Internet Writing Style Guides! Who Needs ‘Em?

style guides

Courtesy of MConnors

If there’s one thing that irks and jerks me, it’s style guides for Internet writing. Ugh. Just the words style and guide sound terrible together. Basically, it means rules and more rules when you’re trying to be creative. Compared to more sophisticated forms of writing, Internet content is more like backroom poker. Every publication, every website and every content mill has its own house rules. When you get down to it, every writer has his or her own style as well, and sometimes they conflict.

Types of Style Guides

One of the problems with style guides is they aren’t always specific or consistent. Maybe only professional freelancers know that specs can change during a project, leading to mayhem as you’re forced to redo work because the client suddenly changed their style guidelines.

We know that we are rogue writers, but we break the rules for effect. We also know which rules we’re breaking, at least generally. Here’s the deal with style guides, particularly style guides for Internet writing. While the Chicago Manual is great, it’s not the thing to use for the web. Neither are the APA (American Psychological Association) or MLA (Modern Language Association) guides, which are strictly for scientific papers with fancy words and reports with citations, which are meaningless on most of the Internet. For practical web writing, which we do, less is definitely more.

Style Guides for the Internet

Writing for the web is largely about brevity, which is one reason why style guides for the web don’t use the Oxford or serial comma in lists (as in the comma with the and). It saves space. If you’re insistent about following the rules instead of developing your own, start with the Microsoft Manual of Style. Another one to look out for is the 2010 Yahoo! Style Guide, which was developed with a CNET editor and covers all types of electronic content.

For most web writing, we follow AP conventions. You can find a simplified AP guide in Perdue’s OWL Language Lab. These rules also apply to press releases and other important content types that are much different than blog posts and casual communications. When in doubt, you can generally rely on AP rules and good common sense for capitalization and grammar. If the writing is good, a proper abbreviation or silly convention really won’t make a difference. That’s why we follow the rules, but never to the point where it compromises our style or the quality of the writing. That’s by far the most important part. What style guide do you use?

P.S.

If you don’t want to buy a book, check out Hubspot’s guide to Internet writing. It’s free, but be prepared to receive loads of marketing material.

How to Order an Article from a Freelance Writer

books food writer

Courtesy of Agatha Brown

So, you have a great idea. You know exactly what you want. Now, it’s time to translate your idea into instructions so your writer can get to work. Writing instructions for your latest article requires special care, especially if you’re working with a writer who isn’t yet familiar with your specs. The most important thing to remember is that writers are not mind-readers. We might have the feeling that we know what you want and can deliver, but that’s not always the case. After you’ve expressed your general idea, it’s time to think about the specs, the length, the budget, the keywords and the content.

Determining Article Length

Length is a sensitive topic, even for seasoned freelancers. Gauging the number of words that a given topic requires is an art. Here are a few guidelines on article length:

  • Blog posts 250-350 words
  • Articles 400-500 words 
  • Press releases 400-500 words
  • In-depth articles/juicy topics/top 10 lists 600-1,000 words
  • White papers 1,500 words

Consider the nature of the topic. Do you want a 400-word category description on pencil-top erasers? Are you trying to cover the entire city of Chicago in 500 words? Word counts are important decisions. If you want too many words, you’ll end up with a flabby piece that is puffed and padded with “fluff.” If you try to cover too much in one article, you’ll end up with a jumbled piece that dances all over the place but doesn’t have much flow. Think about how exciting your topic is and how many talking points there are. If possible, give the author a general word range within 50 or 100 words of your target. It’s awfully hard to write exactly 550 words every time.

Writing Budget

Budget is also something to think about. How much content can you afford? Would it be better to invest in two smaller articles that cover niche topics? Maybe so. Once you have considered the required word count, you can easily see if the article fits your budget. Remember that many content mills charge as much as 30 percent commission on your order. If you hire independent freelancers like us, you can avoid these fees and enjoy better, faster service. We’re flexible, and we’ll let you know if the word count needs to be adjusted.

