Teaching WordPress the Absolute Beginners Pt 2: The Content
Once you’ve got your students all excited about WordPress, the next step is to talk to them about how to write great web content. This won’t be the easiest thing to do because once someone has started to grasp WordPress all they want to do is to try out different themes and plugins. It’s your job to get their head back into learnings.
Writing for the web is entirely different to writing for print. A study has demonstrated that when people read for on the web they will normally skim. We pick out keywords, jump on headings and tend to ignore much of the wordage on a web page.
This means that you need to stop writing in the way that you would for printed media. Believe me, this is particularly difficult when you’re teaching people who are writers, academics or who do anything wordy. Why, they want to know, can’t they use their perfectly crafted prose for the internet?
Answer: Because people won’t read it.
Actually, that’s a little hyperbolic – there are blogs and web pages that are erudite and verbose and that can get away with it. But they tend to have an established reputation and people will take the time to sit and read them. If you’re just starting out it’s a good idea to make it as easy as possible for people to read.
Tip: I do not mean that you should make your text patronizing. Anything but! But there are techniques that you can use to make your text more readable and to help you get your point across.
1. Writing Content
Writing for the web is much more informal than writing for traditional forms of media. If you’re writing a blog and want to keep it up for a sustained period of time it’s very hard to maintain a formal tone. People expect blogs to give their readers a sense of the writer’s personality. This is quite different to a newspaper, for example, where (outside of editorials) the tone is expected to be quite neutral.
Keep it Simple
I love reading beautiful prose, and for me the most beautiful prose is always the most simple. This is great for writing for the web. Web content needs to be simple to enable people to follow along with it. Your web visitors will read your content fast and they won’t want to stumble over unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.
People don’t often like to be told to get rid of their adjectives but it will improve their web content (and their writing generally. Adjectives = BAD! Grrrrr).
Scrutinize your punctuation
There’s nothing that will make you look more unprofessional than incorrect punctuation. You should scrutinize every comma, dash, semi-colon, colon or any other punctuation that you are overly fond of.
Punctuation sets the rhythm of a piece of writing. As I already said, people read web content much faster than they do traditional print content. You want to help this rhythm by cutting down on unnecessary punctuation. The great thing about this is that when you do use a dash, semi-colon or colon, you can use it properly – for effect.
It’s important that your writing is direct and to the point. You website visitors are not going to want to stick around trying to figure out what you mean. You may think that you sound really intelligent by being abstract or by writing things that you think sound clever, but you’re more likely to come off pretentious. This is particularly important for headings. As we’ll see below, headings are important for giving the reader an indication of what comes next. So say what you mean!
Tip: Another reason for getting to the point is for Search Engine Optimization. Headings that contain relevant keywords will be great for your SEO. Similes, metaphors, puns, or anything else intended to make you seem smart or funny will do nothing for optimizing your content.
2. Formatting Content
Formatting can transform your web content. It’s remarkably easy and effective.
Imagine you are sat down at a screen and you have masses of text with nothing in it that stands out. All of the text is exactly the same throughout – nothing stands out. It’s difficult to extract what the writer thinks is important. What the reader will extract during their initial skim might have nothing to do with the main thrust of the argument.
As a writer of web content, you should direct the reader. You can do this incredibly simply by varying up your formatting. Do this effectively and your reader will get all of the important points on their first skim. If they like what they see they’ll go back and read the article more carefully.
Discrete sections of a web article should have headings. You can see that I’ve been using them throughout this article. This lets your reader know what’s happening in each section so they can decide if they want to read it.
Picking out key phrases in bold makes them stand out. A person skimming a piece of content will instantly pick out anything that you have in bold. This will tell them what the important points in the article are. It prevents them from creating the overall picture themselves and lets you keep control of it.
Tip: Use Block quotes. They will help something that is particularly important stand out. I like to use block quotes for tips as it distinguishes them from the rest of the text.
See what I did there?
Again, to aid the speed at which people read you should keep your paragraphs short. Short sentences are also good :). You should keep to one point per paragraph and get to that point pretty quickly. Don’t make your readers wade through loads of superfluous text before they get to the main point.
Linking is an important part of writing for the internet. By linking to other articles and web pages you’re sending your reader on to read more about things that they’re interested in or to learn more about an issue. It will also enable them to look at your sources. The internet is all about surfing – don’t be the end point! Send your visitors on somewhere else.
Break it up
A good way to help out your readers is to break up your text and images and videos. Using these different types of media helps with skimming the text. An image can tell you a lot about what is going on within the content. Also, people like to engage with ideas in different ways – adding images and video can help to engage readers who don’t want to read lots of text.
Are there any plugins to help out?
If you are worried about getting your content just right you could try out a plugin like Wordy for WordPress. Wordy.com provides online copy editing at a fee. It’s pretty handy as you can type your post in WordPress and have it sent straight to Word.com for copy editing. If you are looking for some copy editing assistance then it might be a good solution. Here’s a video on how it works:
3. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
When I’m teaching a class about WordPress I don’t tend to go in to SEO. SEO can be pretty complex and if you’ve just got a group of people to upload their first image onto the web you will be met with quizzical expressions. It would be easy to spend a whole day looking just at SEO.
However, in case someone does ask about SEO, it’s always good to have a few points up your sleeve.
- Decide whether you actually need to worry about SEO. If you are writing a personal blog or something that will be circulated easily within a specific niche, do you need to bother with it? Good SEO takes quite a bit of work and since WordPress takes care of a lot for you, unless you feel that it’s really important that you rank highly you might be better off forgetting about it.
- Try some good walkthroughs. You can take a look through one that I wrote a few months ago or try out Yoast’s excellent SEO for WordPress.
Unless you are teaching a class on SEO I would avoid talking about it too much. Most people really won’t care, not at these early stages. And it’s not fair to bore everyone else with SEO when only one person is interested.
To finish, here are my top five writing ticks that I hate and that you should avoid:
- Cliches – if I read in one more place that “content is king” I’ll poke myself in the eye.
- Paragraphs that are just one long sentence – unnecessary on the web and in print.
- Hesitant writing – sticking “seems,” “seemingly,” “perhaps,” “maybe,” or any versions of those words, in front of lots of key phrases. My husband does this a lot! He gets poked with a stick when he does it.
- Improper use of apostrophes – check the very important Apostrophe Protection Society for correct apostrophe use.
- Overuse of adjectives – it’s not necessary to say “the striking, fluffy cat sat regally on the crooked, dirty mat.” The cat sat on the mat, period.