Anyone can write …errr… garbage. But can they write for an audience, make something “boring” a “must” read, pull the reader in from the very start, structure what they say, and end with a bang? Can they put across their own or a client’s message in a soft-sell manner? This approach can have far more impact than a hard sell which often leaves readers feeling preached at and turn them oﬀ. Can they lure the reader back to the site again to read more interesting stuﬀ and turn a casual browser into a ﬁrm customer?
“Marketing is a contest for people’s attention.” – Seth Godin
These are the sorts of questions most people don’t ask themselves when they start churning out web content they think will sell. Some are natural writers but many need guidelines, practice and professional help.
So, what does make someone start reading? It can be the headline, a picture with a caption, a quote in large type in the middle of a column, a standﬁrst or “sell” paragraph below the headline, an opening paragraph or a cracking layout where all these elements work together.
The main article is your ﬁrst task and you need a content plan. Intro, reason for writing, point 1 plus examples, point 2 etc. up to six, say, depending on subject and words required. Without a plan you can go oﬀ track. A plan focuses your mind. When you ﬁnish writing on one topic, you naturally move on to another, all sections running logically from start to ﬁnish… because you’ve thought it through.
But, of course, to produce a plan you must research your subject ﬁrst. Keep it simple. It is so easy to write reams of notes – I have – and then get overwhelmed by information overload. When taking notes, write down new things you have come across – leave out stuﬀ you already know which you can enter on your article plan later.
Research and plan done, you are alone with that empty screen. The trickiest task is before you – what to put in your opening paragraph that will grab your reader. Fail here and you will lose them. The design, headlines, pictures have got your reader to the copy – now it’s your job to keep ’em there.
For a feature article, client case study, proﬁle piece, blog – anything not pure news – pick out the most interesting or zaniest, oﬀ the wall fact or anecdote you have researched and try to work that into the opening couple of sentences. You have to hint about what’s to come in whatever you write but the more dramatic the beginning the better.
Here are some intro paragraphs I’ve used in past articles:
Blink and you’d miss it. In a narrow country lane, a rough track led through a gap in the hedge to an overgrown piece of woodland with a shack in the middle and a secret…
Why me? At 59 I was 10st 7lb, 5ft 7in, and had never been overweight. I ran and played cricket regularly and didn’t drink alcohol excessively, yet at a routine check-up, I was told I had type 2 diabetes. In 10 years I could be dependent on insulin, it could aﬀect my sight, feet, ears and heart and I had a 36% greater chance of dying early…
What do you do with a sprawling 40-year-old building on a tightly packed city-centre site, sweltering in summer, freezing in winter, and ﬁtted with windows you daren’t open because of traﬃc noise? Do you demolish and rebuild, resort to cosmetic surgery or convert to something else?
They all set up the stories to follow (building an eco-house on the site of a railway carriage, how to beat type 2 diabetes, and transforming an old building respectively). They are designed to interest and titivate the reader to read on. It’s how you might start telling a story in the pub – you want to build things up and pull your friends away from the bar to listen to your anecdote.
Think dramatically. There is always a strong angle – it’s just ﬁnding it and writing it down immediately. You can craft the sentence and the paragraph later. Get the initial idea down ﬁrst – in fact, jot down any ﬁrst thoughts as soon as they occur. Often it’s what you think ﬁrst that proves the freshest idea – and that can also happen with headlines. You can go around the houses with ideas and all the time the best has been staring you in the face!
Similarly, think about your ﬁnal sentence. You have to end with a bang to make the reader feel they have come to a satisfactory end – you don’t want to let them down with a damp squib ﬁnale. It won’t make them recommend your piece to others. Strong quotes often work as do short sentences and sharp thoughts.
The ﬁnal paragraphs for the samples above were as follows:
And the client, Lee Farman? “The design works. Everybody says the biggest thing is the light. We worked really hard on that and it works pretty much all of the time. Even on dull days, we don’t need to turn the lights on!”
The question for researchers, who are now working on identifying the type of diet that can keep diabetes at bay after reversal, is: once we’ve beaten the condition, how do we improve our lifestyle so it doesn’t return? Watch this space.
And the Carbon Trust’s view? “Hampshire county council was courageous in what they did but without making it seem unachievable for others. It’s a very replicable project.”
One of the paragraphs concludes with a positive, surprise comment; the others look to the future, one to what science might achieve and suggesting more stories to come, the other stating the refurbishment scheme could be used elsewhere too. All positives, though negatives can also be used depending on the subject. Readers are not left hanging; they ﬁnish reading the article with a sense of accomplishment at having got to the end.
What happens in between, though? Follow your plan, bring in anecdotes and colour and quotes wherever possible but use them to illustrate your next point. Once your opening paragraph is there, you need to spell out the proposition you are discussing in the next few paragraphs and then cover the key 3 or 4 aspects you think are most important to the reader. Deal with each point systematically. Always back up your general statements as it will otherwise read like a comment article.
And think “bridges” between paragraphs. You want your article to ﬂow so introduce words you might use to preface an argument such as “however”, “but”, “therefore”, “moreover”, “Worse was to come” – anything that keeps the pace of the piece ticking over but does not sound long-winded when you read it out loud to yourself.
Short, sharp sentences, followed by longer ones, change the pace. Avoid long paragraphs; they can always be broken up. Make life simple for the reader who is probably reading at speed and needs to grasp the gist of a piece quickly. Otherwise, they’ll click oﬀ or turn the page – you might never see them again.
These, then, are some rough guidelines for narrative-type articles, case studies, company reports, background features. Nothing’s hard and fast but stick to this approach and you’re unlikely to go far wrong.
You may also like: The Complete Copywriting Guide 2020
Image source: Shutterstock.com
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