Mark Twain said it well: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Most of us online writers are not great literary figures like Mark Twain, but the same advice applies to us. In our case, it is important to choose the right words and to organize them in the right way, in order to make it easier for our readers to understand and appreciate what we are trying to tell them.
Know Your Subject
The first, and most important, thing is to know something about the subject you are writing about. If you don’t know anything about computer programs, don’t try to write about them. If you don’t know anything about sports, music or any other subject, find something else to write about. You don’t have to have a PhD in the topic you are covering, but you should at least have a working knowledge of it and be willing to do any necessary research.
When I was an undergraduate music major, there was great merriment and shaking of heads one day in the Music Department. A woman had written a review of an orchestra concert for a local newspaper. From what she wrote, including some unintentionally comic, florid language, it was obvious that she knew nothing about classical music and had not done any kind of research. She opened herself, and her newspaper, up to a lot of ridicule. It would have been better if the paper had not reviewed the concert at all.
So it is important to know what you are writing about.
Know Who Your Readers Are
An online writer must understand the kind of reader who is being targeted. Is the reader looking for a job or researching a term paper? Is he or she looking for a review of the latest video game? Sometimes readers just want a good laugh. Others are eager for the latest celebrity news or a good gardening tip. Variations in education, culture and background should also be taken into consideration. The online writer has to know the target readership, and answer the question, “What would I want if I were the reader searching online for (fill in the blank)?”
Make Your Content Readable
If you want to target a wide readership, avoid the use of complicated sentence structures and big words. The only exception to this is an article targeted toward an audience that is educated in the subject matter being presented. If your targeted readership is the average internet user, keep things simple. Try to avoid using terminology that the reader will not understand, unless you also explain it in simple terms.
Richard Wagner was known for his extensive use of the leitmotif.
This could be made much clearer by wording it this way:
The opera composer Richard Wagner was known for his use of the short musical theme to identify people, places and ideas. This was known as the leitmotif.
It is also important to remember that some expressions and other references are not going to be understood by everybody. This is especially true if you are targeting an international audience. It is best to avoid the use of things like slang and ethnic expressions, unless you are writing humor or are targeting only a specific group. For example, a New York Italian will know what you mean when you say something gives you agita, but others might not. The Yahoo! Style Guide also gives examples of some common baseball metaphors, which would not be understood by most people outside the United States. It is best to leave these alone.
Most people who are searching online do not want to spend time scrolling through a lot of irrelevant information. They want to find what they are looking for, easily and quickly. Most of the time, they will skim your article first, before deciding whether or not to read it in more detail. You can make the reader’s task easier by making the important points in your article easy to see by someone who is quickly scanning it.
Some of the ways to do this are:
- Bolded, underlined paragraph headings
- Bulleted lists
The Yahoo! Style Guide also contains a comprehensive list of words that are often misspelled or written with incorrect punctuation or capitalization. It is a good idea to check that list often. Even those of us who are usually whizzes at spelling and punctuation can fall into error. It doesn’t hurt to give ourselves a little refresher course. For example, I learned that “all right” is correct and “alright” is not.
Our goal is to write high quality content that will actually be read by people searching on the internet. It takes some work, but it is worth the effort.
The Yahoo! Style Guide:
Research Your Audience: http://styleguide.yahoo.com/writing/identify-your-audience/research-your-audience
Define Your Voice: http://styleguide.yahoo.com/writing/define-your-voice
Word List: http://styleguide.yahoo.com/word-list