One for human beings and laymen; the other for search engines and insiders.
One of the greatest daily struggles faced by every professional, in every field, is to resist the allure of argot. That is, we think it’s easier and quicker to use jargon than it is to spell out and explain what a familiar word means.
This idea is hard to argue with, especially when we’re writing for people who are as knowledgeable about the given topic as we are. Yet even in those esoteric cases, it’s often better to use plain language.
This principle is particularly important when it comes to headlines, or titles. In general, your headline should speak to the public; you want to avoid insiderism. Let me explain by way of an article from last week’s Time magazine.
The most common social media fail is easily correctable.
People are lazy. Web publishers are no exception. When they install social-sharing buttons, all too often they leave the default settings in place.
As a result, when a user clicks the ubiquitous “tweet” button to promote your content, nine times out of 10, what he ends up sharing is simply, unforgivably the article’s headline.
Big mistake. Under this setup, all your efforts prodding people to share your content are negated when they actually do.
What should you do instead? For every post published, you should embed a teaser that you’ve tailored for Twitter. (This can be accomplished by adding a new field or plug-in to your CMS.) Under this setup, when that share button is summoned, your fans will be sharing text specific to the medium, not a one-size-fits-all compromise.
“Upworthy is the worst site on the Internet.” So says Bob Powers of HappyPlace.
Jack Flanagan of the Daily Beast concurs: “Sites like Upworthy cater to the basest and most recklessly childish of human instincts.”
PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie rounds out the contempt: “The hammer of [Upworthy’s] unrelenting moralism starts to feel not so much as if it is breaking barriers as it is cracking your skull.”
Absent the rancor, their collective contention boils down to this: websites like Upworthy are the modern-day heirs to the disgraced practice of yellow journalism. If, say, the Podunk Herald wanted to prostitute itself to page views, it too could make things go viral.
“Let’s put it on our website.” The refrain is increasingly common, but, as always, there’s a right way and a wrong way.
An amateur will do what’s easiest: copy and paste. But a pro knows that to copy and paste is to deprive readers of the Web’s richness. Shifting copy from dead trees to Web browsers is both art and science.
The art: to write for the web, you need to be not only a writer, but also a marketer, a designer, and a publicist. The science: to write for the web, you need to understand how people read on the web.
To this end, we’ll review the differences between reading something designed for a monitor and something designed for print. We’ll walk through the best practices of web writing, and review a variety of good and bad examples. We’ll also intersperse exercises throughout, so you learn by doing.
Why do search engines always rank certain websites so highly? Obviously, their content is kingly, but so is their search engine optimization (SEO). Indeed, for many sites, the search-engine spiders that crawl the Web deliver a third or more of their traffic. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the Huffington Post, which in February reeled in readers with the ingenious bait: “What Time Is the Super Bowl?”
In protest, writers for publications such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and Atlantic each have taken turns slugging the SEO punching bag. The headlines describe their complaint: “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.” “This Boring Headline Is Written for Google.” “Google Doesn’t Laugh: Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO.”
In other words, algorithms don’t appreciate wit, irony, humor, or style. As reporter Steve Lohr put it, they’re “numbingly literal-minded.” Alas, Oscar Wilde!
These laments ring true in a big way: it is one of the definitive 21st century truisms that in addition to writing for eternity, or for one’s mother, today’s writer must also write for Google. Yet, as always, the devil’s in the metadata. The secret of stellar SEO is that you can have your cake and eat it, too; that is, you can pen pun-based headlines all day long and maintain your journalistic integrity. You just need to draft a second headline that’s straightforward and keywordy.