Content Outline

As you’re considering how many paragraphs and words your article requires, try to develop a short outline. We allow 100 words for each talking point, as well as another 75-100 words for the intro and the same for the conclusion. You don’t want your article to end practically mid-sentence. So, if we were planning an article on “How to Roast a Chicken,” we’ll have a nice 100 word intro talking about how delicious and satisfying a roast chicken is. In the second paragraph, we’ll talk about preparing the chicken and using safe food handling practices. Within the third paragraph, we’ll be pre-heating the oven and rubbing down the bird with butter, oil, herbs and spices. In the fourth paragraph, we’ll cover roasting times and how to carve the chicken when it pops out of the oven. Finally, we’ll have a short conclusion. So in theory, the article “How to Roast a Chicken” might require 450-550 words. Is it us, or do we always mention food in our examples?

Feel free to include a very general outline, but never tell a writer how to do their job. If you’re ordering a press release and say what you want, there’s no need to include six links on “How to Write a Press Release,” because, if you’re like us, you’ve already written hundreds.

Choosing Keywords

Playing with keywords is dangerous; it’s also a good way to P.O. your valued writer. When it comes to keywords, less is more. If you need certain key phrases, say so, but don’t make the writer copy illiterate keywords verbatim. Not that you are illiterate, but nobody wants to work in the phrase “kitchen DIY design” or a keyword with an obvious typo. Whenever possible, give the writer keyword freedom, especially if you want a natural sounding result. We can handle singular and plural variations. If you need a geo-targeted article, just mention that you need the city and state mentioned at least two times.

Last but totally not least, remember to say “please” and “thank you.” Writers are people. Don’t treat them like a number, even if they’re writer 223458123.

That’s all. We hope this makes article ordering easier for you. Have you run into article-ordering troubles?

Writing Sizzling Headlines That Get Hits

The very mention of the word headlines incites many adverse reactions. If you dread headlines, you are part of the majority. Crafting a newsworthy headline is an art and a skill that requires talent and practice. When I started writing, my headlines were so bad that they brought shame on my work and disdain from co-workers on the team. They weren’t really bad—probably average, like what you’d expect in a school report or something. I guess I was a little overwhelmed by working in terms like complainant, vicarious liability and exploding fuselage, and I admit that the state of my headlines brought me to tears when a certain team member told everyone that my headlines weren’t good enough. It was pretty bad, but it also helped me to become better. By writing 50 headlines a day for a long, long time, anyone can get better, and that’s just what happened to me.

If you can’t wait four years to craft the perfect headline for your article or blog post, here are a few tips.

The best way to develop a good lead sentence or a killer headline for an important project is to create several possible options. I like to make a five-point list and start jamming on ideas. As you get to the fourth or fifth headline, you might be coming up with some better angles, or you might realize that the first few were stronger. That’s fine. Sometimes I’ll read a few ideas in the office to get some feedback if I can’t decide which title I like better.

1._____________

2._____________

3._____________

4._____________

5._____________

Another thing to think about is the length of your headline and how it will look in search results. If you include important information at the end of your headline, those details might not display. According to experts, headlines should be under 65 characters, including spaces, to display completely on all the major search engines. Of course, important keywords should also be included in the title for optimal exposure.

That’s all for now.  Back to writing those headlines!

Writing to Sell: Product Descriptions

Selling is a big part of every copywriter’s job. We are virtual salespeople, barking vendors marketing products to an unseen audience. Product descriptions aren’t new, but they’re more prevalent than ever. Catalogs from Sears Roebuck and a host of boutique mail order brands have been flooding into mailboxes forever, or at least as long as most can remember. Now, product descriptions are even more important. Great swaths of the Internet are dedicated to selling stuff–we’re talking EVERYTHING! Land’s End doesn’t just have a mail order catalog packed with clever, concise descriptions. They have an entire website and then some.

