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The Web is All About The Writing

Blog writing tips and articlesReading “7 Things You Need to Know about SEO in 2014” from Compete Pulse, I was fascinating to read that “size matters:”

Most blog posts range between 400 and 600 words, but the ideal length for highest ranking is actually around 1,500.

Many still believe that a successful website is one that offers the information the customer needs and nothing more. Or that the ideal post length should be short, 200-450 words.

It’s not. It’s about the words. It’s about the words it takes to make your point and answer the question.

In spite of my 2007 article, “Blogging Is About Writing,” on Darren Rowse’s Problogger, I still hear that blogging isn’t about writing. Learning how to write for the web isn’t as important as learning HTML, PHP, WordPress, SEO, web analytics, JavaScript, and serious coding.

After four years researching and fighting for a Writing for the Web course at Clark College and other schools around the globe, the first class was held this past Spring with good success, and push back from the students who believed that designing and developing for the web had nothing to do with learning how to write on the web.

It’s time to revisit this discussion and explain that blogging and web publishing, from the perspective of the designer and developer to the business owner, is one of the most critical aspects of our industry, and a skill that needs to rise to the top of your skill set and resume. If you can’t write in today’s web world, you are lost and losing out.

Let’s look at all we do on the web and how it relates to the written word.

Email

Example of Google Gmail organization, image by Lorelle VanFossen.Email is our communication method of choice for every time of business. Sitting in a client’s office yesterday, a request was made to fax legal papers. She turned to me and asked, “Does WordPress do faxes?” I laughed. “No one does faxes any more. We scan and email.”

In 2013 there were nearly 3.9 billion email accounts and 247 billion emails sent every day, 122,500,453,020 every hour. Sure, we spend time on the phone, use traditional mail, and rarely fax, but the majority of business communication is done via email.

Studies report that email is about 40 times better at acquiring new customers than Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels with conversion rates three times higher than social media.

Social media may rule your world, but the world still trusts email for their correspondence including marketing emails, newsletters, customer support, and business interaction.

Email is still so powerful and prevalent compared to interactions with websites, social media, and texting, there are classes, training, workshops, and whole websites dedicated to teaching you how to write the proper email.

Here are some examples of articles from top media sites on the topic recently:

Social Media

Whether you are a business person, designer, or developer, you will use social media to promote your wares, share your thoughts, brag, and communicate.

Writing for social media is different from traditional forms of writing. On Twitter, you are restricted to 140 characters, mini haiku style. Facebook, Google+, and others thrive on a large visual to reinforce the points or replace the words. Reddit thrives on the controversial and debatable. Tumblr and Stumble Upon relies upon the shared not the original.

Each social media platform has their own style and guide for format, presentation, phrasing, and influence. Crafting a well-formed social media post can be as challenging and time consuming as writing a blog post. Some become experts only in Facebook or Twitter and have trouble when they cross the threshold between the two. Highly visual folks adore Google+ and “got it” long before anyone else, while Facebook folks still haven’t figured it out.

While most corporations have email writing guides, even small businesses are creating social media policies to guide their employees through the process of writing and publishing across social media platforms, and how to represent themselves and their employers fairly and legally.

Learning to write for social media means learning the styles of each platform.

Coding, Hacking, Programming

The process of coding, hacking, programming, designing, and developing for the web involves writing – and not just code.

If you have ever spent hours trying to find an error in your code to realize that it was a missed semi-colon, comma, or quote mark, you know that writing matters to code. If you can learn how to use punctuational in code, you can learn how to use it in a sentence.

Inline documentation is the instructions found within the code, helping those using the code understand how to use it and how to change it if necessary. Some of the best inline documentation I’ve found comes from within WordPress core, Themes, and Plugins.

In Smashing Magazine, WordPress contributor Siobhan McKeown used the following coding example for inline documentation:

Inline Documentation example from Siobhan MKeown Smashing Magazine.

In my experience, the quality of documentation in WordPress plugins and themes varies widely. From poorly documented plugins with one-line readmes to products with user guides, developer APIs and in-depth screencasts, you’ll find every type of documentation in the WordPress ecosystem. Many plugins and themes are built by developers who don’t have the time to write documentation or don’t have the money to pay a technical writer.

Even more reason why developers and programmers need to learn how to write, and write well. It’s more than a need, it’s a must. Good inline documentation can make or break the product.

As Siobhan’s article explained, developers and designers also have to write documentation, explanations on how to use their product or service. Many professionals hire technical writers to create the tutorials and documentations, but there is nothing like hearing directly from the ones who wrote the code.

Developing the WordPress Codex, it nearly took bribery to get developers to contribute content to the online manual for WordPress users. Even today with the various official WordPress Handbooks, the best documentation is written with the cooperation of developers and those who wrote the code. Make it easy for them and your business by learning how to write documentation.

At the very least, you will be called upon to write documentation that explains to others how to write documentation for your project. I kid you not.

Search Engines

When you want to find information, what do you do?

Type. You use words to start the hunt. Even the visual folks start with the words. They may turn to Google Images or YouTube to find their answers, but it starts with the words.

Search engines know this, so they’ve worked hard to honor the questions we ask. We used to have to write in “oil change.” Today we can type in “how to change the oil” and get better answers to our search.

Web publishers, writers, and content generators understand this, so we write for the search engines, to get found by those searching.

In a controversial piece, “Stop Writing for People, Start Writing for Search Engines,” AJ Kohn wrote:

The goal of search engine algorithms is to emulate the human evaluation of a site or page. This is not an easy task. In fact, it’s a really difficult task. Think of all the things that you tap into when you evaluate a new website. The amount of analysis that goes on in just a few seconds is astounding.

The thing to remember is that search engines want to be a proxy for human evaluation. They’re trying to be … human. Don’t lose sight of this.

