Communication between people is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice, and only 7% the words you actually say. Quickly consider the impact of stripping away 93% of the meaning someone understands from an idea you are trying to communicate — something we do every single day when we create or interact online. The efficacy of that remaining 7% becomes incredibly important, especially if you have business or personal brand investments on the line.
Writing great, concise sentences to support and market your content is possibly the most important tactic necessary to spread content online. Don’t worry, this isn’t a grammar lesson (though we will talk about grammar). This simply a list of guidelines and items to consider consider when writing for the web.
Effective sentences convey the most possible information (literal and contextual) with the fewest possible words, and in many instances online, you are limited by character counts anyway. The average length of an English word is 5.1 letters, and an average sentence is 14.3 words. Some quick math reveals that we have already reached 86.23 characters (including spaces) without any links or Calls-to-Action regarding the content. This is too many, especially if you are limited to 140 characters.
Pro-tip: Good sentences for social media are 10 words or less. A strong sentence doesn’t need a list of adjectives or other unnecessary elements — focus on being as direct as possible with your message and Call-to-Action. Cut words until the true meaning of your concept is as apparent as possible for a reader to retain.
2. Verbs and Nouns
Studies have been performed that show verbs being more effective at grabbing attention online than nouns. Using action words in your sentences implies a sense of urgency, which is good for encouraging readers to click through and consume your content and engage with your brand. Numbers have also been shown to be effective at grabbing the attention of readers.
Pro-tip: Put actions words and numbers at the beginning of your sentences for the most impact.
3. Syntax and Grammar
Syntax is change in the form and order of words in a sentence, which means not only do the words you use matter, but the order you place the words in is equally important. English uses a “syntactic” grammar system, which uses word order to imply relationships between words; the literal sequence of the words imparts significant meaning to the sentence. You can cause a reader considerable confusion by putting words in the wrong order or place in the sentence. For instance:
“Now save money on marketing by subscribing to Scoop.it for Business”
“Save money on marketing by subscribing to Scoop.it for Business now.”
Do you see how even though the words are the same, the meaning you take from the sentence changes? Or, at the very least, how the second sentence makes more contextual sense from a reader’s perspective?
Pro-tip: “K.I.S.S.” is the rule of the day. Try to avoid complex sentences when writing for the web. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly — they can confuse your meaning. You should always stick as closely as possible to commonly-accepted grammar rules and keep punctuation basic.
4. Word Choice
Words in all languages carry multiple definitions, contextual meaning, and colloquial information. The definitions of words vary drastically across cultures, and good online writers will notice these fine differences and leverage them to support the message they are trying to convey. For instance, in British-English, “a rubber” means “an eraser” in American-English, and well.. “a rubber” definitely does not mean “an eraser” in American-English. Also, there is depth of meaning to consider as well. For instance:
“The article illuminated the author’s opinion.”
“The article illustrated the author’s opinion.”
The above shows a big difference in meaning for only two syllables of change between the sentences. Notice how the first version’s “illuminated” implies a sense of discovery while “illustrated” implies a sense of representing what already exists.
Pro-tip: Avoid Thesaurus.com like the plague and keep colloquialisms (words with specific regional meanings) to a minimum. Choose words with meanings you understand deeply and correctly convey your point. “Fat” language, or stuffing sentences with big words simply for effect, will do a disservice to your point and possibly confuse your readers.
The editorial style of anything you write for the web should support your brand’s or personal brand’s core values and target market. Your voice should shine through in a consistent, meaningful way — and that voice should be based on the likes and dislikes of the audience you are trying to reach. Your voice should “match” the visual style and values of your brand. If you feel a disconnect, then revisit how you are constructing verbiage for web use.
For instance, would you take Bloomberg or IBM seriously if you read something they produced online that was grammatically incorrect, used slang or inappropriate words, or had a tone appropriate for a teenager? Probably not. While it isn’t always wrong to use language creatively, make sure it is the correct type of language for your brand.
Pro-tip: Do some market research to decide what type of language engages your audience best. You might be surprised! Then use that knowledge to compile an editorial style guide for your brand to keep your voice consistent across departments or mediums.