I have worked alongside other online writers ever since I began my freelancing career in September 2011. However, my direct involvement with their work was limited up until early 2013, when I took on a more editorial role for the ManageWP blog.
- There are lots of talented writers out there (far more than I thought in fact).
- Their chances of success are often hamstrung by technical issues relating to online writing.
Here is what I found most fascinating though — most of the issues are easily noticeable (once revealed) and simple to fix. That is good news folks. In fact, the news was good enough to galvanize me into launching a new content marketing agency (more on that in the near future). I felt that I could take such innately talented but rough-around-the-edges writers, help them to become successful bloggers and ultimately grow my business.
Whether Clear Blogging Solutions proves to be successful remains to be seen but in my opinion one thing is for certain — any aspiring blogger or freelance writer can vastly boost their chances of success by getting the basics of online writing right. And those basics are exactly what I want to cover in this post.
Two Years of Pet Peeves Distilled Into One Post
One thing I quickly learned from working in an editorial capacity for both ManageWP and Free Online Dating Advice (my authority site) was that I am really anal when it comes to certain aspects of online writing. I sweat the small stuff in terms of structure, style, formatting and punctuation more than most seem to.
But as I say to my writers, I am loathe to release myself of my often fastidious approach because I have a strong hunch that it has been a huge contributor towards my success to date.
Look at it this way: As a freelance writer your primary job is not to write for the client; your primary job is to provide a solution. If you write a generally great piece of work that requires extensive editing due to structure and formatting issues, you are not providing a solution — you are providing a problem.
I would much rather work with a good writer who provides a neat-and-tidy end product than a great writer who is happy to provide the kind of product that requires editing to fit into what is generally considered the “correct” style for online writing.
Although being a good writer is of course important (and I do cover some technical aspects of writing below), you must aim to adhere to most (if not all) of the stylistic considerations that make up the “rulebook” of online writing if you want to become a successful freelance writer.
In short: I don’t want to hire good writers, I want to hire great online writers. This post is intended to create great online writers out of good writers. It is compulsory reading for my writers and it should be for you too — whether you are pursuing a career in freelance writing or simply want to become a better blogger.
N.B.: I do not claim to be a “great” writer, nor do I consider myself impervious to errors in writing. In fact, I have been guilty of many (possibly all) of the errors below. This is about us all bettering ourselves as writers, not about me putting myself on a pedestal.
Online Writing 101: 14 Errors That Are Preventing You From Blogging Success
The following are the most common (and costly) online writing errors that I have come across in the last two years or so.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but given my relative breadth of experience in blogging (some ~1,000 blog posts published across ~100 blogs), I do feel that it makes up a healthy percentage of the most grievous errors that online writers can make.
1. Inconsistent Header Capitalization
There are three main styles of capitalization used online:
- Sentence case (e.g. Three common causes of the common cold)
- Title case (e.g. Three Common Causes of the Common Cold)
- All uppercase (e.g. THREE COMMON CAUSES OF THE COMMON COLD)
You can pick whichever one you like, although personally I always use title case — I think it looks the best by a distance. (If you are concerned with which words should and shouldn’t be capitalized, just use this awesome Convert to Title Case tool developed by Tuts+.)
That aside, my main point is this: pick a style and stick with it. While you can use one style of capitalization for headers and another for sub-headers, make sure that they consistently remain the same across all articles on a website.
If you are working for a client, check out which form they are using and adhere to it. That’s the kind of attention to detail that really makes you stick out.
2. Using “Clever” Headlines
When it comes to online writing, creativity isn’t dead, but it has its place. With that in mind, when it comes to writing headlines, one must put function before form (tweet this).
The job of a headline is to “sell” the article. Although that should be done in a compelling and creative fashion, that creativity must be exercised within the bounds of the headline’s primary job. Ambiguity has no place in headline writing.
Imagine for example that you were writing an article on how to take the perfect free kick in soccer. Consider this headline:
How to Bend It Like Beckham
If you don’t know who David Beckham is then this headline will mean nothing to you. If you do know who David Beckham is but are unfamiliar with the phrase “Bend it like Beckham” then the headline will also mean nothing to you.
Now consider this headline:
How to Take the Perfect Free Kick
Much improved, right? If the reader is a soccer fan, they will be in little doubt as to the potential benefit of the article. But there is still potentially room for ambiguity, so let’s make it easier still for the reader:
Soccer Skills: How to Take the Perfect Free Kick
Even better. You could even take it a step further by adding one more element:
Soccer Skills: How to Take the Perfect Free Kick [In 3 Steps]
The additional clarity of “3 Steps” makes it somehow seem like the article will be easier to digest and/or the skill will be easier to learn. Don’t ask me why, but that’s how the human brain processes it.
The same general rules apply to sub-headers too — stick to the point and leave the reader in no doubt as to what they can expect from reading on.
3. Not Including an Introduction
Let’s start with the absolute basics: any blog post must have an introduction. Seems obvious, right? And yet, I have seen my fair share of blog posts that just launch straight into the content.
