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What worked and what slacked in how-to posts people wrote for a Problogger challenge, plus my five steps for composing a how-to post. I wish the person who wrote instructions for my smartphone, pot light bulbs and anti-aging cream had read this.
Start your next post, page or pitch with the point you want to make — not history, context, puffery or other words that aren’t essential to your readers. This will keep what’s important on the top left of the page, where people focus.
For example, you’ll often read news releases that begin like this:
“Santina R. Claus, CEO and Chairman of Christmas Enterprises, bringing joy to children since 1603, today announced her 2014 travel itinerary, which will span the globe, from Siberia to South Africa…”
Instead, it should read:
“Santina Claus will start in northern Russia this year.” That is intriguing news for both media and curious children.
“Santina Claus will start in northern Russia this year, the CEO and chairman of Christmas Enterprises announced today.”
Save “bringing joy to children since 1603″ until after you have summarized her itinerary.
Often the people you’re writing for want to start with descriptions of their size, success, mission or something else they are proud of. Honoring their wishes may keep them happy at first. But not nearly as happy as they’ll be if readers actually read and remember their point or their content is widely shared.
Alternatively, maybe you’ve included words that don’t need to be there, in your messy first draft. Sweep away this clutter in your tidy second draft.
1. Write for your immediate reader
If you’re crafting a news release, you need to write it just like journalists would. Otherwise, they could miss your point or skip your content because they’re too busy to rewrite.
Similarly, if you’re writing a pitch to prospects, lead with what’s most important to them.
Left-loading works with most other readers too, pretty much anyone who is more interested in what’s in it for me than in what the person you’re writing for is proud of.
This is even more important than it used to be.
2. Cater to mobile readers
Online readers, especially those on mobile, focus on the left, according to eye tracking tests. In fact, one of the tips shared by Ann Handley at the recent meshmarketing conference in Toronto, was to make sure the first few words on the left side of your content rivet your readers. That’s all they may read.
3. Squeeze into small spaces
With Twitter and other social media, it also makes sense to focus on the beginning. If you go on for too long before you excite your readers or make your point, you may have exhausted your character quota or their attention span.
Left-loading will also help ensure your keywords are front and centre, for search engine spiders to easily spot.
4. Short works
As you continue to write, you can keep your important words appearing on the left through short sentences and paragraphs. This will also make your content easier to read, understand and remember.
I’m not suggesting that you should never start a sentence with a description or subordinate clause. To maintain interest and add emphasis, you need to vary your sentence structure. But I am insisting on left-loading for the first paragraph or two.
5. Goof proof
For time-crunched writers, simplicity is the best way to avoid grammar errors and foggy meanings. Consider the tendency to mismatch words and phrases. For example, “With regional offices in 20 countries, Santina R. Claus today announced her 2014 travel itinerary…” “Regional offices” do not sync with “Santina R. Claus.” Besides, few people care about how big the company is. It’s all about Santina.
In other cases, words that don’t fit may slide in. Such as:“With regional offices in 20 countries, Christmas Enterprises also… ”
Yes, also, even though it’s not in addition to anything else. I saw this today in a news release from a company that shall remain nameless. And I’ve seen bloopers like this countless times from writers who are busier than Santina’s elves this time of year.
Keep it simple!
By all means, include what your client, boss or other approver loves. But first make the essential point
To revise right-loaded copy, you can simply flip the essential and nonessential clauses in your first sentence. Better still, turn the essential clause into a short sentence, followed by another that summarizes the other stuff.
If you have to explain to your client, boss or content matter expert why you are insisting on left-loading your words, you can summarize it like this:
- So people with short attention spans will read and remember the main point.
- So people reading online, especially on mobile devices, will actually see the words.
- So you won’t run out of characters or attention span on social media.
- To keep it simple and readable.
- To avoid mistakes and confusion.
Got it? Now get back to work, you busy elves.
So you’re leaving the sanctuary of the corporate world, trading the steady pay cheque for the chance for greater excitement and fulfillment.
But let me tell you what you need to know before you embark on this romantic quest, knowledge earned from my 20+ years as a freelance writer and communication planner.
