Archive for the 'Writing' Category

On writing and editing for the web

May 1, 2012

I wanted to share this very useful post from the Econsultancy blog on writing and editing for the web – 20 things the author has learned from writing 2,000 blog posts. Some of the early tips focus on marketing blogs but most are applicable to all topics. One of my favourites:

There are thousands of marketing blogs out there, and lots of them are just writing the same articles, which are often straight write ups of the same press releases which reached my inbox.

This is not to say there’s no value in press releases, or that we never just write about a survey or a piece of news we’ve seen, as these posts can be useful sometimes.

However, the best content, and that which is most popular on the blog, and keeps traffic coming in long after being published, is that which is original.


#MagNet11: The Yahoo guide to effective web writing (plus my two cents)

June 13, 2011

On Wednesday at MagNet Chris Barr, senior editorial director at Yahoo, gave a presentation on web writing. I wasn’t able to make it but my friend Jaclyn Law, a freelance writer and editor, was there and shared her notes with me. Looks like it was a good talk but I do disagree with some of the points so I’ve added comments in square brackets – please add your own in the comments, and Chris, I apologize if I misunderstood any of your points. Thanks, Jaclyn!


– Web is not the same as paper. 79% scan rather than read
– Reading on screen is 25% slower than reading paper
– Computer screens have about 10% the resolution of paper [Note that this is changing fast – the iPhone 4 screen is very high resolution. And not all paper is high resolution – eg documents printed on home printers.]

The medium is the message – write accordingly. [I would take this further than Barr did. The way you write sends a message, too. His tips below will make for effective web service but certainly don’t suit every register of writing. Your job as a writer and editor is to keep in mind your audience, your brand and your product – and why readers are reading on your site – and tailor Barr’s tips for those considerations.]

– Shape your text for online reading – modify writing to get message across
– Get to the point – put important info up front where readers can find quickly
– Make text scannable – arrange content so easy to scan for keywords and phrases
– Write for the world

How people read online
– Eyetracking studies show readers skim pages, browing for relevant words, info
– Scanning generally follows an F pattern
– Yahoo Usability Lab calls pattern a triangle

What is “voice”?
– Expression of your company/site through images, graphics, typeface, colours, content selection, words
– Effective voice makes people feel at home through words and pictures
e.g., globe vs sun; bank – UI, word choice, images to identify with; see

Writing and editing for online reading means:
– Organizing your story and writing headlines to make story more readable (and skimmable)

– Front-load most important info in first paragraph/above the fold. you have 3-7 seconds to hook readers. Don’t bury the lead. [This is important. In print, you have other ways to draw in the reader and you know they’ll flip past pull quotes, images, etc. With web they’ll just click away if you don’t attract them.]

– Write brief, keyword-loaded headings [I would add intriguing. See Glamour’s blogs for good examples of web-friendly headings that aren’t boring. Headlines need to be both keyword-rich/SEO-friendly and clickable. Always ask yourself: would I click on this?]

– Limit stories to about 300 words per page… unless you have a sound reason for going longer. That length keeps copy concise, focuses story on one main topic, and helps SEO. [Obviously this advice depends very much on your content and audience.]

– Organize info into compact (2- to 3-sentence) paragraphs or bulleted lists, one idea per chunk. [When repurposing print stories, consider breaking up longer paragraphs for ease of online reading.]

– Give visitors a next step and actionable takeaways (what can they do about this topic?). Never leave readers at a dead end, with no links or to-dos. [The end of a story is a fantastic place to put related links, even if you have to do them manually as part of your main body.]

Your headline is one of the most important pieces of copy on the page, especially on the web.

– Present accurate, complete and concise info about the story
– Help users filter stories to reach what they want, because of how people read now – motivates people to click
– Reflect voice and standards of your publication

Headline can also guide writing rest of story. You should be able to summarize your story in 5 or 6 words; if you can’t, your piece may lack focus.

Another test: if you can read nothing but headlines and subheadlines, do you understand the story? If you can understand narrative, you’ve done a good job of editing it. [Again, depends on the type of story.]

Print headlines don’t always work online. [Print headlines almost never work online. It’s a different art. Again, always ask yourself if you would click on your headline *in isolation*. Pretend you’re a reader who doesn’t know what the story is about.]

Headlines appear in many places – story title, titles of page (top browser bar), bookmark, name of the tab, related links, subject of comments, search engine results page.

Writing headlines
Headlines (and other headings) are some of the most-read words on the page. So use the most relevant words in headings, and make sure those words are correct in spelling and in fact.

Think clarity first, cleverness second.

Try subject-verb-object structure to put actor and action right up front.

Use concrete keywords, like proper nouns. What would readers search for? Try typing headline into a search box. Has someone used it?

