The web has spoiled us. More than ever, web users are an impatient and fickle lot. If you can’t provide value instantly, your readers are going to bounce. Readers skim, making the formatting of your post incredibly important. Of course, even though this is an intro paragraph, many readers have already skipped down to the eleven tips mentioned in the title. How many of you have read this far?
Consider the popularity of Twitter. Twitter users don’t post long, complicated sentences packed to capacity with language – like this sentence itself – using multisyllabic words and complex ideas. No, they use short sentences that tell an entire story themselves. Sentences should be short and punchy. No run-ons, no spliced sentences and as few sesquipedalian word choices as possible.
Everyone harps on grammar as essential for blog posts, but you can break the grammar rules when it suits you. Specifically, using 1-2 sentences in a paragraph is fine, and so is using fragments for emphasis.
Called the inverse pyramid style of writing, you want to load the broad base value at the top of your paragraphs. Everything that follows should be supporting information. When users skim your content, they read subheads and, if the subhead interests them, they read the first sentence of the paragraph that follows. That’s where you need to make your statement. The rest of the paragraph is just the ideas and evidence that support your conclusion.
Subheadings are the key to the success of any “Top 10 Tips” style articles. They’re also the key to success with most other styles of articles. For an experiment, copy and paste this article into a text document and remove the subheadings. It looks like a dense, hard to read mess, right? That’s what happens when you write blog posts without subheads.
Subheadings are the ultimate in compact, valuable sentences. They can serve as both outline and final takeaway. If your users trust you – as in, they don’t need your evidence to support your claims, and just take you at face value – they should be able to grasp the majority of the value of your article just from the subheads.
List-style articles are a potent tool, but they aren’t the only kind of list you should use. Web writing benefits, as mentioned extensively above, from short, valuable sentences. It’s easy to cram value into short sentences when those sentences are bullet points. Bulleted lists and numbered lists within your article help bring more value. They’re attractive to the eye and they’re almost always filled with information.
One trick you can use is to start a post with a subheading and an introductory sentence, then use a bulleted list to go over the major points you’re going to cover throughout the post. Those bullet points can become the basis for subheadings further down in the piece. Essentially, an in-post table of contents.
If your paragraphs are more than three or four sentences long, they can probably stand to be broken up. This is even more likely when the sentences included are long and pushing the limits of complexity. Try to avoid paragraphs with more then four or five sentences in them, and then only when the sentences are short.
It’s not uncommon for a blog post to use a separate paragraph for one or two sentences, just to emphasize points. It serves a practical application as well. If your users are skimming the first sentence in every paragraph, give them more paragraphs – and thus more sentences – to scan.
Links are powerful. Formatted properly, they’re bold, visible indications of other content a user might find valuable. This goes for both links on your site – content you want to promote – and off-site links you’re using as a source.
Links act as additional points for users to skim. Done correctly, some users will also click links to open in other tabs for continued reading. This keeps traffic on your site, in the case of internal links. It shows the value of your content.
External links, meanwhile, are visible sources to back up your data. Even if the user doesn’t click them, they work as banner advertising the fact that you did your research for the post.
Deep image captions are just visible image captions – not alt text – that run for 2-3 sentences. In other words, a value-packed paragraph underneath each image. This helps you make an additional point that doesn’t entirely fit in with your content, but is relevant nonetheless. It also takes advantage of the fact that users are drawn to images and look at them before reading the content around them.
For the images themselves, make sure they’re compelling and valuable. Don’t just pick stock photos that have something vaguely in common with what you’re saying. At the very least, edit them to give them more interest and value.
Bold, and to a lesser extent italics and underlines, are formatting options perfect for drawing the eye. Once again, as users skim, their eyes are drawn to anything that stands out. Bold important sentences to make them stand out. Users can’t help but read the first few words when they see something in bold.
Be careful to avoid bolding, italicizing and underlining too much text. If your whole post looks like something an insecure college student marked for later study, you’re going to push away users. Use formatting sparingly.
Pull quote is the name for a type of quote where you take a sentence from your content and set it aside in a larger font to make it stand out. It’s not done within the text; rather, it takes the place of a small image offset near your text. They are a time-honored tradition in print media, but they work just as well on the web.
As an added bit of value, you can inject a widget into your site to make your pull quotes into automatically generated tweets. This allows a user to, if they like the pull quote, click a button a tweet your article using that quote as content.
If your readers are struggling to draw value from your content, you may have an issue with font size. While the default for word processors and print media tends to be around size 12 font, increasing your web font to size 14 makes your content that much easier to read. Large type is easier on the eyes.
You can also increase the line spacing between individual lines in a paragraph. This makes it easier for a reader to move from one line to the next. This eliminates the phenomenon of users reading the same line twice because their eyes moved incorrectly.
When in doubt, skim your own articles. Give them a quit read, but don’t read every word. You’re not proofreading here, you’re skimming for value. Go through your article and read only what’s emphasized; the subheadings, the bullet lists, the bolded content, the image captions, etc. Did you grasp the majority of the value of what you had to say? If so, your article is formatted successfully. If not, you may have some more work to do.