Why Style Guides Are Important

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?

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!

Put Your Content To Work.

write-on-contentContent. There’s that all-important word again. If you aren’t content with your content, it’s time to examine the lifecycle of the words, images and multimedia features that appear on your website and social media accounts.

A few weeks ago, I saw a post from marketing guru Heidi Cohen. She prepared an infographic that outlines seven content forms that are made for social media promotion. This got me thinking about how businesses can get the most out of their content by recycling, re-purposing and promoting it across different channels.

Hiring a professional copywriter to craft your web content is an investment. Once you have the content, your marketing strategy must promote your message, get your words out and reach your audience. Here are a few ideas for enhancing the longevity of your content’s lifecycle.

1. Promote Your Blog

Your blog is the perfect place to promote your services, establish trust and answer questions. Valuable blog content will build your brand and generate leads. These posts can be promoted through many other channels. Some developers even have us pre-write brief questions to promote each post through Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

2. Work It on Your Social Media Accounts

Interactive platforms like Facebook and Twitter are ideal for connecting with your customers and cross-promoting blog posts, special offers and industry news. If your blog is your home base, everything that starts there must be promoted on your social media accounts as well.

3. Make a Video

Videos are true multi-purpose features. Embed informative videos on your website, share them on Twitter, write about them on your blog and post them on YouTube. Videos are great for establishing and enhancing credibility while reaching your target market. You’ve invested in a video. Now, it’s time to cross-promote it and generate a buzz.

4. Promote Slideshows and Multimedia Presentations

If you don’t have the budget for a full-blown video, develop an interactive slideshow presentation. Services like Slideshare allow businesses to upload and promote existing PDFs, Word documents and PowerPoint presentations in an enhanced visual format that can be promoted anywhere.

5. Jazz up Your Newsletter

This is a great place to promote special offers as well as news-related content, podcasts, PowerPoint presentations and so much more. Newsletters must have the perfect combination of informative and readable text along with images or graphics that capture the reader’s attention. Content in newsletters should include blog posts and anything that can be promoted on social media sites. Feature a newsletter archive on your website that gives visitors access to this wealth of information.

6. Get Arty with Infographics!

These snazzy yet informational images have gained popularity rapidly. In addition to featuring infographics in your newsletter and blog posts, they can also be promoted through social media channels. Some companies specialize in designing infographics, but you can’t promote them if you don’t have them!

7. Distribute E-books and White Papers

Establish credibility and promote your services using free e-books or white papers. Offering a free download to visitors who submit their email address is one highly effective marketing strategy. White papers can be anywhere from three to five pages long, and e-books may have as many as 12 chapters. Plus, some of your existing content can be repurposed or re-imagined in these informational publications, but you still have to cross-promote them.

Each of these seven items can and should be promoted across multiple channels. Follow these two steps to put your content to work.

1. Identify top-performing documents, and promote them through channels that you haven’t used. If you got an overwhelming response to one newsletter feature, promote it again on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or your favorite social network.

2. Think back about a feature or promotion that you loved but didn’t perform as well as expected. Alternately, find two under-performing pages, and look for new ways to tweak the content and promote it. This is the formula for raising the bar. By focusing on what drives the success of your best pages and what needs improvement, you’ll build a better, stronger brand. Here’s to success!

Developing a Style and Voice For your Web Content

Got Tone? Tips for Developing a Writing Style

Developing a writing style that appeals to your readers is an art. The tone of your copy is the key to the success of your marketing strategies. Your returns rest largely on the quality and style of your text. For companies in the healthcare, legal and financial industries, this means their text needs to be clean, clear, concise and competent. In fact, the four Cs are favored by most if not all Fortune 1000 companies. For a company that sells sports tickets or toys, a much lighter, conversational tone is the better option. We’ve had clients express concern about matching their tone when their website is completely toneless. This goes to show that tone is a sensitive and important topic. Here are a few tips for developing a voice for your web content.

Who is your target audience? This is the most important factor. A personal injury attorney who is targeting people who have been injured or lost a loved one needs to use a voice that is strong, compassionate and effectively illustrates their strengths. For example, “Contact us today to speak with a compassionate personal injury attorney who can protect your rights and act as a legal advocate.”

Now, let’s consider a restaurant that makes the best barbeque in the city. Restaurants are part of a leisure market. People dine in their free time using disposable income. To appeal to consumers, we must create a tone that actively promotes their delicious food and the lively ambiance.

“At Judge Bean’s Bar-B-Q, we make the meanest barbeque sauce east of the Mississippi and the best pulled pork ya’ll will ever taste. Stop by for a plate-clearing, finger-licking good time.”

On the other side of the spectrum, a gourmet catering company that uses local produce might need a more conservative tone. For a high-end caterer, we might use a more sophisticated, erudite tone.