Favour strong, interesting verbs; simple present tense and active voice. [I think Barr is – not unlike many, many people – misusing the term “active voice” here. What he really means is clear and concise – simple verb forms rather than compound. Passive voice, in fact, is especially appropriate if it’s what people are searching for in a keyword phrase. For more on the passive voice fallacy see Language Log’s excellent explanation of the passive in English and multiple posts discussing passive voice.]

– Call out what’s important in the story. Why should people read?
– Make sure headline can stand alone.
– Stay under 65 characters [Not always necessary but Google SERPs show 65 characters in a title. Some fancier CMSs will let you choose multiple titles for multiple situations – eg one for Google, one for social, different ones for different areas of your site.]
– Remember headline may show up in newsfeeds, mobile browsers, etc.
– Make sure voice is appropriate for the story and the site.

SEO and linking
– SEO is a set of strategies for making your page easier to find.
– When you seed your page with words people are searching for, you’re more likely to make a connection.
– High search rank (ideally top 10) means more people likely to find.

Search engines crawl the whole page, but give particular weight to:
– page title
– headline
– other bold headings + subheadings
– links
– bulleted and numbered lists
– introduction and conclusion

Seed keywords in those spots, and search engines will like your page. [This is a simplification. I prefer to think of it as explaining to Google what your story is about. “Seeding keywords” is an apt description but keep in mind these keywords need to be relevant to and descriptive of the topic of the story.]

How to select keywords
– Make list of possible keywords. If you were looking, what words would you enter?
Test a few keywords:

Repeat keywords.

To add keywords, select 3 to 5 of longer keywords and seed exact phrases into headline, subheadline, first and last graph.

Try to repeat each keyword two to four times in 300-word story.

But you don’t want your text to sound artificial or so repetitive it’s ridiculous.

[Also note that Barr is using the word “keyword” but that you’re highly unlikely to rank a story on a single word. Better to think of “keyword phrases” and seed those.]

Links are like votes – when you link to a site, you endorse it in the eyes of search engines. [Note that this is a concept that Google invented and what made them top of the search engines.]

But they need to be good links. If you link to a less relevant site, the search engine may ding your page. You don’t get extra credit for linking to lots of pages.

Aim for 3 relevant links to relevant pages (to your site or others), on the same or a similar topic.  Use keywords in link text.

[Also: do your best to get links back to your page and site using relevant keywords. If you use a source with a website, ask them to link to your story. If you’re a freelance writer with a site, link to the story. Etc.]

More tips: word choice
If you have a broad, international audience, avoid unnecessary jargon and buzzwords, clichés, slang, references specific to one group, region or culture.

Make your pieces sociable

Add FB “like” or “share” button to every article.
Have a FB fan page, and “curate” it
Age of identity – people willingly put lots of personal info online. Mass personalization is going to continue.
Said not to worry about Twitter for now – says it’s too techy for most people, teens not interested in it, users tend to be older (compared to FB).

[As you might guess I disagree with the Twitter comment. Twitter has a much lower penetration than Facebook but it’s the power web users that are on it – and those are the ones who are more likely to have blogs, sites etc. and link to you, and to share stories with others. Also, now that half of Canadians are on Facebook, I don’t think users are “younger”. Besides, why do we care about the ages of social media users except where it’s relevant to our publications and works?]

Newsletter subject lines, revisited

November 4, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about clickable newsletter subject lines and gave examples of what it takes to get me to open a newsletter (not much, in reality, but your regular readers will be a tougher audience). But today I want to step back and take a broader look at newsletters.

I’ve already discussed why I think every site should have them, no matter how small-scale – there’s no better way to create a connection with your readers than to create a relationship with them through their inbox. (Hardcore RSS users might disagree, but they’re still a minority for most sites.) And ideally, that’s why your newsletters exist – your site’s readers feel connected with the site and are impelled to sign up so they don’t miss anything that happens.

There are three ways to measure success with newsletters. The first is the size of your active list – the number of people who are actually receiving your messages. Every list will have a certain number of bounces (returned emails) and it’s the job of your technical team to keep the list trimmed, but you should be able to measure the number of messages that get through. The second is your open rate, or the percentage of recipients who open the message. And the third is the click-through rate, or the amount of people who not only open the message, but click through to the site as well.

The key to a good open rate is a subject line that encourages readers to click. And this is where it can get tricky – as I have said before, many sites opt for the sexy subject line, promising secrets and expert tips and sex and rock ‘n’ roll and, above all, numbered lists. What can I say – people just can’t resist them. But another option is to go for the simple, even boring: just the name of your newsletter, perhaps with a date. The same subject every time. Kim Pittaway drew my attention to one like this, from Harvard Magazine: “Editor’s Highlights: November-December 2008”. It’s not sexy at all, but for an engaged audience, it’s one that probably works well – after all, don’t you want to know what the editor of Harvard Magazine thinks are the top picks online this month?

