The Secrets Of Good Writing
By Pauline Millard
Writing is both an art and a science, and the only way to get better at it is to do it often. Since most professional writing appears online, there are aspects to consider when putting together blog posts and articles.
Caroline Howard is the the Executive Producer at Forbes. She edits the ForbesWoman and Education channels as well as the America's Top Colleges, 30 Under 30, Most Powerful People and 100 Most Powerful Women packages.
She recently hosted a Jam Session for Ellevate and talked about techniques that make writing easier and can lead to better copy.
Why Are You Writing?
This is an important question, since the internet is one big conversation. There’s a lot chatter out there, so what you’re saying should move the conversation forward.
Aim to be central to the conversation or beat that you are covering. Caroline chooses contributors to Forbes because they are thought leaders in their field. In other words, they know what they are talking about.
Who’s Your Audience?
Online, your audience is huge, and it’s not just you and your blog’s readers. It’s also the search audience on Google, the social media audience as well as the audience of the site you might be writing for.
Think about why people come to your blog or the site that you’re writing for. Is the piece that you’re putting together true to the brand? That’s a good prism to look through.
Organize Your Thoughts And Notes
For some people, their preferred writing style is stream of consciousness -- they’re just going to sit down and spit it all out. That’s fine for a first draft just to get down ideas, but it’s not the way a professional piece should end up. Ultimately, your piece has to make a point, and that point need to be high in the piece.
In journalism, that’s called the angle or the nut graf. It’s how readers know what the piece is about and it’s usually a sentence or two in the first paragraph or two. Use that sentence as the spine to build your story around.
How Will I Grab Readers’ Attention?
A great headline as well as a great lead -- or opening paragraph -- is important. If you can sum up everything you are writing about in a headline, then you really know what it is you’re writing about.
It’s important for your headline and lead to be forthright, because that sets up the reader to understand what's coming. Being vague isn’t helpful.
Am I ‘Backing Into’ My Post?
Many people let their introduction go on and on and don’t get to the point until the very end. They think their point is the conclusion, but that’s not how readers work. That’s how you lose them. Let people know early on why they’re reading the piece, and they’re more likely to stay with you until the end.
How Long Should My Story Be?
Pieces shouldn’t be less than 500 words or more than 1,000. Ultimately, the length should be appropriate for the publication that you’re submitting to. Don’t keep throwing in words because you think it looks impressive. That’s not true at all. Some posts are perfectly fine if they’re on the short side.
What Form Should It Take?
The internet loves a listicle, but there are other forms. Q&As, straight narratives and bullet points are also viable ways to shape a story. Figure out what works best for what you are trying to say.
Is My Perspective Unique? Do I Add To The Conversation?
Even if a topic you are writing about has been covered to death, work hard to find a new approach or a new angle. There are a lot of things that are evergreen, but that doesn’t mean we stop writing about them.
Headlines are critical because if you attach a bad headline to a brilliant post no one is going to read it. It’s easier to write a headline after you’ve written the piece, but having one on the top of the page helps keep your writing focus, by all means do it. If at the end it doesn’t reflect what you’re trying to say, then just change it.
Bottom line: headlines are not an after thought.
A Few Do’s and Don’ts
Do make bold statements. Speak with authority and clarity. You are an expert. Write like one. Set readers up for a strong, authoritative piece.
Do be conversational. But don’t use slang.
Do your research. Talk to people, report and use sources. Make sure you have your facts straight. Having a little journalistic integrity goes a long way.
Do be unexpected, maybe even a little contrarian. But don’t say anything that you can’t back up. Look at an issue in a way no one has before. Maybe you want to tell Sheryl Sandberg that you actually do want to leave before you leave because you want to have this new family life. Then say that, but back it up.
Do use active, muscular words. Why be weak when you can be strong? Active voice and strong words are much more interesting. Strong word choice is especially true when you have a word count to adhere to. You have to make each one of them count.
Don’t be vague, elusive or too general. People like specifics and anecdotes. It also makes hitting that conversational tone much easier.
Don’t be overly clever and personal. Most of the time this does not work. Keep your anecdotes relevant but professional.
Don’t curse, use unnecessary superlatives or slang. Some readers think that if they use hyperbole that it makes them seem like an authority, but that is rarely the case.
Don’t use jargon or SAT words. Being an expert doesn’t mean using complicated language, it means being clear. When you put your writing aside for a bit and then read it over, is it the kind of writing you typically see on your target website? Acquaint yourself with the kind of writing the place you’re writing for.
Aspects To Consider
Would this story be a Most Popular?
Do I really want to read this? Sometimes you have to be brutal with yourself.
Is it worth commenting on or re-tweeting?
Is someone else writing about it? What can I add to stand apart?
Before You Press ‘Publish’
It’s helpful to have someone read your piece before you send it out. Editors read everything before journalists post their work. A second pair of eyes may see things that you won't.
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