“From fresh, tender arugula to locally produced cheese, we partner with local farmers to procure the finest and freshest ingredients. We use the highest-quality products and artisan cooking techniques to produce slow-food for large events.”

There is an entire spectrum of literary tones. I like to think of it like a rainbow. On one end, we have a straight-ahead, no-nonsense corporate tone. On the other, we have zany, edgy, off-the-wall. This means that there are subtle differences in tone that are comparable to the visual differences between teal and blue-green. Once you have the right tone, you’ll know it.

You wouldn’t believe how many content mills suggest the most banal and generic tones. Informative and interesting, sales driven and promotional, light and conversational or educational and informative. These are the options that a mass-market content mill will give you. They might as well as say meaningless and bland, boring and stale or light and fluffy. We’re not talking about comfort food or ice cream. Let’s get real. Don’t be tone deaf. The success of your website depends on the quality and style of your content, so you’ve got to make it good. As up-market copywriters, we collaborate, we work with clients, and we infuse our writing with creativity to match our customers’ goals. That’s why our copy is effective.

To develop the right style and tone, consider who your target market is, what you’re selling and what your goals are. Words represent your company, its personality and its products. That’s why it’s important to have a tone that accurately portrays your company’s strengths. On our own website, we like to have a little bit on fun on your text. For clients, we develop a tone based on their individual needs and goals, which are rarely the same from company to company.

You’re welcome to share your perspective on the challenges of developing the right style and tone for your web content.

The Pronoun Breakdown: Which One’s Right For Me?

Pronouns are back, and it’s time to understand what they can do for your writing once and for all. In digital writing, choosing the right pronoun is a challenge. When we’re crafting web pages and home pages, the clients requesting the content don’t always know what voice they should use. This isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s something that needs to be explained better.

First of all, there are three choices, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. We’ll talk more about that later. The choices we have for choosing personal pronouns are:

First person

I

We

Second person

You

You

Third person

He/She/It

They

Back in foreign language class, teaching materials broke down plural and singular pronouns in a nice, simple way. All singular pronouns, I, you, he, she and it are in the left-hand column. The plural pronouns we and they are always in the right-hand column, and they progress in the same order: first person, second person and third person.

For more info about grammatical persons, visit Grammar Girl for an in-depth explanation.

First Person

Let’s start with the first person. Although the name is odd, everyone is familiar with the first person. We use the first person when we’re talking about our day at the office. In books, the first person is traditionally used as a narrative. First person has several cases (nominative, objective and possessive), but it always uses some form of I, me or my.

If we’re writing for a company, the first person “we” is a great option. If Bob owns a one-man show landscaping company, the singular first person “I” would be the best choice. As a general rule, first person is ideal when speaking directly as a company.

Second Person

Here’s where the second person comes in. If the company is “we,” who are the customers? For most content that is appearing on a company website and addressing the reader directly, the answer is you. In English, you is a singular pronoun, but we also treat it like an informal plural pronoun, so there is some mixing and matching going on.

Third Person

Now, it’s time to talk about the third person. This one is tricky. Third person writing is best when content is designed to be general, impartial and non-promotional. This adds credibility, and it doesn’t single out the reader. Third person is also valuable when we’re talking about sensitive topics, but we don’t want to judge the reader. Things like payday loans and insurance are easier to discuss when we use personal examples and direct the user to take action. If we’re talking about an infertility clinic or an attorney who specializes in foreclosures, addressing the reader directly can be uncomfortable.

Third person requires the pronouns he, she, it or they. We can also use generalizations like customers, homeowners and clients. Although these aren’t pronouns, addressing clients or homeowners directly is a much nicer alternative than using he/she, it or they.

Which One’s Right For Me?

Professionally, the “we/you” setup is ideal for company web pages. Third person should be used in informational content, encyclopedia-style articles and journalistic pieces. Press releases, for example, must always be written in the third person. The only exception is when quoting a company representative. For most marketing materials, it’s a great idea to address your target audience directly by using a combination of first and second person pronouns.

If you’d ask me “which grammatical person is right?” I would have to say that there’s no definitive answer. But, I can say that if you choose the wrong one, writing will be more difficult, and if you choose the right one, the words will flow more smoothly. The right grammatical person will emphasize your key points and address the reader in a comfortable and clear manner.

If you have any questions about choosing the correct grammatical person, just ask!

Why Outsourced Copywriters Suck

Outsourcing is the latest trend to take over programming, web development and copy writing services. In a global climate where national pride is a rare commodity, many business owners see outsourcing as an affordable way to get what they need while paying prices that are below the domestic street value.

write-on-homegrownCopy writing is one of many industries that have been hit hard by the outsourcing trend. We are here to challenge this trend and set things right. Programmers and engineers were two of the first groups to be affected by outsourcing. Professionals in these high-paying industries were quickly undercut by offshore companies who could offer the same services at lower prices.