And now, to test out’s new poll tool (and official worldwide election day, right?), the question of the day. (Do you like the skulls?)

Copy editing is an essential skill

October 24, 2008

I’ve always found it odd that in an industry where copy jobs are so often considered junior or entry-level – implying that you have to go through them to get to senior jobs – it’s more common than it should be for senior editors to have forgotten how to spell. Whether it’s laziness or haziness I’m not sure, but I’m beyond appreciative for the hard-working copy editors and fact checkers who make the magazines we read so readable.

This is one area where the web lags behind. We’re understaffed, and it’s a luxury for content to go past two pairs of eyes before it goes live. We can fix errors quickly, certainly (I love the “report typo” link on, but web copy rarely gets massaged to the degree that print copy does.

It’s a shame, but it’s a reality of our current industry. And this is why it’s so essential that web editors be copy editors, too. It reflects poorly on the magazine for the website to have badly edited content up. Ideally, it would all go through a copy editor. Realistically, the web editor has to perform both jobs.

I took copy editing at Ryerson from Bernadette Kuncevicius (it’s a wonderful class and she’s a wonderful teacher, you should take it too) and the most important lesson she taught us was that a copy editor’s job isn’t to know every rule by heart: it’s to question everything and look it up. At the very least, make sure your web editor has a copy of the dictionary and style guide so they can do so. Even better, if they need it, send them to a refresher course – your website will be all the better for it.

SEO: More on creating great titles

October 21, 2008

There’s an informative post up at Search Engine Journal on the essential criteria of effective page titles (as a reminder, these are the titles that show up on the top bar of your browser window, in your bookmarks and in the results listings in search engines). It’s worth a read, and here are a few key points:

Don’t make it too long. It will get truncated wherever it shows up, so keep it as short as possible: readers in the comments suggest 60-65 characters.

Make it unique. Google wants to know that every page is different, and the easiest way to show that is for every page on your site to have a different title. Also note that the unique part should go first as the end gets truncated not only in search results, but in tabbed browser windows.

Make it catchy. You want people to click through from search results.

Include keywords, and make sure they match the keywords in the body text.

Most CMSs these days will create titles based on your heds – if so, pay extra attention to your heds and in all cases, definitely consider rewriting the print hed when repurposing as they rarely work for web.

SEO basics
SEO: HTML titles and URLs
The 3 secrets of writing effective web heds

Writing for the web

October 20, 2008

Writing for the web can be tricky. In some ways it’s no different from any other kind of writing – talent and skill will shine through no matter what the format. But there are a lot of things to think about  when writing (and editing) for the web – such as SEO, scannability and linking – that don’t exist in other media.

The Renegade Writer Blog has rounded up some links to help you “write for the 21st century”, as they call it, with more being added in the comments. It’s a good selection of resources to help you get started.

Repurposing: What to do with sidebars

September 26, 2008

I haven’t really covered repurposing yet, with the exception of discussing print heds vs. web heds, and more will come, don’t worry. But for now, I got a question via email about what to do with sidebars when repurposing:

I’m encountering a few problems with posting sidebars from articles. Have you noticed any best practices when it comes to posting sidebars along with the original articles they appeared with? For example, are others simply opting not to post sidebars online? Linking to them from the bottom of the article? Integrating them into the content pages?

Direction has been set for me to upload features (1500-3000 words) for some of our publications. I end up breaking up the content every 500-600 words which results in six pages or more for people to click through…with the addition of sidebars the thing becomes a monster. Right now, I’m wondering if I should just add a link to the end of each article that jumps to a separate page containing the sidebar. Wanted to know how others are approaching this.

This is a really good question, and unfortunately there’s no easy answer except “all of the above.” There’s no good formula for best practices in this case – it’s the web editor’s job to look at each piece individually and decide what works best. But here are some thoughts on each option.

Cut the sidebar
It can be hard when repurposing to cut content – after all, the print editors worked hard on every word of that article, and everything’s in there for a reason. But sometimes, you need to cut. Look at the piece, look at the sidebar, and decide if it really needs to be in there or if it’s extraneous information. (After all, I’ll step up and admit that I often find sidebars distracting in print when I’m reading a story.) Sometimes, you just need to leave it out. (Cutting part of the story is a discussion for another day.)

Build the sidebar separately
If the sidebar can stand on its own, and the word count is high enough, then go for it – build it as a separate article and link the two to each other. This is especially valuable if you’re aiming for search traffic, as you can optimize each piece with different keywords.

