Writing for the Web: Caressing the Counterintuitive

Read this. Blah, Blah, Blah…

My first job out of grad school was blogging about health and wellness for a failing online startup company. I had a cubicle replete with drably carpeted partitions, an editor who begrudged my recent academic achievement, and a head full of delusion. Finally, I thought, my prose genius will be unleashed on an unsuspecting public who will soon be mainlining lyrical rhetoric from an IV of my persuasive insight and profundity. That was Monday. By Wednesday I wanted to go back to school to get my MBA.

But I didn’t, and after months of steadily diminishing returns following my first few posts, I couldn’t understand why my writing wasn’t being liked, why it wasn’t being shared – and commented on and re-tweeted and quoted on e-cards and paraphrased at baptisms and chiseled on tombstones. Why wasn’t my brilliance being celebrated? The simple reason is that no one was reading it – at least not from start to finish. And the simple reason that no one was reading it is the same reason a lot of really excellent online content doesn’t get read: the average modern reader doesn’t have the time or the inclination to read 2,500 words on the relationship between Michael Jordan, cultural embellishment, and mid-western hipsters. Looking back, the piece I just mentioned has aged well, but outside of a few select sites, long-form content no longer has a place on the Internet – if it ever did in the first place.

Keep reading. Ooh, la, la!

Here’s the good news: If you made it through those first two paragraphs, this article is for you. You can easily digest large chunks of content filled with compound sentences and self-indulgent vernacular. You appreciate this sort of convoluted, “challenging” content. You prize truth and meaning over facts and entropy.

Here’s the bad news: If you read like this, you probably write like this. And if you write like this, your content will likely never find an audience.

Essay, poems, and short stories are genres meant for abstraction. Online content is a genre meant for information. And how do people ingest information? They skim. More to the point, they skim headlines, subheads, links, and bullet points. They look for connections between keywords and images. They defer to social media for easily digestible snippets. What they do not do is read every word of every 1,500-word essay, so you have to create opportunities and then take full advantage if you want to supply real meaning in a world of impatient demand.

Over the next six weeks, we are going to touch on a variety of topics related to writing online content. The purpose of this series is to give you some insight on how to optimize your page. The goal is to increase your page views, time on page, conversions, and return users (among other analytics and metrics) while continuing to craft compelling copy that is fun to read and write. We will proceed in a chronological/spatial order, more or less, beginning with crafting the ideal headline.