Beyond the obvious statement that any article deserves an introduction, there is something more vital at play here that is highly appropriate to an online audience: many people simply don’t have the patience to read an article if its purpose is not immediately obvious.
An introduction should serve a blog post’s “hook” — a lead into the bulk of the article that explains exactly what a reader has to benefit from it.
Consider for instance the introduction of this post and the part it played in ensuring that you are still reading. In a few short paragraphs I introduced a problem (poor technical writing skills) and promised a solution with a positive outcome (eradicate errors, become more successful). That is the power of a good introduction.
4. Including a Long Introduction
Ideally, your introduction should be just long enough to make the benefits of reading the article obvious, but short enough to get that message across in an immediate and compelling fashion.
I’m not going to prescribe a precise word count or number of paragraphs, as that would be entirely subjective. However, to serve as an example, consider this: In an ideal world I would prefer that the introduction of this post was a little shorter. In terms of length I feel that it is pushing the boundaries a bit.
Don’t worry unduly about this aspect of online writing. As long as your introduction isn’t six extended paragraphs long (I’ve seen that, and worse), you’ll probably be fine. But when writing introductions, remembers these two words: Immediate and compelling.
5. Not Using Sub-Headers
There is just about no excuse not to use sub-headers in blog posts. This can trip even experienced writers up, as they may feel (quite reasonably) that adding sub-headers doesn’t necessarily add anything to the reading experience.
Guess what? They’re often right (in a sense). But sub-headers aren’t just about the reading experience — they’re for those hefty proportion of internet users who scan content.
Sub-headers perform three main tasks tasks. They:
- Help to separate distinct sections of an article
- Make the scanning of content far more straightforward
- Break up text into more easily readable chunks
Use sub-headers liberally for the above three reasons and your blog posts will not only look better, but will be easier to digest for everyone.
6. Using Sub-Headers With Inconsistent Phrasing
This mistake makes articles look ragged and makes them far more difficult to read than they should be. But before I reveal why, I’ll explain exactly what I mean by “sub-headers with inconsistent phrasing” by giving you an example.
Say you were writing an article for your cat blog entitled: 5 Things Cat Haters Say About Our Feline Friends and your sub-headers were as follows:
- They Tear Up Your Furniture!
- They Miss the Litter Tray!
- But They’re So Cute!
- They Bring Dead Animals Into the House!
- They Give Me the Evil-Eye!
Can you spot the odd one out? That’s right — sub-header number three isn’t actually a thing cat haters say; it’s something that a cat lover would say to a cat hater. This kind of inconsistency can really throw a reader.
The above is a pretty obvious example but inconsistent phrasing can be done in more subtle yet still erroneous manner. I advise that as part of your proof-reading process you read through your sub-headers and make sure that they are consistent with each other.
7. Writing Bulky Paragraphs
The first thing I’ll tell a newbie online writer who wants to improve their skills is this maxim:
Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. (Tweet this)
Of those three elements of style that I feel are so important to online writing, the third is the one I would pick out as the most important. In my opinion, few things look worse on a page than enormous paragraphs. For many web users, it’s practically an invitation not to read.
I would advise you to rarely write paragraphs that extend beyond 6-7 lines; many of them can be as little as one line. The benefits for this are threefold:
- Smaller paragraphs are more aesthetically pleasing
- By making only one main point per paragraph you enable the reader to digest your content more easily
- Smaller paragraphs are easier to scan
On the flip side, a minor pet peeve of mine practiced by some writers is the overuse of paragraphs — i.e. including multiple one or two line paragraphs consistently throughout an article. In my opinion this serves to negate the benefits listed above. Having said that, I would much rather that you use excessively small paragraphs than excessively large ones.
8. Not Using Lists
I have yet to find an academic study that validates my position regarding lists but I still maintain that they are a reader’s best friend and should be used at every possible opportunity. For anecdotal proof of their efficacy just reflect upon the lists you have read through in this post so far. Do you feel they helped or hindered your understanding of the points that I made?
It only seems right that I wax lyrical about lists through the medium of (you guessed it) a list. So, what makes lists so effective in online writing?
- They are attention-grabbing
- They imply the delivery of valuable and/or actionable information
- They make text easier to read and scan
- They add aesthetically pleasing white space
- They shorten copy
- They allow you to present relatable items in a clear format
- They can demonstrate a sequence or order of importance (through numbered lists)
Consider for instance the above list and preceding paragraph, delivered in a non-list format:
What makes lists so effective in online writing? They are attention grabbing, they imply the delivery of valuable and/or actionable information, they make text easier to read and scan, they add aesthetically pleasing white space, they shorten copy, they allow you to present relatable items in a clear format and they can demonstrate a sequence or order of importance (through numbered lists).
Which one is easier to read and digest?
9. Using Inconsistent Numbering
Ninety-nine percent or more of online writers use numbered lists rather than one of the alternatives that can be achieved through CSS (Roman numerals, letters, etc). Furthermore, those numbers are presented in very particular style: (e.g. “1.”).
So why is it that some writers insist on varying from that format with the numbers they put into headers? Why should a sub-header be preceded by “1)” when the lists included within the post use the format “1.”? It is inconsistent and unattractive. In fact, I recently edited an article that listed numbers within sub-headers as follows: “1).” (to cover all bases perhaps?).
