With the vast increase of online content, it’s never been more important to be able to write clear, concise and compelling copy. Here are some tips for writing blog posts or web content – aimed particularly at those more used to writing legal documents!
‘Front-load’ your article: you should be spelling out at the start what the article is about, and why your audience should read it. Make the title clear, and the first paragraph should outline what the article is about – or people may not read any further. Remember that on many sites, only the title and first 1-3 lines will be visible on the landing (main) page, so you need to encourage people to click through to the full article. (This will also give your article more weight in a Google search).
Make it easy to ‘skim’: many readers online will only briefly scan text, so it’s important to make your text easy to read on screen so that they can pick up the important points easily and quickly. Use short paragraphs, subheadings and bullet points to break text up – few things are more daunting to read on screen than reams of unbroken text. If appropriate, use images to break up the writing and add visual appeal.
Keep it simple and jargon-free: it can be difficult for lawyers and other professionals to put themselves in the mindset of non-expert readers, but unless you’re actually writing a legal/technical document, you should avoid, as far as possible, jargon and unexplained technical terms. This isn’t ‘dumbing down’, it’s being reader friendly. Blogging especially is about communicating with your audience, not intimidating them with your intelligence.
Write to match the way people read: again, this can be a challenge for lawyers or technical professionals, who are used to drafting documents in such a way that the most devious of souls can’t find a loophole in them. But this isn’t how normal people read. So while it’s fine to write in a legal document, “The contractor in place (“the Contractor”) sued the Baxter and Sons Delivery Company (“Baxter”)”, in more informal reading, this sounds over-mannered and stilted. If you refer to a contractor in the first sentence, a reader will naturally assume any future reference to the contractor is to the same one unless you introduce a new one; you don’t need to spell it out.
Use hyperlinks (though not too many): readers online now expect to be able to move easily from one article to another, so if you refer to a blog post or article – your own or someone else’s – link back to the original so that the reader can visit it; you shouldn’t make your reader head off to Google to find out what you are talking about. Links should be added to the body of the text (this is easy to do in most blogging or content systems), but using too many hyperlinks can be messy and distracting, as you risk sending your reader off in so many directions they don’t come back to you. If a lot of links are necessary, consider adding a ‘for further reading’ at the end. (Handy tip: you may prefer set your hyperlinks to open in a new screen, so that you’re not sending people away from your site as they may not come back). DON’T underline words for emphasis when writing online content – readers will assume they are broken links.
BUT be careful with links! Remember the links you use reflect back on you – so you might happily link to the FSA, BBC news or HMRC, but you probably don’t want to link to www.stupidstoriesforcrazypeople.com. Also remember that directing readers to a site with a pay wall can annoy them, so it’s usually best to link to free access sites. Use specific URLs (web addresses) so that you direct people to the actual story, not to a general site – for example, if you are linking to a story on the Roll on Friday site, you need to link to the actual story (the long URL at the top of the screen when you click on the title of the story), not just the news page, as that will be updated regularly, so by the time your reader visits it, the story you were talking about has moved off the main page.
Use tags: tags are extremely useful on blogs, helping readers easily find articles on the subjects they are interested in. These may appear in a list on the front page, or a ‘tag cloud’ which shows the most popular topics. If you are starting a blog, it’s worth creating a list of common tag words in advance, so as to be consistent: if you are contributing to an existing blog, be sure you use the same tag words the site already uses. (So, for instance, you don’t want to be tagging an article ‘Bribery Act’, if all of the other authors on the site simply use ‘Bribery’, or vice versa.) Tags are also a useful way of adding weight to your pages for a Google search.
Key words and phrases: ‘Search Engine Optimization’ (SEO) can be a tricky business (and there are whole industries out there aimed at helping people maximize traffic to their blogs and websites, so I won’t pretend to be any great expert) but as a general rule, make sure you help Google and other search engines identify your article or blog correctly by using the appropriate key words, especially in your title, first paragraph, tags and labelling of links (and, if you’re feeling particularly techie, in the ‘metadata’ sections of your blog or site – which again can sound scary, but is generally very easy to do). You don’t need to go crazy – it will look weird if you do – but it really doesn’t hurt to spell out what you are writing about. It can be tempting to write a cleverly oblique title, but bear in mind that people will search Google using clear, direct terms – so they may not see your article unless you title it in the same way!
If you have any questions about how blogging can help your business, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article first appeared on www.deferolaw.com