Part of Google’s search algorithm is to emulate the human, to interpret a site with human values, sense, and perspective – judgement. To answer the question, “Is this the information I was seeking?”

We often don’t know what we are looking for when we hit the search box. I spent three years looking for code or a WordPress Plugin to randomly highlight a past post as a post. I searched for blast from the past, history, past posts, historical post, old post, revive, and a variety of related words. I finally found what I wanted by accident, while searching for something else. The Italian author of the “Archivist WordPress Plugin” didn’t speak English well, and his documentation on the Plugin in broken English included none of the words I used to search. Finding the words is critical, so is writing the words people will use to search for your content, especially with WordPress Plugins as they serve specific purposes that need to be identified in all their synonyms.

Writing for search engines begins with understanding who and what you are writing for. Search engines now index Google+, Twitter, and other social platforms. When you write there, you are also writing for search engines.

Blogging the Bits

No matter what you do on the web, you will need a website. Whether or not it is a blog, content management system, or static site, you will use words.

The most important words to craft are found on the About page, telling the world who you are, what you do, why you do it, and what you are doing with this website. It sets expectations, guidelines, and the play field for the reader and the author.

The next most important words are found in the site’s title and tagline, typically found in the masthead (header) of every site. The words are a promise of what is to come, carefully planned and chosen.

Next is the core content, the articles, posts, the words that support your site’s title, About page, and purpose. It’s the stuff that brings people in the door.

Writing for the web on a website means leaving behind many traditional writing techniques and styles. While the traditional inverted pyramid newspaper style is a good starting point, as is learning to write an influential editorial, writing for the web means writing shorter paragraphs, using headings as subtitles, using nouns and synonyms more than pronouns, and incorporating heavy visuals and images, video, and links into your content.

It also means learning some basic HTML code.

Want comments? Want interaction on your site? Guess what? Readers have to learn how to write on the web as well. It is an art and skill to learn how to assess and respond to comments.

Learning to write for the web also includes understanding how to structure, organize, and manage content on a website. It means studying not just writing, SEO, and HTML but User Experience (UX), Web Standards for Accessibility (national and international laws), and learning about readability and responsive design practices.

Writing for the web is about influencing the reader to calls-to-action, making them click and go to places you recommend or set as a goal destination such as subscribing to the site, filling out a form, or buying something.

Writing for the web is about links, connecting the dots within a website and beyond to related and relevant information.

Writing for the web is about entertainment, stimulating the mind, calming the spirit, and stimulating conversations.

Writing for the web is about building relationships with readers, your fans. It’s about helping others. It’s about being there when no one else is to answer their questions and give them the information they need to take the next step in their lives.

Writing for the web is about changing the world, one reader at a time.

Learn to write well.

Learn to write better.


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12 Comments

  1. Hardeep Asrani
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you. That’s why I love books (starting this week).

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      LOL! Not sure what you mean, but the idea of you starting to love books this week is cute. Thanks!

  2. Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post, Lorelle. Chock full of helpful info.

    In my programming days, I wish folks appreciated the value of great inline commenting as you do. I did it, whether it was valued or not. Just my nature to be precise. I’ve since steered away from technical writing (though I would have loved to add value to an organization by providing the service . . . didn’t seem the documentation jobs were there when I needed them), but you’ve caught my interest re: tailoring my writing offerings to web-based writing in particular. I do web writing, but also juggle much more at the moment. Your post might help me weed out extraneous offerings and potentially find ones I would enjoy emphasizing.

    Thanks, as always,
    Sue J. (Swimming in the Mud; Teardrop Adventures)

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      In my WordPress and writing classes, I love pointing out beautiful inline documentation. It can be a thing of beauty, especially to those who come after the initial programmer. I’ve been saved many a time by good inline documentation, and wounded by the lack thereof.

    • Posted September 10, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      If I lived in your area, I’d absolutely take one of your classes. You touch on so many topics, it’s hard not to find something useful in the information you share.

    • Posted September 10, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Thanks. I’m working on bringing these online, so stay tuned for news!

  3. Posted September 9, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Lorelle. I especially appreciated the end of your post where you talked about blogging the bits. I’ve been blogging for seven years at witnesswell.net and feel like I’m still a greenhorn.

    • Posted September 9, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      Blogging is a never ending lesson, isn’t it. Evolving and yet staying the same in many ways.

  4. Hans
    Posted September 10, 2014 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Hi, Lorelle.

    Any thoughts on how blog posts can be used to advance a lead to the stage of “opportunity” in a methodical way? At the lead stage, they’re interested in the offering, but not necessarily at the point of filling out the contact form or filling out the order form. Are there distinct messages a writer can be communicating in their posts, in order to nurture the lead?

    Thanks

    • Posted September 10, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      These are called calls-to-action, and I could write a book on all of the ways posts can influence, as can every pixel on your site.

      In order to influence action, you must have cause then effect (the action is the effect). Give people who want what you have enough reason to take action and they will.

      It’s psychology, not web design, that motivates, understanding how your particular audience responds to specific stimuli to take action. Complicated topic, so no quick answer here.

      I recommend you seriously explore what motivates you, and go deep. An ad in a newspaper doesn’t motivate you, nor does a button to click, unless you want it in the first place or realize this answers a need you thought of previously but needed the ad to motivate. Unless people want what you have, nothing you do will motivate them, so go after those who want what you have to offer and consider how you are influenced to take action, and create that on your site. Make sense?

  5. Posted September 15, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful insights as always, Lorelle. Re “size matters”; I’ve got to start writing longer pieces. I tend to write long naturally, but I find that I hold myself back when blogging. I feel guilty when I go over 1,000 words.

    This is exactly the information I need to make my inner editor shut up. Thank you. 🙂


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