Many metaphors have been offered up to describe or explain the Internet, but calling it “an ocean of words” is as accurate as any other. In 1998 the first Google index counted 26 million pages, by 2000 it had reached the billion mark and by 2002 it had more than tripled again to over 3 billion. In July 2008 the company’s Web Search Infrastructure Team announced that it had counted 1 trillion unique URLs on the web at once. At an average 1000 words per page, that means the web contains an astonishing 1 quadrillion words. That’s 15 zero’s.
Obviously, writing for publication on the Internet and standing out from all the rest of the verbiage presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Yet web professionals know from the ever-improving metrics and analytics that certain articles and specific kinds of writing do, in fact, perform better at their assigned tasks.
And make no mistake – writing for publication means setting (and hitting) targets, not crafting a follow-up to The Great Gatsby or concocting clever rhymes. In fact, fiction and poetry together account for only some 15% of web writing, which means the overwhelming majority of articles in cyberspace are non-fiction, imparting knowledge to educate the world.
Intentions and aims of writing for publication
There are many reasons to write for publication, and the reader can be served well no matter what your motivations. You may want to “get your name out there,” or that of your company, for increased exposure. You may wish to establish yourself or your firm as the leading expert in a certain field.
You can easily load up your own domains with scores of great articles, injecting them with the authority of your knowledge of your vertical. The positive side of this is the creation and positioning of your own site as the informational go-to resource for your industry. The risk is that since you are writing for your own site, no matter how good the information is people may wonder if it is self serving, and you could be perceived as essentially “blowing your own horn.”
Another good option is placing an article on a popular blog, or in an e-zine that has attained a certain level of respect within a certain industry, or even in a popular print magazine. This third-party publishing can dramatically boost your perceived authority. You want to avoid appearing as a self-promoting windbag, and one way to do that is to have other sites and publications promote you instead.
Conversely, you will want to avoid certain venues, as well, to safeguard your reputation. Investigate the various “post your article” sites and avoid the ones that do not have excellent content up front, as people will generally not waste much time looking for something good on a mediocre site. For “good” content they will likely gravitate to sites they see as having “good” information.
How to stand out from the crowd of content
The overarching goal for writing web content is to be informative, entertaining, task-oriented, clear – and above all, useful to the demographic. Rankings in the search engines are a by-product of good, focused content, and should not be the goal. Frankly, it is entirely possible to serve a niche audience, and do it quite effectively with a high level of satisfaction, without setting any ranking records. But typically when you write an authoritative article full of information useful to your demographic, people will naturally cite it as good and link to it, thus helping your article move up the natural listings. Consistently write helpful, informative articles, and the effects of these citations will not just add up, they will multiply. But, again, this happens if your focus and goal is to reach and affect a target group, small or large, with well-written, concise and usable information.
Most people think of fiction when they hear the term “creative writing,” but writers know very well that writing for publication on non-fiction topics requires tremendous creativity. You do not simply “do research” in preparation for writing an article. Rather, you immerse yourself in the subject, study it from all possible angles, take it apart to understand how it truly works, then put it back together again and explain it to others in your own, unique way. The first step (of many) in learning to write content that reads well is “owning the topic” – knowing the subject inside and out. There is no other way to write with authority than to have, in fact, that authority.
Reaching the reader
Just as important as knowing the subject matter is knowing your audience. Not only do you have to understand the target reader’s point of view, of course, but you also need to speak in a common vocabulary. Equally as important as the content is the tone in which it is presented. A motivated reader, eager to learn, does not respond particularly well to condescension, and certainly does not want to be “talked at” or scolded.
In addition to speaking in their vocabulary, you have to choose the words that will motivate them to the goal of the article. Want them to walk away with knowledge that will help them? Choose language that will intrigue them to read more, and word your concepts so their brains soak them up like a sponge. Want them to buy something? Choose words and language that will elicit the emotional buying response. If you want to accomplish your goal, you not only have to use language they will understand, you also have to use language they will connect to.
In a sense, the reader should feel that you are working with them, approaching the material together. This is one of the most powerful ways to get the reader “invested” in the article and lead them, without seeming to, toward any possible call to action you might have at the conclusion.
You will find that you need to write various articles for various purposes, and although you may develop an identifiable style, on a practical level your writing will be meant to accomplish different things at different times. If you are writing to entertain, then keep it light and fun, and don’t lecture. If you are writing to educate, don’t bother with a “Sunday magazine feature” story introduction, but get right to the lessons. However, whether it’s for fun or for some other goal, being informative is not a side effect or a bonus – it is the very foundation of your writing.
The ultimate aims of publishing your writing
With the information you impart, you are seeking to change what readers think or how they perceive something. For the reader, it should be a journey, a process of discovery that proceeds deliberately and convincingly. Columbus did not make any side trips on the way to the New World, and you must avoid the temptation to digress, embellish or confuse matters. Do not pile on words, especially of the “10¢ variety,” in an attempt to impress (or increase arbitrary word count). Persuasive writing is lean without being mean, vigorous without being aggressive, concise without being dry and informative without being a mere list of factoids.
Yes, there is a lot to crafting a persuasive piece of writing for publication. It is both art and craft, requiring both creativity and skill. Every word must earn its place, do its job and contribute to the overall effect and meaning, or it should be deleted. If you can say a lot with a little, do so. Vigorous writing is concise. If you have done your best and still have a long article, just ensure the reader comes away with copious amounts of usable information.
Read and consider all feedback you get on your writing, as the only definition of success that counts is the reader reaction. The more you write, the better you will become, if you pay attention to what your audiences are telling you. Writing is a process, not a product, and is a tool for you as regards your business endeavors.
A note to non-writers
Even if you don’t write yourself, you should know how to assess writers who are working for you, since their output will represent you and your firm to the world. In fact, in this day and age, work-for-hire arrangements may result in your putting your name on an article you paid someone to write. This makes quality control even more important.
Next week we’ll be releasing Part Two of the series –Writing For Search Engines.