Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Writing Online Content (Excerpt from The Social Media Gospel)

Today's (multiple) online conversations about how to write online content has prompted me to post this excerpt from my book, The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New WaysActually, this is a version of Chapter 24 edited to be more

*      *     *
A Bit of How To: Writing Online Content

Writing for the Internet is quite unlike writing for print, something I needed to learn before I could land paying gigs writing web content. Since it would be read on a screen, text had to be written for online readability. This meant content had to be brief, so readers wouldn't have to scroll down the screen. Some long-standing rules could be broken. For example, sentences could be incomplete. And, only a few words.
Paragraphs could be one sentence or one word.
This is what writing for online readability looks like.  

As for style, ponderous content just doesn't work well on websites. It's flat-out boring for blogs and e-newsletters. 

So, I quickly got into the habit of converting everything from passive to active voice. I started using more welcoming personal pronouns (e.g., our) and contractions (e.g., we're, instead of we are). I routinely stripped the words “that,” “to be,” and “in order to” from almost everything I wrote -- and everything I edited for others.

Because I’d already logged time writing short snappy magazine pieces and ad copy, my transition from print to web was relatively painless. Not so for those whose primary communication is oral (e.g., clergy) or whose style of writing is complex (e.g., theologians and academicians). 

Neither length nor heft are problems when writing for magazines or academic journals that simply post their print issues online. Length and heft become major problems when writing blog posts, e-newsletter items, or website content.

Here are some guidelines:
  • Blog posts need to be short (i.e., 300 to 500 words). If the blog post is running longer, break it up into a series if posts. 
  • E-newsletter items must be even shorter than blog posts (i.e., 25-150 words). You can get away with a bit more in both formats if some content is listed in bullet points.
  • Website modules generally needs to run 75-125 words, depending on the site's design.

Now that mobile devices have arrived on the scene, another set of best practices has emerged. Smartphones and tablets have significantly smaller screens. Content is navigated by touch, which means fingers will block content. And the content moves – scrolling up and down; pushing in and pulling out horizontally. 

To maximize reading comprehension on a mobile device: 
  • Sentences need to be short; no more than 14 words long.
  • Words need to be three or fewer syllables.
  • Paragraphs may run two sentences but making them one short sentence is more effective.
These new specs are easily accommodated by experienced digital content writers and anyone unfazed by the 140-character limits of Twitter. 

Just about everyone else needs to either get trained or be edited for online readability. ProTip: Getting edited by an online content pro is good way to get trained in this type of writing.