When it comes to writing effective, professional content, outsourcing has several drawbacks. Anyone who has called a tech support line in the past decade knows that these people can barely speak English let alone write it! Money. That’s what’s driving this trend. It’s not only companies that hire non-native writers from who knows where. There are many, many marketing companies and web development firms who claim to offer copy writing services as a value-added feature. However, this typically means that they mark up the low, low cost of the outsourced content they order on your behalf. Outsourced content could come from Brooklyn or Burma, but the quality is generally the same because the writers are underpaid.

As professionals in this industry, it’s sad seeing fellow writers suffering through and being subjected to sweatshop-like conditions. The push to force costs lower and lower affects professional writers everywhere. The vast majority of copy writing services pay their writers less than minimum wage. We’re talking $2 or $3 per hour or less in many cases. Even restaurant servers make tips on top of their meager hourly wages. These companies only hire independent contractors, so federal taxes, health care costs, Internet access fees and so many other expenses come directly out of the writer’s paycheck. If you’re currently ordering articles from a content mill or a firm that uses these services, there are multiple surcharges going both ways.

The company ordering for you will always mark up their prices, and the company who offers writing services will charge 30 percent in commission and administrative fees or more.  If you choose us, you’ll enjoy a variety of benefits.

  • Native English speakers
  • Trained, professional writers
  • Experienced editors
  • Real people who speak and write your language!

With our services, you might pay a little bit more, but the funds actually go to the writer. Support real professional writers, and strengthen the domestic economy by avoiding content mills and outsourced copy writing services.

What is Inbound Marketing?

This is an excellent question. If you don’t know what inbound marketing is, there’s no need to worry. This term has only been around since 2005. Inbound marketing is an abstract concept that has several philosophic definitions. The principles of inbound marketing are associated with all types of web content. Inbound marketing is not an entirely new concept, but it has acquired an official name and a new meaning in the 21st century. To understand inbound marketing, we must also understand the principles behind outbound marketing.

Inbound marketing is a subtle, passive sales strategy that involves valuable web content and features that increase website visibility.

Outbound marketing uses aggressive go-get-it tactics, such as direct mail, cold calls and in-your-face advertisements. From a personal perspective, I believe that we all prefer inbound marketing. Let’s not fool ourselves. Nobody likes junk mail or telemarketers. From a business standpoint, outbound marketing is expensive, and the results may not be worth the effort or the cost.

In the past, inbound marketing has been an ever-present strategy, but it was done in a different way. If a business was marketing their products or services 20 years ago, there were several logical places for them to advertise. If a construction company was working in your neighborhood, there were several ways you could find out more about them without the Internet!

  1. Signs on the property or on the lawn
  2. Signs on their trucks
  3. Sweatshirt logos
  4. Larger signs on a building or on a billboard (whether these advertisements are inbound or outbound is debatable)
  5. Phone book entries
  6. Word-of-mouth recommendations

Today, this same construction company would use a wider variety of inbound marketing techniques.

  1. Local business entries, such as Google
  2. Informational blog posts
  3. YouTube videos
  4. Social media buzz
  5. Geo-targeted web content
  6. Promotional offers (coupons, press releases etc.)

The benefits of inbound marketing are clear. The upfront cost is lower, and the marketing materials are more appealing to the customer. I compare inbound marketing to a spider web. The spider builds the web and adds a few new strings once in a while. Then, the spider kicks back and waits.

Outbound marketing is like a pack of wolves or a lone predator that uses a resource-intensive approach to capture those much-needed customers.

In some ways, inbound marketing is non-traditional, but many established businesses still rely on word-of-mouth recommendations and traditional inbound leads. Business owners often prefer inbound leads because customers pre-qualify themselves.

The following paragraph will give you a bit more insight into how the concept of inbound marketing came to be.

The term inbound marketing was coined by a guy called Brian Halligan, who is the founder and CEO of a marketing site and software company called HubSpot. Halligan and a dude called Seth Godin are luminaries in this rapidly evolving field. Godin is responsible for creating a little publishing site called Squidoo. He has also penned several best-selling books that were marketed using his concepts. Anyway, he wrote a book called “Permission Marketing.” Permission marketing is very similar to inbound marketing because it requires potential customers to express interest before they become a lead.

It’s important to note that businesses will still have to nurture those inbound leads. Designating yourself or someone in your organization to follow up on leads and to track referrals is essential. This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for marketers.

If there’s one thing to remember, it’s that the Internet is a place to be seen. Increasing the visibility of your business information and web properties through passive inbound marketing is a surefire and cost-effective way to market your products or services.

Up next, we’ll be talking about the strategies behind creating successful inbound web content.

If you have any thoughts or questions about inbound marketing, share your comments here.