Saturday, 20 October 2012

How to Write an Article for On-line Publishing 2: Developing your Skills and Technique

How to Write an Article for On-line Publishing 2: Developing your Skills and Technique

The first part of this series on How to Write an Article for On-line Publishing was mostly about presenting your content in a way that internet readers can easily scan and digest. This second article goes more into the nitty-gritty of writing the content itself.

Develop your Writing Skills

There are tens of thousands of articles being published on the internet every day. But when you go and look at them, the truth is that most are just a bit 'samey'. The content is superficial, the language is often a bit stilted and many are variants of other articles already on the internet.

If you can write unique content that's well written, correctly spelled and grammatically correct, they you're already a long way towards getting your content noticed. The other thing is to find your 'voice'. Your writing should reflect who you are. It should flow naturally and have something of your character and personality in it.

Talk to your site's visitors... For me, that is part of the key. Write as if you were having a conversation with a site visitor. Make your work easy to understand and get your points across. This really will make your work stand out. So many sites buy their content and it's always written in the third person and impersonal. It may be grammatically correct and in proper English (or, more likely, American). But to my mind it's bland filler.

If you can write good English with a distinctive voice then you are already head and shoulders above the competition. To me this is one of the reasons that blogs are so successful today. Blogs have a personal voice and they address the site's visitor. They do not contain mass-produced filler content. Each one is unique.

But even if you have the voice, there are always things you can do to improve your writing. You need to write clearly and succinctly, but you also need to vary your expressions and language. Try not to use the same words in adjacent, or even in the same sentences. This means broadening your vocabulary so that you can use as many synonyms as possible (different words with the same meaning).

English is one of the world's languages with the broadest vocabulary of words. Of course, you do not have to be Shakespeare (the English speaker with the largest known vocabulary) you can buy a thesaurus. This is a collection of words and their synonyms. Most modern computer systems also come with in-built thesauri that you can use.

Here's a very simple example to illustrate what I mean:

My mother and father are the best, most supportive, mother and father that anyone could wish for.

My mother and father are the best, most supportive, parents that anyone could wish for.

This is a very simple example, I admit, but it demonstrates clearly how using a little thought and eliminating the repetition makes the sentence read so much better. If you use Microsoft Word for your writing then you can right click (or Command Click) in the centre of a word to bring up the thesaurus.

It may be my Welsh heritage, but I prefer using a book to look up words, be it my trusty Oxford English Dictionary or my Roget's Thesaurus (if you are American, use the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus).

Lay your Article out Nicely

The internet is a visual medium and web designers are really only just getting to grips with that. It may have its own design rules, but producing web content is like producing any other content and layout is a very important part of that.

If you can, use pictures or video to bolster your words. The importance of images on-line cannot be stressed enough. Google will use them to illustrate search results if available, sites like Pinterest use them to link to pages. Web surfers love them and they draw the attention to your content.

Of course, not all articles are suited to illustration. This article would be a good example of one that does not need illustration. But on my main site, when I am writing about <a href="">Wild Foods</a>, for example illustrations and pictures are critical. They are needed to help identify the plant and are needed to show which part of a plant is edible.

When using images they need to be appropriately scaled and optimized for delivery over the internet. Internet surfers are impatient and images can increase web page download sizes significantly. This is a big topic, and I will deal with images in a later article.

Use Good Grammar in your Writing

Whenever you are writing then you should always use good grammar. The truth is that good grammar is the foundation of all good writing. No matter what medium you are writing for, getting the grammar correct is an essential part of generating excellent content.

If your grammar is not that great, use on-line English courses. You will also have access to your computers built-in grammar check. Use this if you are not certain. They are not perfect, but they will point out the major errors. Just do not follow them slavishly. Under certain conditions you can break certain grammatical rules if breaking them makes the text flow better.

Others will probably disagree with me on this point, but I am a poet first and a writer of prose second. Poetry is about the sound and flow of language and to achieve that you may need to subvert the rules every now and then. Still, if you do not know the rules in the first place, you will not know that you are bending them so you cannot truly judge the effect you are achieving and why.

Above all, Be True to Yourself

Your writing worth is judged by what you say and how you say it. The most important feature of your writing should be the ability to clearly transmit your thoughts to your reader. It is not about being clever and using long words (unless you are writing technical articles where words have more specific meanings than in general conversation).

If you are a writer then you want people to follow what you write and be hungry for the next instalment. To do this you have to put yourself into your writing and you need to not only express yourself clearly, you also need to put your personality into your words.

Paint the scene with your words. This is both about clarity and being vivid in your writing. If you are describing something try and make that come alive for your readership.

Make your article useful, ensure it solves a problem for your users.

Give your site visitors something to laugh at. Humans find humour very important in forming bonds of friendship.

Sketch, Research, Edit and Re-edit

An article is a product and it needs to be designed just like any other product. That might sound a little mechanical for what is thought of as a 'creative' process. But if you are writing for a living, following a proper writing methodology allows you to get far more done with better results.

This process works with any kind of writing, but it is even more important for technical or factual pieces where the information you present absolutely has to be correct.

I typically start by selecting a topic and then making a quick sketch of the article and the topics I want to cover. After that I go away and do my research. I note the research sources and I read everything carefully.

Once all the research is done, I sit down and write the first draft of the article. After that I compare the article to the research material to make certain that all the facts are correct. I then go back to the article and edit it for spelling, grammar, content and flow.

But don't make the article too dry. Put in your own thoughts and experience into the article. If you have an illustrative anecdote, include this as well.

Even after you have published your article, review it and its content every now and then. Things change and you may find that what you thought was a fact is no longer so. There are also domain experts out there, one of these may point out a flaw in what you have written. If this happens, thank them, research what they said and if it turns out to be true go back and amend what you wrote.

Your articles are your store-front and you need to be know as someone who produces accurate, well written and grammatically correct content.

Don't Forget to Read

Just as there are rules to writing, it cannot be forgotten that writing is an art-form. And the way to study the art of writing is to read. All good writers are avid and voracious readers as well.

The act of reading will improve your vocabulary and it will help improve your skills. By reading in your own domain you see what topics are hot and you can see what successful writers are doing. You find out what topics they are covering and how they craft their articles.

If another writer is successful, then emulating them can give you a leg-up for your own content.

Reading also gives you insights into the fine craft of writing. It will help you spot the difference between good and bad sentence structures or great and mediocre writing. Even if you just start our as a mediocre web content provider, reading will help you hone your skills to become a fine writer and eventually a great writer.

Don't forget to write.

Even if you do not have a project on the go at the moment, write every day. Get in the habit of doing writing exercises. These can be anything you like, but all the better if they are not part of your normal writing routine. I tend to write poetry first thing in the morning, then I edit the previous day's articles and then I write new content.

This gives each day a structure and prevents me from going into a rut. I've also found this to be by far the best way of overcoming or eliminating writer's block.


  • Learn new words and extend your vocabulary. Use thesauri to stop yourself from repeating words in the same or adjacent sentences.
  • Pay attention to the layout of your articles. Break your work up into easily digestible and scannable chunks. Attractive layout and proper use of images makes web content far more attractive.
  • Use good grammar. Check and re-check your spelling and grammar in each article you write.
  • Express yourself as skilfully and clearly as possible. Make certain that your work is easy to read and understand.
  • Ensure you get your facts right. Do your research before you write your articles then check the facts you present in your article against the original sources.
  • Keep on reading. The more you read, the better you will write.
  • Don't stop writing. Even if you have no assignments, write for fun.

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