📚 This post is part of my business blogging guide.
Want to improve the quality of your business writing?
You should. Good writing gives you the best chance of influencing and educating your customers. Do that and sales and loyalty will follow.
This post contains some of the best tips I’ve picked up over the last 20 years of writing web content.
- Think about your headline
- Write without a filter
- Help the reader with good signposting
- Write the way you speak
- Stop talking about you
- Get to the point quickly
- Stop trying to sound clever
- Give them just one thing to remember
- Listen to what your audience wants
- Finish strongly
- Bonus tips
- Let’s wrap up
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Tip 1. Think about your headline
Many more people will read your headline than will read the rest of your content, so try hard to create something that will capture readers’ attention. Check out BuzzSumo’s 2017 analysis of 100 million headlines.
If you need guidance on what makes a good headline, try CoSchedule Headline Analyzer, which will give your headline a score out of 100. This isn’t a guarantee of success – far from it – but may be helpful if your headlines are giving you headaches.
Some article writers recommend spending more time crafting a headline than writing the content that goes with it. I think that’s overdoing it – or at least it is in my line of technical content – but it’s important not to allow your headline to be an afterthought.
Note that ‘clickbait’ headlines – those of the you won’t believe what happened next variety – no longer work well on social media.
Tricks like this could mean that your content isn’t shown to people at all, so be careful about how sensational you make your headlines.
Check out my best advice for writing good headlines here:
Tip 2. Write without a filter
When you’re doing pottery, you start with a big lump of clay. No one starts with a perfect vase. The same is true for writing.
Start by writing down everything you can think of about what you want to say. This is how you create ‘the messy first draft’.
At this stage, anything goes and you shouldn’t limit yourself.
Even things that don’t seem relevant are OK to include. You thought of them for a reason, even if you aren’t conscious of that reason straight away.
Perhaps they’ll turn into something useful or otherwise help you with some other piece of writing in the future.
After the initial brain dump is done, take a little time away from the writing. Do something different: fix the shed, check the football transfer news, plan that European city break, whatever.
Then it’s time to come back and edit without mercy, chopping out all the bits that aren’t essential or relevant.
Leave only the content that’s going to be interesting to the intended reader. Everything else should hit the cutting room floor.
1. Write everything you can think of. No filter, no fear.
2. Go away for a while.
3. With fresh eyes, edit without mercy.
— John Espirian (@espirian) October 11, 2016
If you’re writing something of strategic importance to your business, bear in mind that a professional editor could do wonders for getting your text in shape.
Get a second pair of eyes on the content and ask for constructive feedback.
Tip 3. Help the reader with good signposting
Executive summaries at the beginning of many Word documents are all that many people will bother with.
Assume your reader has a short attention span and front-load your text with the key points. If the reader doesn’t get through the whole thing, at least they’ll have got the gist.
A set of high-level bullets points at the start of the document is a great way to deliver the crucial info.
Make the key facts clear and link to relevant sources of information.
Lists, subheadings and other visual devices are ways to break up walls of text, so use them to keep your readers engaged.
Tip 4. Write the way you speak
It’s vital to understand what readers want from your writing, but it’s also important to deliver your message in an authentic way.
If you aren’t one of those naturally cool people, how believable would it be if your writing were trying to sound ‘down with the kids’?
You might get lucky once or twice. But people are pretty good at spotting frauds, and you won’t be able to keep up an act for long.
I don’t try to sound cool in my writing, because that wouldn’t be authentic. I was a mental arithmetic champion at my school. Do the math 🤓
I do try to avoid sounding boring in my articles, and I always aim to introduce a bit of fun and cheekiness where I can, because that’s my natural style.
Think about your personal brand values and make sure those come out in your writing.
You have to be consistent in your tone of voice or people won’t trust what you’re saying.
The recent glut of GDPR emails has felt jarring to many readers, because of the change in the normal tone of voice.
If your normal tone is jeans and a T-shirt, don't suddenly put on a tuxedo and expect people not to notice.
👖 👕 ➡️🤵 🎩❓
— John Espirian (@espirian) May 28, 2018
My marketing pals Andrew and Pete recommend coming up with a few values that represent you and then using these consistently in every piece of content you create.
The guys go into a lot more depth about this in their Content Mavericks programme, which is available to members of their ATOMIC membership community.
You can get a good taster by watching this free video: Remarkable Content: The Movie.
Tip 5. Stop talking about you
Your friends and family might care about you (might), but your readers probably don’t. So forget talking about yourself and make your writing focused on the reader. What problems do they have that you can solve?
Check out my pen portraits post if you need help understanding who your ideal audience is.
The quicker you can drop your ego, the better.
Tip 6. Get to the point quickly
Start by telling your reader what they’re going to learn. Then get on with delivering that message.
