or run-ons. That’s why dashes — like this — and ellipses … and parenthesis (used as an aside) are so useful.
But too many? Your content becomes choppy. Use these visual stops carefully. Mix them together with short phrases, bullet points, and white space.
You’ll capture your readers’ attention. And keep it. To the end of the piece.
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