Drawing people in and getting people to click is something that we never had to deal with in paper catalogs where readers turn the page or chuck the whole thing in the trash. The web has changed product descriptions and made effective writing just as important as it is in a tightly packed catalog. Teasers are one invention of the internet age. Almost 10 years ago, we were writing tantalizing descriptions for lawsuits. Today, we’re doing the same thing for plastic surgeons, entertainment concierges, antiquities, promotional apparel, wine cabinets and whatever. The demand for product descriptions is so strong that, at times, we have written them continuously for a whole month. Whether a description is 50 words, 150 words or longer, it takes a formula to successfully sell items, to outline the special features and to make each one fun to read without seeming repetitive and redundant.

Product-description-mantra

If product descriptions make your head ache, you’re not alone. Fortunately, we’ve made it our business to put the hammer down and conquer the format. Sadly, the only way to do that is by writing so many a year that you totally lose count. So if products that need describing are bringing you down, leave it to a pro. You can have your text delivered in an Excel-friendly format that is ready to be uploaded. Product numbers, teasers and full descriptions can all be uploaded together. How easy is that?

Inspired Blogging on A Schedule

Blogging regularly and sticking to a schedule are the trickiest parts of the platform, but coming up with fresh, new ideas is also hard. A big part of our business is creating blog posts and informative articles for clients who need to keep their websites fresh. After a point, everyone runs out of fresh ideas and inspiration. What do you do then? Don’t worry. We have a plan.

Lists

Coming up with fresh ideas is as simple as starting a list. While working for a law firm, we had to come up with 50 unique titles for a series of informative articles. After about 35 topics, things get a little harder, but consider this. Fifty blog posts could mean weekly updates for your site for the whole year. Not so bad, eh? Make sure to look at the comments that your blog is getting. Reader questions are a great jumping off point. If someone is asking, others are bound to be wondering too. You could also check out your competition and look for news topics related to your industry or client base. As you come up with topics, you may even see a potential blog series. That is pure gold.

Then what?

When you create a long list of potential titles, some will be better than others. If your title sounds too iffy or obscure, just cross it off the list. There will be plenty of other ideas. Just start narrowing it down. You don’t need to come up with a year’s worth of blog posts at one time. That would be way too daunting, even for us! Just try to come up with eight or 10 solid topics.

Create a Spreadsheet

Start a spreadsheet that outlines topics for the next two months. List any major events relevant to your business, seasonal sales or promotions, and think of relevant evergreen or seasonal topics that will keep your site current. Creating just four blog topics for each month is a great schedule to stick to. Looking a month or two ahead is a good way to make sure that you stay current without getting bogged down.

Schedule Your Posts

Once you have ideas and fresh content, it’s time to post it. We really like the schedule a post feature that WordPress has. It’s an easy way to give yourself some breathing room. We’ve found that staying a few weeks ahead is the best way to make sure that your website stays fresh. If you’re committed to posting every Wednesday but don’t have an article when hump day rolls around, it’s not going to get done.

So, we hope that you find these tips useful. You can also check out our blogging schedule template, which can be downloaded from Google Drive Do you have tips for generating new blog topics or sticking to a regular schedule?

Tips and Strategies for Keeping Your Website Fresh

fresh web contentThe New Year is a logical time to evaluate your web page. What isn’t performing well? What could be done better? What is working well? Most of us are also thinking about how we want to blog more and update our web pages more frequently. We all know that starting a blog or a webpage and investing time initially is easier than committing time on a regular basis to keep your blog alive.

1. Updates

How frequently is your home page or blog updated? Is your last blog post from June 2010? Nothing turns off customers more than a home page or blog that hasn’t been updated in a racoon’s age. This can hurt your business. We live in a fast paced society. Only current information is relevant. Google knows this too.

2. Upgrades

There’s no need to make major design changes on a regular basis. However, you should make sure that your homepage is user friendly. Augment a static home page by adding rotational features. Link to your latest news, feature new products and rotate current resources.

