Last Updated on October 5, 2021 by Alex Miller
In a recent issue of the New York Times (August 25, 2017), Op-Ed Columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece entitled, “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers.” This article was written to give some valuable tips to those wishing to write for the NYT editorial pages.
As I read it, I was amazed to find myself agreeing with many of the points he made — as it applied to writing web page content.
As having excellent web page content is a critical aspect of onsite SEO (see our articles on the Google Fred Update, and low-quality pages), I thought I’d take the opportunity to quote extensively from it, and insert my comments as they pertain to adapting his recommendations for online/website content. You can find the original NYT article here (but be aware that their content is usually behind a paid firewall).
Web Content Tip 1: Get to the Point!
“A wise editor once observed that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. This means that every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader’s attention, starting with the first. Get to the point: Why does your topic matter? Why should it matter today? And why should the reader care what you, of all people, have to say about it?”
This first point really reaches out and grabs you – because the same principle holds when people are reading web page content – they can simply stop reading. At any point. So your web content has to be a lean, mean, fighting machine – fighting to retain your readers interest, until the very end (of the page).
Get to the point — Such an easy concept to state, yet how much web content have we all seen that violates that principle? Meandering all over the place with no clear focus. Content that does not convince your readers that “this really matters” – and content that does not persuade them that they should care what you (or your site) have to say about the subject.
Web Content Tip 2: Your Readers Are Not Experts and They Must Understand You!
“The ideal reader of an op-ed is the ordinary subscriber — a person of normal intelligence who will be happy to learn something from you, provided he can readily understand what you’re saying. It is for a broad community of people that you must write, not the handful of fellow experts you seek to impress with high-flown jargon, the intellectual rival you want to put down with a devastating aside or the V.I.P. you aim to flatter with an oleaginous adjective.”
One of the most dangerous assumptions that you can make when preparing website page content is to assume that your site visitors have some specialized knowledge or advanced training. In most cases (even with sites targeting specific professions and niche interests) they do not have such background or knowledge – they’re “just folks.”
And before they can be sold, or persuaded, they need to understand – clearly – what you are telling them. Stay away from posting web pages that have dense prose, that are filled with industry jargon – content that puts on airs, trying to be intellectual, content written to impress industry influencers, etc.
Web Content Tip 3: Don’t Waffle Around!
“The purpose of an op-ed is to offer an opinion. It is not a news analysis or a weighing up of alternative views. It requires a clear thesis, backed by rigorously marshaled evidence, in the service of a persuasive argument. Harry Truman once quipped that he wished he could hire only one-handed economists — just to get away from their “on the one hand, on the other” advice. Op-ed pages are for one-handed writers.”
The paragraph above is not directly applicable to all types of web content – or so you might think. But upon further examination it is.
Take product descriptions. How many sites have bare-bones descriptions of the sizes, fit, colors, etc? But what if you wrote them more forcefully? – marshaling your evidence and presenting a case that “this is what you need.” While you might not have pages on your site that offer a “news analysis” or a “weighing up of alternative views,” remember that you also have to say what you have to say, from a position of strength and confidence. Give your readers a clear choice, not a hundred-million options.
Web Content Tip 4: Clearly Present Your Credentials!
“Authority matters. Readers will look to authors who have standing, either because they have expertise in their field or unique experience of a subject. If you can offer neither on a given topic you should not write about it, however passionate your views may be. Opinion editors are often keen on writers who can provide standing-with-surprise: the well-known environmentalist who supports nuclear power; the right-wing politician who favors transgender rights; the African-American scholar who opposes affirmative action.”
This is a critical component of web content effectiveness, and the effectiveness of your website generally: authority. Does your web page content reflect the fact that you/your staff are authorities? Do you offer any verifiable evidence that this is the case? Remember that your site visitors probably don’t know you from Adam, as the saying goes, so you can’t assume that they will recognize your expertise. If you have training, years of experience, listed accomplishments, certifications, a portfolio, testimonials, or are sought-after speakers, you need to give your site visitors that information.
Web Content Tip 5: Information Rather Than Opinion!
“Younger writers with no particular expertise or name recognition are likelier to get published by following an 80-20 rule: 80 percent new information; 20 percent opinion.”
I like 80-20 rules in general (see my article on the value of reading and thinking for online leaders for some of my examples) — and I like this one in particular: 80% new information and 20% opinion.