— John Espirian (@espirian) July 27, 2017
Cut out the flabby bits and focus on the muscle – it’s all part of the merciless editing I mention in tip 2.
This doesn’t mean that your content must be short. You might have a lot to say about a topic, in which case it’s natural that some pieces of writing will be long.
I’ve found that posts on the Espirian blog that are 2000–3000 words long tend to be shared the most. Check out How long should my blog posts be?
If you’re spinning more of a narrative, it’s OK to take time to build to a crescendo. This sort of storytelling can be great for getting a point across in a memorable way. To find out more about this method, check out this article about open loops, which uses the example of the film Pulp Fiction.
I spend a lot of time writing instructions and how-to content, so storytelling isn’t high up on my agenda. And I do sometimes get a little impatient when I come across an article that tries to tell me a story when all I came for were the facts. Those are the times when I scroll down for the answers rather than reading the content.
Although storytelling isn’t my thing, I do like to use analogies and metaphors in my technical writing.
For example, I explain the concept of uploading and downloading by asking readers to imagine that the internet is like a cloud in the sky.
This can make it easier to understand that uploading means sending information from your computer (up to the sky) and downloading means receiving information to your computer (down from the sky).
I’ve recorded a #LearnPlentyIn20 video about this.
Remember that no one wants to read walls of text, so if you can break up your writing with snappy visuals, that can help you get your message across.
Tip 7. Stop trying to sound clever
Don’t allow your writing to be boastful and don’t try to score intellectual points over your readers or anyone else.
One of my guiding principles is this great quote I first heard from Ann Handley: “No one will ever complain that you’ve made things too simple to understand.”
A good measure of the readability of your text is the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score. This is measured from 0 to 100, as shown below:
|0–30||Very difficult. University/graduate level.|
|30–50||Difficult. College level.|
|60–70||Plain English. Reading age 13.|
I recommend that you aim for FRE scores of 60–70.
But how do you know what your FRE scores are?
How to view readability stats in MS Word
The quick videos below show you how to turn on readability statistics in Word so you can see how readable your text is whenever you do a spellcheck.
The readability stats include the FRE score mentioned above:
Tip 8. Give them just one thing to remember
If you throw someone a tennis ball, they’ll probably catch it. If you throw them 10 tennis balls, they might not catch any.
Trying to cram in too much in your writing can mean that readers tune out or become confused. The result is that they might not retain anything you’re trying to tell them.
Think about those awful and never-ending PowerPoint slides that are packed with all sorts of junk. Few people are going to take that all in.
It’s far better to present a single coherent idea and make everything about that.
The single idea here in this blog post is to make your writing better. Yes, I’m providing lots of separate tips, but the goal of each is the same.
Tip 9. Listen to what your audience wants
If you have an audience already, ask them what they want to read about.
Surveys, direct emails and personal conversations will help you understand what they’re interested in.
One of my favourite uses of social media is to test ideas for blog posts.
I share thoughts on Twitter and LinkedIn and see what resonates with people.
The topics that get the best reaction are added to my drafts file.
With the seed of an idea, I can then start thinking about creating something of value to my audience.
Tip 10. Finish strongly
Don’t let your writing end with a whimper.
Finish with a firm conclusion that’s well supported by everything else in the piece.
Most importantly, give the reader an action to take.
This is called the Call To Action or CTA. Without it, there’s little value in creating the content in the first instance.
Get the reader to do something after they read your content.
Perhaps they should take direct action on what they’ve learned. Or read more related content.
Or subscribe to an email list that will give them more of the same sort of helpful content.
Or buy a product that helps them sort out the problem that the content talks about. Or support a cause that’s related to the content.
These are all valid CTAs. You’ll get more value from producing content if you think in terms of what you want the reader to do at the end.
People are easily turned off by out-and-out sales pitches.
Make sure that you’re providing something of real value at every stage – that will help you avoid sounding as though you’re writing an extended advert.
People don’t want walls of text, so break up your writing with:
- lists (like this!)
There’s lots of good advice in this episode of the Good Copy, Bad Copy podcast: 50 copywriting tips to make you a better writer.
There are also some great nuggets of advice in Joanne Harris’s #TenRulesToChallenge:
1. If anyone tries to make out that there are ANY universal writing rules, beware. Most "rules" can be challenged. #TenRulesToChallenge
— Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) July 30, 2017
Let’s wrap up
There are lots of things to think about when writing content for the web or any other medium.
Almost everything I’ve recommended here is in direct service of the reader. They’re the most important person in the writing relationship.
Remember: It’s never about YOU. It’s always about THEM.
Continue the business blogging guide
This post is part of my definitive business blogging guide.
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I'm a content writer for B2B websites. I explain how products, services and processes work, to help you build trust and authority with your customers.
I also help business owners do better on LinkedIn.
My book is Content DNA.
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