3. Uploads

Add fresh photos, post a video snippet on your home page and create new multimedia features or downloadable white papers. If you publish newsletters, blogs or educational articles, make sure the latest items are featured prominently. Adding a press room or news area is fabulous too. Customers and search engines love these features. Post them, promote them and make sure they are accessible.

4. Upkeep

This is a critical question. Strategies for this depend on your personality and the structure of your website. If you’re using a done-for-you service, make sure that you invest in regular maintenance. Have your web people add posts, check links and make sure that nothing is outdated. If you work with a company that allows you to tweak your website and add content as needed, you can go ahead and make small updates without calling your developer or web designer.

5. Keep it going!

Create a schedule, and do your best to stick to it. This is even more important if you have microsites or multiple web properties. In the digital age, you have to be looking one or two months ahead. Generate new blog ideas, and plan content well in advance. This is an important step. If needed, have brainstorming sessions based on what your business will be doing in the next few months. Is there a major sale, are there new products, is there a major trade show or important industry news? Once you start looking, you’ll come up with even more ideas for keeping your website fresh. Remember: freshness is essential.

What are your  strategies for or struggles with keeping your web properties up-to-date?

company happy new year

Happy New Year!

WOW! 2014 is approaching and ready to walk in the front door. First, we would like to thank all of our dear clients and colleagues who have supported us and our business throughout 2013. In the past year, we have expanded our business, developed new partnerships and created this webpage. Next year, we’ll be focused on offering new and existing customers a full range of writing and editing services as well as web development capabilities offered through our reciprocal partners. Anyway, 2014 will be all about making things better.

company happy new year

Here at the Write On! headquarters, we’ve been celebrating the holidays and taking time to reflect, which is what this time of year is all about. For the past nine years, we’ve been developing this business in some form or another. Part of developing a business is getting bogged down and immersing yourself in the details. For us, this has meant abandoning a lot of our creative projects and non-work-related writing. In 2014, we’ll dedicate more time to creative pursuits while continuing to offer our valued clients the same level of service.

To Resolve or Not to Resolve?

We’re not big fans of those grueling resolutions that become tiresome after two weeks. This year, we’re setting goals–major achievements like writing creatively, enjoying life more and taking our business and website to the next level. Just telling someone about your ideas or writing them down in a New Year’s letter is a good way to make sure that you achieve your most important goals. So, what do you want to accomplish in 2014?

Five Reasons Every Company Needs a Blog

blog 101 iconNow that most businesses have blogs, everyone is focused on increasing the value of their posts. Here are five reasons why every company needs to have an exceptional blog. These topics apply to business-to-business and business-to-consumer entities.

1. The Competition

Positive differentiators are like bread and butter in commerce. Companies are always looking for ways to gain an edge over the competition. Your blog can do this for you. Don’t give your competitors a chance to become the definitive industry blog. If stay competitive, you’ve got to be blogging too.

2. The Credibility

Credibility is a huge factor. By establishing credibility on your blog, you can foster trust. This is the key to generating sales and attracting new customers. People buy things from companies or other people that they trust. Many thought leaders are born on blogs. Use your blog like a soapbox to reach consumers and to get your ideas and thoughts heard by the world.

3. Search Engines

The things businesses do to please search engines are incredible. Most of us spend a lot of time and money on SEO campaigns and creating keyword-rich content. Well, blogs are a pretty awesome way to attract real consumers AND search engines at the same time. Search engines love fresh web content, and your blog is a great way to get their attention by adding new information even if your home page is fairly static.

4. The Customers

Fifty-seven percent of business owners who were surveyed by HubSpot said that they have acquired at least one customer from their blog. Customers are the primary target when you blog. Your readers are your customers. By providing tips, tutorials and valuable information, you’ll attract new customers and generate new leads. A ceramic tile company, for example, might post a great project tutorial or buying guide that helps consumers make the right purchase.