And for “younger writers” in the quote above, we can replace that with “sites without much history.” One of the things Google has been saying over and over is that people online are searching for information that is critical to their needs. And note the phrase “new” information — don’t just give people the same old re-hash of what they can already find elsewhere.
So do this before writing your next page of web content: perform some simple searches on the topic and find out what people are saying about that topic. Then write about what they are not writing about. This will give you a unique voice in the community – you will be broadcasting a beaming signal instead of just generating more static and noise.
A good example of this technique in action is this very blog post you are reading — showing a connection made between an article not dealing with web content writing, which gives us an opportunity to (yet) again address a popular topic (writing for the web) but in a distinctive way.
Web Content Tip 6: The Passive Voice is Out!
“Avoid the passive voice. Write declarative sentences. Delete useless or weasel words such as “apparently,” “understandable” or “indeed.” Project a tone of confidence, which is the middle course between diffidence and bombast.”
This is where a lot of folks fall down in writing web copy. If you look through our Posirank blog posts, for example, you will discover that they are almost always written in the active voice. So many web pages do not, unfortunately. Get rid of the “weasel words” and straighten up that ambiguous prose. And a very effective way to increase your CTR on landing pages is to change the voice from passive to active.
Web Content Tip 7: Anticipate Reader (Buyer) Objections!
“Be proleptic, a word that comes from the Greek for “anticipation.” That is, get the better of the major objection to your argument by raising and answering it in advance. Always offer the other side’s strongest case, not the straw man. Doing so will sharpen your own case and earn the respect of your reader.”
They say that “the best defense is a good offense.” So go on the offensive if you want to persuade with your web content. Right now ask yourself: What are the major objections raised by prospective customers to buying your product or using your services? (If you are not sure, simply ask your sales/marketing staff!)
Make a list of the top three customer objections and make sure that when you write your web content that you deal with these objections. The outcome? “…Doing so will sharpen your own case and earn the respect of your reader.” And you may just make a dollar or two in the process.
Web Content Tip 8: Sweat the Small Stuff!
“Sweat the small stuff. Read over each sentence — read it aloud — and ask yourself: Is this true? Can I defend every single word of it? Did I get the facts, quotes, dates, and spellings exactly right? Yes, sometimes those spellings are hard: the president of Turkmenistan is Gurbanguly Malikguliyevich Berdymukhammedov. But, believe me, nothing’s worse than having to run a correction.”
There is nothing worse than posting web content that is inaccurate. That’s why not only proofreading is necessary (to spot spelling/grammar/stylistic issues and correct them) but also fact-checking. Newspapers (and your better news websites) have to do this all the time, or else their readership goes elsewhere. Why should they stick around, much less return to the site, when it is discovered that information presented is not accurate?
But why would your site visitors come back if your site has pages filled with errors of fact and information? When you do a site audit as a part of your content marketing efforts make sure you ask “…Did I get the facts, quotes, dates, and spellings exactly right?”
And this is even more necessary if you are interacting on social channels – because someone calling you out on social media for using “alternative facts” can severely damage your online reputation, followers, site visitors, purchases and your overall industry reputation.
Web Content Tip 9: Brevity is the Soul of Wit (Especially Online)!
“You’re not Proust. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs tight.”
Not much more than you can add to that. Short sentences and tight paragraphs make for easy-to-read (and easy-to-scan) web content. Readers of your web content will thank you.
Web Content Tip 10: Make the Right Choices!
“I’d wish you luck, but good writing depends on conscious choices, not luck. Make good choices.”
This is a good place to end this post. Writing web content is not some type of magic or an arcane mystical technique — it is a skill that can be learned. So learn it. Don’t aim to get “lucky” when you are writing web content, whatever that might mean.
Learn how to make the right choices, the right conscious decisions, during the writing process: From selecting the topic – identifying the issue(s) to write about – structure – style – the extent of coverage – to final fact-checking and proofreading.
Our goal here at Posirank is for your site — or your client’s site — to have the best web page content of any site in its niche. It would seem that even the New York Times has learned what’s critical. How about you?
Quick commercial: Did you know that we have trained, professional writers, standing by to provide you with webpage/online content? Whether it’s page content from 400-3,000 words, press releases, or even guest blog postings, you’ll find it in your Posirank.com dashboard, under Services > Order Content. If you don’t have a Posirank account, you can register for a free 7-day trial at the wholesale pricing level.
Image Credits: A shout-out to the fine folks at the NYT, from which all post images are taken.