So ensure that your numbering is consistent. That rule applies both ways too — don’t start creating alphabetical lists when your sub-headers are ordered numerically unless there is a compelling reason to do so.
10. Using ALL CAPS Within Content
USING ALL CAPS MAKES IT SEEM LIKE YOU ARE SHOUTING.
See what I mean? It’s difficult to read, looks unprofessional and instinctively “feels” negative. Never use all caps.
But what if you want to emphasise a specific word? That’s what italics are for. In fact, quite incidentally, I just used it above. I said: “Never use all caps” rather than “NEVER use all caps.” Which one do you think looks more appealing and professional?
11. The Incorrect Usage of Quotation Marks
Believe it or not, quotation marks are seriously complicated. Those complications are compounded by the fact that American English and British English have different approaches to using quotation marks.
I don’t have room here to go into the intricacies of their myriad uses of quotation marks; instead I want to hone down on their most common use. I am talking about the use of single and double quotation marks. My advice is straightforward: pick a style and stick with it. Personally I always use double quotation marks, but it is perfectly valid to use single.
If you want to use single quotation marks to denote speech or a quote, do so. but don’t switch to double quotation marks half way through the article. If you need to denote quotes within a quote, employ the quotation mark that you don’t usually use. If you want to denote a quote within a quote within a quote, go outside and take a walk — you’re going crazy.
12. The Odd Use of Italics
There is a multitude of ways in which italics are abused; most likely down to a lack of agreement amongst writing experts as to how they should be used.
My position is as follows — italics should be used for the following:
- To emphasise single words (e.g. “I am seriously anal about the use of italics.”)
- To refer to other article headlines, books, films, TV shows and other media (e.g. “Who else loves Game of Thrones?”)
- For foreign words (e.g. “She had a certain je ne sais quoi about her.”)
Here are some ways that I see italics being used that I don’t approve of:
- For questions (e.g. “In my opinion the government should reduce taxes. What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below!”)
- For quoted text within a paragraph (you will often see italics used to denote block quotes — this is acceptable)
- To emphasise phrases and/or sentences (e.g. “In my opinion there is no way that the government should reduce taxes.”)
- To indicate internal monologue (e.g. “I often say to myself, What would I do in that situation?“)
For each of the above usages of italics I consider there to be clear alternatives:
- If you feel the question is important, use bold to highlight it (i.e. “In my opinion the government should reduce taxes. What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below!”)
- Italics are not necessary — it is already clear to the reader that the phrase or sentence is a quote
- Again, use bold to highlight importance phrases and/or sentences (i.e. “In my opinion there is no way that the government should reduce taxes.”)
- Use quotation marks to indicate internal monologue (i.e. “I often say to myself, ‘What would I do in that situation?’”)
13. The Incorrect Usage of Hyphens and Dashes
In simple terms, hyphens have two uses:
- To form compounds of two or more words (e.g. “Well-behaved”)
- To separate prefixes and suffixes from their root word (e.g. “Pre-1940s”)
Hyphens should absolutely not be used to indicate a break in a sentence (such as the one you are about to see) — that is what dashes is for.
But that’s where it begins to get complicated, as there are two types of dashes: en and em. Furthermore, there are additional circumstances under which hyphens or dashes (of either type) might be used.
I’ve got to be honest — even I get a little bored at this point. As such I like to keep it simple: I use a hyphen as per the two uses above and I use a double hyphen (–) for everything else. Within WordPress, the double hyphen is often automatically converted into an en or em dash (as it is above). That’s good enough for me.
Even in my world of writing, practicality occasionally reigns supreme.
14. Not Including a Conclusion
The vast majority of blog posts and online articles should have a conclusion. Without a conclusion you are likely to leave the reader undecided as to what they should do next.
And make no mistake: when it comes to online writing, your job is always to demonstrate to the reader what they should do next. If you do not, they are more likely to get on with their day than carry out a desired action (such as subscribe to your newsletter or purchase a product).
Just with the essays you used to write at school, the job of a conclusion is to sum up the most relevant points within the article. This summing-up should typically result in you advising the reader to take one or more steps.
Ideally, these steps should result in the reader remaining engaged with your content or taking a desired action. Often you enable this by using a Call To Action (CTA) such as, “If you enjoyed this article then please subscribe to our mailing list to receive our future updates in your email inbox!” Such CTAs should be varied in order to prevent the reader feeling like they’re being battered with the same message every time they read one of your articles.
Over to You
I find it unsurprising that this post is one of the longest I have ever written here on Leaving Work Behind, because it highlights a huge number of pet peeves that I hate to see within people’s writing. I am certain that if online writers eradicate the above errors in their writing, they will create better looking blog posts and, most importantly, increase their value to clients.
But I don’t want this to end here — this is your chance to voice your opinion! If you disagree with any of the points I’ve made above please feel free to offer your constructive criticism in the comments section below. And if you have additional points that you feel should be listed above, let me know and I’ll consider them.
I look forward to reading your thoughts!