5. The Cost

Although businesses are spending more on blogs, they are still the most cost effective marketing channel. Your blog is one of your most powerful inbound marketing tools. Due to the low cost, blogs are very valuable for small businesses. Not just valuable but accessible. The best marketing strategies are accessible for companies creating them and consumers viewing them. Remember: The more you blog, the more customers you’ll bring in. While daily bloggers have the highest success rate, most people can’t blog that much. Weekly and monthly schedules are the most common, and that’s a great pace to star with.

The opportunity to blog is something that you must take advantage of. You can release news, promote special offers and educate your customers, so they can make informed purchases. These blog posts can also be cross promoted through social media sites and your own readers. If you think about the potential, a company blog really is exciting. How is your blog performing?

Writing Great Case Studies

Case studies are excellent marketing tools. These informative and educational pieces are ideal for promoting any type of B2B or B2C (business to consumer) service. We’ve created case studies for translation companies, global limousine operators and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providers. Case studies aren’t that challenging to create once you have the formula. Here’s the recipe for creating the perfect case study.

1. The Challenge

This is your angle for the story. You want to point out all of the challenges, obstacles and concerns that you or your company faced. You may also wish to provide a little background information about the company you were working with on this project.

2. The Solution

After you have clearly addressed the concerns and obstacles you faced, it’s time to explain what you did to meet these challenges. You don’t want the challenge to seem overblown, but you do want to highlight the client’s major concerns and explain what you did to solve the problem and why.

3. The Result

The results section is the most glorious part of any case study. In this area, you get to explain how your services helped your clients meet or even exceed their goals. Adding some statistics and numbers can also be effective in showing prospective customers how you helped other clients.

This standard three-part case study is ideal for most applications. The subtle ways that you can show your company’s personality and capture the essence of the project are what will take your case study to the next level and make your message resonate with potential clients.

What is a Content Mill? The Complete Lowdown

Content mills have different rates and different names, but they’re all the same. Basically.

If you aren’t familiar with the term content mill, there’s no need to worry. I worked for content mills for years without knowing what they were. For the most part, content mills offer writing services at bargain basement prices. This is the main selling point and the top drawback of these sites. They appeal to customers with their low rates, but the service suffers because the prices are too low.

In my opinion, these companies should be avoided because they pay their workers insultingly low wages. These companies are the writing equivalent of sweatshops, so you know who is making the real money. Here are a few of the pros and cons of content mills.

Pros:

The cost is low.

It’s easy to sign up.

You’ll have access to a large pool of writers.

You can experiment with different “quality” levels.

You can add a la carte editing and proofreading.

Cons:

Workers are underpaid and disenchanted.

Less than one percent of writers are in the top tier.

Unless you place an order directly, you don’t know who will write it.

Editing services have additional charges.

Companies charge hefty fees.

Content mills pay their workers next to nothing, and they add on hefty surcharges of 30 percent or more in some cases. One particular company takes a full 30 percent on all tips and “bonuses” that their authors receive for doing a good job. Whether that’s $3 off of a $10 bonus or $30 off of $100, it’s terribly unfair. Content mills have a fundamental challenge that’s coming to light as more companies require quality web content. Unfortunately, it’s not the low prices that put customers off. It’s the quality of these super-cheap levels that makes them go elsewhere. Sadly, few content mill clients even know how much their writers receive after the brokerage company takes their cut.

Another fundamental problem associated with content mills is their editorial process. A lot of these companies cut costs by eliminating editors. These same companies will review their authors as part of a ghastly quality assurance process. Speaking as a person who made it to the ceiling of content mills, the “editors” at these sites are paid even less than the writers, who are also grossly underpaid. There is also a stereotype that these authors are young grads who think they know everything. Regardless of age, content mill editors are prone to applying grammatical rules recklessly and in a way that degrades the final product.

If you’ve ordered articles from a content mill, your writer may have been better than the editor. Today, up-market content mills are popping up, but the problems are all the same. We started Write On! because we wanted a better alternative to content mills, an alternative where writers and clients work together and develop lasting partnership. Get off the content mill bandwagon, and see the light!