I read a lot. Not much for pleasure, it seems, but between research articles, books for class, assignments and Web content, I read a lot. And I’m often frustrated with dense paragraphs, hard-to-decipher thesaurus-speak and unclear emphases.
I have some instincts and some knowledge by osmosis of basic design principles that apply to making your copy reader friendly. You’ll find two parts to reader-friendliness: the first is the basic design and document formatting concepts that work. The other part is that your writing should be concise and meticulously on point. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph has purpose.
I read assignments like I’m a member of the audience it’s intended for – the client, most often. Once you’ve edited and reedited, these tips can help your message get through, regardless of who you’re trying to reach.
- Befriend white space – the space without words on the page gives the eye a place to rest. When powering through a 10 or 15 page PR plan, this can make the difference between an irritated reader who is just trying to find the point and one that follows your logic and keeps up with your best ideas.
- Focus on short paragraphs – frequent paragraph breaks allow the eye to transition from point to point easily and soak up the main point. A good rule of thumb is to keep your paragraphs to three to five sentences (and sentences should be short – 15 – 20 words). Massive paragraphs that take up half the page are not reader friendly.Best case scenario, this makes me cranky. Worst case, I choose not to read it and you lose points (aka budget dollars, credibility, etc.). Of note: if you’re writing for the web, or in an email, consider even shorter paragraphs.
- Slow the eye with bullet points – when your reader is scanning through your short paragraphs with ample white space, bullet points and numbered lists can slow your reader down and ensure that your key points stick. Of course, I’m assuming that you’re making good points to begin with. Bullet lists also help your reader understand steps in a process (awfully handy for, say, a plan).
- Selectively use fancy formatting – ALL CAPS is difficult to read, as is underlining. Don’t highlight or use more than two fonts in any given document. For emphasis use bold and italics. For example, one might bold the key point of each item on a bullet list. ahem.
- Think about margins – use left-aligned or ragged right margins, rather than justification for easier flow from line to line. I also prefer flush margins on the left with a hard return between each paragraphs (like the alignment in this blog post), rather than an indented paragraph with no space between. Using indented paragraphs is fussy and looks dated.
What tips do you have for making your copy reader-friendly?
Note: This is an updated & republished post from 2008.
Creating a blog post is really more than just writing good content. The following checklist can help you ensure that your post is readable, findable and shareable.
- Do you have a compelling headline? There’s some dos and don’ts.
- Does your post have good structure & provide useful information? Plenty of folks have written posts on how to write posts. Take a look around.
- Does your post invite feedback or ideas?
- Did you provide at least one in-text hyperlink? Don’t include links as text, hyperlink them using the “link” button.
- Did you include an image? (or other multimedia)
Some blog templates require an image, but even if it’s not required, an image helps to make your post more visually attractive.
Try istockphoto.com, sxc.hu, or flickr (creative commons licensed) for images. Or check out some of these sites for free or cheap images.
- Did you assign a category or categories? Categories help to organize your content. When your blog has a lot of posts, categories can help you visitor find what he or she is looking for.
- Did you include tags based on keywords in the post?
What did I forget? What’s on your checklist?
Ises and ares and to bes.
Weak verbs can make your writing boring and wordy. In one of my first agency positions after I graduated from college, my manager went so far as to call them “lazy.”
This same manager and her (sometimes) harsh feedback drove me to make changes in my writing style. But catching weak verbs before they come off the end of your fingers onto the screen or paper challenges even experienced writers.
I developed a trick that I used until I’d retrained my writing brain. My only tool? A highlighter.
- Take a printed copy of the assignment (work or school) and a highligher in your choice of color.
- Start at the top of the page and highlight every form of the verb “to be”: am, are, is, was, were, will be, has been, have been, had been, etc. Focus primarily on is, are, were.
- Work to change as many of the highlighted verbs as you can from weak verbs to active verbs. To be verbs do serve a purpose and it isn’t necessary to change every single one, but strong, active verbs should dominate your writing.
Some other tips:
- Use your imagination to substitute more interesting words.
- Don’t start sentences with “There is” or “There are.”
- Use the simple forms of your verb of choice (listens vs. is listening, for example).
- Embed the adjective before the noun you’re modifying rather than dragging the sentence out (brand-new baseball stadium vs. the baseball stadium, which is brand new).
Go forth and write well!
*note: you’ll only find one “to be” verb in this blog post. 🙂
Image by Kounelli via Flickr
Creating a beautiful blog post isn’t difficult. Following a basic structure formula that gives your posts great bone structure will give you more room to drape with creative style, solid information and desirable resources.
- Craft a Great Headline. Include an active verb and try to squeeze some of your key topic words in as well. The search engines love the headlines and a strong headline will not only attract Google, but will also compel your visitors and regular readers to read on.
- Write a Compelling Lede. Provided your readers hang around to see what the headline is all about, a compelling lede will keep them reading. Establish what the post will cover, of course, but also flex your best writing muscle and write something people want to read.
- Start with Bullet Points. Use bullets to outline your ideas in an outline form. If you’re writing a list post, keep your bullets as your core structure. If you’re not, use your bullets to…
- Develop Sub-Headlines. Sub-heads help create a scanable page and make it easier for people to read on a computer screen and digest the information. (pssst… Google loves sub-heads, too).***Now is also a great time to ask your friends on Twitter what they think. Chances are you’ll get some great feedback that will mean a strong post in the end.***
- Fill in the Detail. Flesh out your bullet points and/or sub-heads to really bring the point home. Keep yourself on track (rambling is way too easy to do, especially if you feel passionately about something) and keep your readers in mind.
- Find a Great Image. I recommend Flickr. Under the “advanced search” link, check the creative commons button and make sure you credit the photographer. If you want to go with stock photography, istockphoto.com is low cost and has the best selection. Stock Xchange is free and you can usually find something decent.
- Double-Check Your Headline. Now that the post is complete, make sure your headline still reflects what your post is about and gets a reader’s attention. Can you refine it to be even stronger and more effective?
- Edit, Proof, Correct, Polish and Revise. Errors in grammar can kill a blogger’s credibility and traffic. Take time to make sure you’re putting out your best work. There’s a certain immediacy to blogging, and a stray comma or run on sentence doesn’t typically have dramatic consequences. But avoid the five grammar errors that make you look dumb.
10 Tips for Writing a Blog Post
Over at Verve in Bloom, my agency blog, Michelle Pera posts on writing tips from Jack Hart of the Oregonian. Check it out.
I’ve been talking a lot this year about writing with a human voice. Drop the lingo, leave the jargon and edit out the “corp speak.”
Whether you’re writing a letter to employees about a company shake-up, writing compelling public relations materials such as releases, backgrounders or fact sheets, or penning a speech, it’s becoming more vital to communicate in a human voice.
This terrific example from Nedra at Spare Change is from Zichron Menachem – The Israeli Association for the Support and Assistance of Children with Cancer and their Families. The letter has been translated from the original Hebrew. An excerpt…
I want to thank you for your partnership with Zichron Menachem — for helping make a very difficult time, a bit easier. And I want you to know that how successful your effort is, every time I see a bashful smile from those mirrors, trying to love what they see. And they succeed.
This letter is amazing. The emotional (and human) connection of the words on the page not only reinforces the donor’s decision, but paints of picture of those who the precious gift of hair will serve.
Writing “on the fly” is often required of public relations PRos. You may need to write a pitch or even a release at a moment’s notice. Need some practice thinking on your toes? Try these sites.
(you’ll need to complete a free registration for these two)