The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
I feel almost cheeky lecturing professional proofreaders and editors on how to write. I don’t quite have the attention to detail that most professional proofreaders have as their stock in trade, and I often hire a proofreader to go over my articles and blog entries to ensure there are no schoolboy errors or any of my grammatical eccentricities.
However, there is an art to writing for the internet and social media that is distinct from traditional copywriting skills, and I’d like to share with you some of my insights on how to get copy just right for the web.
1. Always consider the online platform your copy will be posted onto.
Writers and proofreaders have to be conscious of where their copy will be posted online, as this will determine the format of the text.
As we will see, all the social networks have their own structures and formats that need to be heeded, and a writer or a proofreader needs to be mindful of the tone and the intended readership of the online copy, just as they would if it were intended for offline publication.
A lengthy social media post should have a different structure and feel to a blog entry and, if the social media post relates to content posted elsewhere online, thought should be given about how the two relate to each other.
2. Think about how the text will look on the screen and of what possible sizes that screen could be
Writing for the printed page involves an entirely different sensibility to the one you would use when writing for the computer screen. This is because the way the human eye scans a computer screen is different from how it would read a page in a book or a magazine.
The main thing to appreciate is that people are put off when confronted by a web page with a lot of dense text, mainly comprising lengthy paragraphs. While the text may be entirely acceptable and grammatically correct in itself, it may not be the best way of presenting that information to those who just happen to be browsing the web.
A good example of this is companies who simply transpose their hard-copy marketing material to a website without any alterations or editing. What works as a four-page brochure will not work as a singular web page, a series of web pages or as social media posts; it has to be adapted to the electronic medium.
Whether you are posting to a blog or to a social network, try to ensure that your paragraphs are never longer than three sentences and review how much space they take up on the screen prior to publication. While it can be painful to take apart a beautifully constructed block of text, it may actually be worth it if you want someone to stay on your web page and read the whole piece.
When confronted with a block of text, many who are surfing the web will just click away on the basis that it will require too much effort to get the desired information from your piece. People are more impatient and demanding when it comes to retrieving information online than they are when it comes to reading a brochure, book or journal.
An extension of this is that many people now read the internet on the move via tablets or mobile phones, where the screens are even smaller. The optimization of a website for such devices is the responsibility of the web host but, when either writing or proofing copy for the web, be conscious of how the site onto which it will be posted will be presenting the text to those viewing it via mobile devices.
3. Bear in mind Search Engine Optimization (SEO) when writing or proofing copy for the web
One of the more opaque and mysterious aspects of online marketing is a technique known as Search Engine Optimization (or SEO, for short). As the phrase suggests, these are series of web publishing activities that a webmaster has to undertake to ensure that their web pages appear high up in Search Engine Results Pages (or SERPs).
Despite the predominance of social media and mobile applications to view content online, the search engine remains the first port of call for many when it comes to finding relevant content on the internet, so the importance of SEO discipline when writing online copy should not be underestimated.
While a lot of SEO revolves around the technical aspects of how a website is both built and promoted online, an equally large part focuses on the copy of web pages themselves. Forever a moving target for the most part (as search engine companies get wise to cynical marketing techniques used to manipulate SERPS), a true constant in SEO is the repetitive use of certain keywords within the body text and headings of the copy intended for the web.
At the point of being commissioned to either draft or proofread copy for the web, you should ask the webmaster or commissioning editor what keywords he or she would like to see featured in the copy (for SEO purposes) and then carry out your work accordingly. If you have been asked to upload copy directly to a website, there are usually ‘plugins’ available for most content managements systems that can analyse your copy from a SEO perspective (Yoast for WordPress is a popular one, for example).
SEO does not extend just to web pages and the traditional search engine. Most of the major social networks feature a search engine of some description, and keywords can play their part in the shortest of posts, maybe even in conjunction with using a hashtag (see below).
However, you can easily take SEO too far. I have seen and read countless examples of web pages that have distorted intelligibility due to the feverish repetition of keywords and phrases. This, of course, is self-defeating as although you may have made your web page appear in the top ten of Google Search results, all you have done is dragged your potential audience to a bad piece of incoherent, blatant marketing.
A balance has to be struck between producing good copy for content marketing purposes and ensuring that copy serves an SEO purpose. My own personal judgement always falls on the side of superior copy over SEO needs, but I don’t discount SEO entirely and have used the aforementioned Yoast to optimize most of my copy for search engines.
4. Posts to social networks or websites should be appropriately formatted and use all available functionality of the social network or website in question
Each social network and website has its own unique method of use and particular focus or demographic, so be very conscious of that when either creating or reviewing online content.