Tack it on the end
If you don’t want to cut and you don’t want to build it separately, then you can add sidebars to the end of the article, whether that means at the bottom of the page or on their own page. This can be awkward, but it really depends on the content. Try it out and see how it works for the article you’re working on. (The question of whether you should be splitting up features at all is another one to think about.)

Integrate it
If you’ve got the time and are feeling really creative, you can try to integrate the sidebar into the story in what can end up being a complete rewrite. An example of this just came up on today (sorry for overusing my own site – please send in more examples) with an article that we were repurposing, “5 secrets for hot dates with your spouse“: I really wanted to use the sidebar, but it was very short. The editor working on the piece did a great rewrite and made each of the five points from the sidebar into a heading for larger sections repurposed from the main body of the original article.

I’m sorry I don’t have an easy answer, but I think the theories behind how to repurpose are in flux right now – more on this in future posts.

Please share your thoughts on repurposing sidebars – and any content, for that matter – in the comments.

The 3 secrets to writing effective web heds

September 15, 2008

It’s important to remember – especially when repurposing print content – that print heds and web heds (and deks, for that matter) have very different functions and should really not be thought of as the same thing, despite their sharing a name.

Print heds work in context. You see them on a page next to deks, pull quotes, copy and art. They are designed to draw the reader in, but the reader isn’t dependent on them.

Web heds, on the other hand, very often function on their own – they could very well be the only thing your reader sees before deciding whether to click and read the whole piece. They’re also weighted heavily by search engines – and appear in search listings – which gives them extra depth as compared to print heds. In fact, I often compare web heds to print cover lines rather than to heds proper.

Here are some things to keep in mind when (re)writing heds for web:

• Make it understandable. Will the reader know what the article’s about?
• Use keywords. Make the subject matter obvious to a computer (i.e., to search engines).
• Make it clickable. Think, would I click on this if I knew nothing else about the article? Does it entice me?

Unfortunately, these three “secrets” can make web heds less…artistic than print. It can be challenging to produce well-written heds that incorporate keywords and are clear and explanatory – especially when the same keywords are repeated in the dek (which will help your SEO rankings, too). But it’s worth it in exchange for the increased exposure you’ll be giving your content.

For more, check out this collection of tips on writing “magnetic headlines” from Copyblogger.

Now here’s a good use for a magazine website

September 11, 2008

Thanks to Corinna vanGerwen and Ivor Tossell for passing on this new feature on Wired: they’re blogging, from start to finish, the creation of a feature story on Charlie Kaufman, which will run in their November issue. 

Obviously anyone interested in journalism will be interested in this blog. But Tossell posed the question (on Twitter): would this kind of thing appeal to non-journalists, i.e. the general public?

Specifically? I don’t know. But in general? Yes, I personally think that any devoted magazine reader would be interested in a behind-the-scenes look at their favourite magazines. And I think this is a great use of a magazine’s blog – it’s a way to add personality to your brand and to develop community, making readers feel “in the know”. Blueprint used to do a great job of this before Martha killed it.

What do you think? Would you read this kind of content, and do you think your users would?

Multipage vs. single page articles

September 10, 2008

Mitch Joel at Twist Image has an interesting post up about his annoyance at multipage articles on websites. His annoyance stems from the fact that this practice often exists simply so that sites can increase their pageviews (and thus ad impressions) and pages per visitor.

So, why do magazine and newspaper Websites continue this terrible user experience of having to click through multiple web pages to read a 750 word article?

Is it possible that those two extra clicks of the mouse generate enough page impressions and banner ads served that it’s worth the frustration to their readers? The answer must be yes.

Guilty as charged – who doesn’t want to help out their stats, and who isn’t under pressure to increase ad impressions? Multipage content (slideshows are often an extension of this in a lot of cases) can be a good way to increase pages per visitor, and therefore demonstrate higher user engagement.

But…it isn’t just about the impressions. Michelle Evans notes in the comments that multipage articles are a good way of gauging user engagement – you can tell in your analytics software how many people clicked through to the next page. And Lorenzo says that he likes multiple pages on long articles as it gives him a sense of progression. (I’d have to agree.)

My take as a reader? Clicking through multiple pages a paragraph at a time is overkill. But for longer content, I’m happy to do it and even sometimes welcome it. And if this is what it takes for online media to make money at this stage in the game, then fine – I prefer it over a) invasive ads (strange floating popups, I’m talking to you) and b) pay walls. 

My take as a web editor? I hesitate to put up really long articles in one page. It just seems strange, like the reader will get lost. And yes, I do like to see how many people click through multiple pages in content.

What do you think?