You may be anxious now, but don’t fret too much about fleeing safety. The corporate world is about to become less secure. After recessions, technology and global competition, many companies will shed employees as if they’re fading glamour stars.
Fortunately for you, fewer jobs-for-life will mean more opportunity for freelancers, independents and consultants of all stripes.
The words of change
This change and uncertainty will also expand your vocabulary. You’ll learn to wield “restructuring” and a slew of words invented to shine up this rough reality.
You’ll also learn tech vocabulary. Terms like “systems migration” will roll of your tongue. Really.
Sharing will no longer be limited to giving a hungry pal half your sandwich or revealing your deep secrets.
You’ll also try to master BTW (by the way) and many other initials, once everyone starts communicating on tiny portable phones. LOL.
These tiny phones will also connect most people to the office all the time, or 24/7 as you’ll say.
When you have children, you’ll be relieved your clients’ office rarely extends into your home. Train your clients to apologize when they call late. They’ll have young kids too.
Oops. I’m supposed to share my wisdom more than dazzle you with glimpses of how your personal life will change.
However, while I’m on spoiler alert, I can’t resist advising you to get rid of that new office you’re enjoying so much, buy a house and work there. Not just because it will help you with your growing family responsibilities, but also because it will turn out to be a kick-ass investment.
Yes, younger self, respectable people will say ass—and worse.
That’s enough new vocabulary. On to the tips that will sustain you.
Words of wisdom
When you’re working from home, you’ll need to make a point of getting out more, especially to fitness classes and networking events at the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).
You’ll also need to make sure that home, especially the fridge and television, doesn’t become a distraction. Hire people more often to clean, paint and take on other chores you’ll be tempted to do when you should be marketing.
You’ll fiercely deny this advice when you’re crazy busy. But during those no-work mornings at the gym you’ll realize all too well how wise always-be-marketing is.
Don’t put your eggs into one or two baskets. Often your regular clients will seem like more than enough. But when they lose their jobs in this brave new world, you will too.
While you now think that freelancing means you’ll be your own boss, never forget that every client, most prospects and even chance encounters will be your master. Make sure you stick with the nice ones.
That’s right. If you’re good enough, and you are, you can select clients almost as much as they choose you.
Having nice clients, suppliers and other work friends will encourage long-term relationships to blossom. If you hop from project to project, you’ll burn out. And you’ll get lonely.
Empathy will help, on both social and professional levels. You’ll need to read your clients’ minds and divine the hearts and souls of the people they want to communicate with.
Many of your long-term clients will become loyal buds, part of the rich tapestry of work, family and friends the freelance life can weave.
Learn to live with the reality that you will never have time and money together. Either you will be working long hours, but have lots coming in, or going to the gym during the day so you don’t worry about where you’ll get your next gig.
Sharpen your tools
Hold onto that Mac. You will be tempted to switch to a PC because of lower costs and, at first, easier communication with clients. But you will be more creative, instead of bored silly by memorizing commands. You’ll be surprised by what inspires you.
Keep up your French, even if your best practice opportunities are television and trips to francophone countries.
On that subject, take more holidays, real holidays, with no kids or parents.
After all, you’ll never see written on the tombstone of a long-time freelancer: She spent too much time at the beach.
That brings me to one final piece of wisdom: Wear your bikini more often. Twenty plus years from now, you’ll understand why.
Good luck, younger self. Good laughs too.
Now if I could only channel my older self, to advise me on the next 20 or so years.
Too overwhelmed to capture your brand, articulate your key message, click with your key audience? Too stressed to tighten and show you respect your readers’ time? Too rushed to find mistakes spellcheck can’t catch or capitalize consistently?
Unfortunately, in today’s busy world, the critical step of rewriting and self-editing is too often given short shrift, by even the smartest and most seasoned communication pros.
Rewriting entails standing back and taking a look at the big picture. Self-editing means focusing on the details. Although you may do this more with big content and big objectives, don’t forget that emails, social media updates and other small content will also benefit from this scrutiny.
To be efficient with your time, here’s what to focus on:
Retouch the big picture
Read more at Toronto IABC.