With copy intended for websites, you can summarize information or redirect readers to more substantial content elsewhere via hyperlinks. Whether you are creating copy for a website or have been asked to proof it, I would argue it is always best to either generate or ask for a draft of the copy that has the hyperlinks contained within it. That way, any editor can see how you have verified the claims that the copy is making and/or whether you are redirecting a reader to an appropriate source.
Having links to external websites in web copy is another SEO technique, but arguably they also inherently add value for the reader. By providing links, you are providing and endorsing other sources of information; it is the online variant of citing sources for claims or information.
Links shouldn’t only be about pointing people away from the website you are writing or proofing for; they should also be used to point to relevant and associated information already published on the website in question. This too can give you more leeway when adapting copy for the web; maybe a print article is best served by being by split into two separate articles hosted on the same site, for example.
Away from traditional websites and blog sites, the various social networks have their own idiosyncrasies that have to be respected and fully exploited. For example, there’s an art to writing an effective post (‘tweet’) on Twitter, which I have blogged about extensively elsewhere.
The key thing about social media posts is knowing when and how to tag other users and organizations. By doing so, you are alerting those people and institutions that you are talking about them (obviously only do so if you are doing so positively!) so that they can engage and share your social media posts with their own followers or connections on the network in question. All social networks have a way of tagging other users, and I am happy to advise on how to do so if you cannot find the information elsewhere online.
One ubiquitous component of writing a social media post is the use of hashtags. Hashtags are a way of connecting your posts online into a wider conversation that’s taking place on the network you’re posting to. I have written extensively on how to use hashtags elsewhere so I won’t repeat myself here, but I would urge you to put any latent snobbery aside about using them, and also for you to use them sensibly and sparingly once you do so.
5. Always add an implicit or clear Call To Action (CTA)
Whether you are writing or proofing a tweet of only 140 characters or a 3,000-word blog entry, the copy must have a clear purpose for existing online. In other words, upon reading your online post, what do you expect the reader to do in response?
This is particularly important if you’re writing or proofing online copy that is intended for sales or marketing purposes, and these instructions or directions within the text are known as a Call To Action (CTA). CTAs give the reader a clear steer on what you expect them to do having read your online post, whether that be clicking on a link, signing up to a newsletter or buying a product or service.
However, CTAs are not just about sales or promotion; any good writer wants people to respond to their copy in some form or another, and in an online context that response is easier to encourage. For example, you may want people to comment on what you have written, so make sure that the text makes that explicit; don’t just have a series of empty fields at the bottom of an article waiting to be filled in, as they won’t be. You have to be explicit about it.
Alternatively, you may want people to share your article. Show me a writer openly publishing content online who doesn’t want a wider audience, and I will give you £1,000! Social media sites and well-designed websites all make sharing articles online via our own networks incredibly easy to do, but (again) it has been repeatedly shown that posts that ask for people to share them get shared more often than those that don’t.
You don’t want to go overboard with Calls To Action (I personally find them irritating on occasion), but don’t go without them either. Online marketing and online publishing revolve around engagement, and you certainly want to invite it when and where appropriate.
7. Have you written and proofread all the text required for an online post?
When publishing online, more text is required than just for the main article. Text is needed for the meta-description (the descriptive sentence you see under links in search engine results), browser headings and captions for any illustrations or tables used.
All of this is really within the purview of the webmaster or the web editor (as, again, most of this is modified for SEO) but if you have an article going out with your name on it or if you have been paid to proof a particular piece, you want to ensure that all of your good work has not been undermined by either sloppy supportive text or cack-handed third-party editing.
Writing for the web is different from writing for the page, with new technologies creating new idioms at an overwhelming rate. However, as long as you are suitably streetwise to technical considerations and any new online vernacular, you should easily be able to continue to utilize your writing and proofreading skills without too much compromise or trouble.
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I'm an Advanced Professional Member of the UK's national editorial society.
All text on this blog, The Proofreader's Parlour, and on the other pages of this website (unless indicated otherwise) is in copyright © 2011–17 Louise Harnby. Please do not copy or reproduce any of the content, in whole or part, in any form, unless you ask first.
Author Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). I abide by its Code of Standards in regard to my status as an independent writer.
Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I'm a signatory to its code of practice as a professional editor.
Featured in The Book Designer's Carnival of the Indies: Joel Friedlander's collection of 'outstanding articles recently posted to blogs'.
Winner of the Judith Butcher Award 2017 in respect of 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.