Photo: Devin Stein
IF YOU’RE STARTING OUT AS a writer, you’re going to have a really hard time ignoring the internet. It is, quite simply, where the vast majority of today’s content gets published, and it is where the modern media consumer gets most of his or her news. But it doesn’t entail the same type of writing as magazines, newspapers or books. The internet is its own new thing. And internet readers have much more material to choose from than the readers of newspapers, magazines, or even books. Millions of articles are a click away, making it extremely difficult for the internet writer to both get and keep attention.
So while getting published on the internet is not difficult, getting people to read what you publish on the internet is difficult. Here are some guidelines for making your writing a bit more internet-friendly.
Focus on the title.
Internet writing, unlike newspaper or magazine writing, is sold by the article rather than the entire package: when you buy a magazine, you’re buying all of the articles, not just one, so magazines really only have to sell one or two articles and a good cover photo. When you write for the internet, you have to sell every single article separately. So you need to focus on the packaging. This includes several elements — the featured photo, the layout of the piece itself, and the social media blurb — but the most important for you as the writer is the title.
You want something that draws and keeps attention. Hopefully, your subject matter does that more or less on its own, but you can try a number of things to skew things in your favor:
- Listicles are always good at getting clicks (and don’t have to be insubstantial). A cool trick you’ll learn after doing listicles for a bit is that, thanks to some weird psychological quirk, odd numbered listicles and listicles with 25, 29, and 23 items tend to get more clicks than others.
- Another cool trick is learning about “curiosity gap,” which is a way of titling that gives the reader enough information to interest them, but not enough to totally fulfill that interest.
- If possible, inject some emotion into your title. Analytical language tends to get fewer clicks than emotional language.
These tips may strike some as “clickbait-y.” But it’s okay to have a clickbait-y title as long as you deliver on the content (so, you know, maybe don’t use the words “blow your mind” unless the content is literally life-changing). And besides:
Get over “clickbait” hate.
Okay, I know: you hate “clickbait.” You don’t like having to “trick” people into clicking on your link, and you find clickbait headlines to be tacky and annoying. But it’s better to think of it another way: Newspapers, for as long as newspapers have existed, have put the article that they thought was most likely to sell the most papers on the front page above the fold. It’s been done with varying degrees of sensationalism, but they’ve all done it. Likewise, magazines put articles and pictures they think are most likely to sell titles. And while you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you certainly can judge it by its cover when deciding whether to buy that book or not. So this isn’t anything new, and as long as you don’t mislead or oversell the audience on the title to the point where they feel cheated when they read the article, there’s no harm in it.
It also might make a difference that the numbers don’t lie: if you write a headline that others might designate as “clickbait,” sit back after you post it and watch the viewers come in on Google Analytics. The people who hate clickbait are noisy. But the people who click on it are far greater in number. Which brings us to the next point.
Focus on the metrics.
Internet writers have one thing their newspaper and book counterparts don’t: insight into the minds and behaviors of their readers. By installing tools like Google Analytics onto your site (it’s incredibly easy and cheap), you can track an insane amount of information about your readers. You can find out how they got to your site. You can find out what keywords they searched for on Google that brought them to you. You can see where they came from down to the city. You can see how long they spent on your page. If you use the Facebook Insights tool on your page, you can even get a breakdown of their general age groups and their gender breakdown.
As such, you have a tremendous insight into your audience that other writers would kill to have. Data speaks louder than feedback, and is usually more accurate than spoken feedback. Comments aren’t usually representative of the whole, and may skew towards the negative, so this is really probably the best way to gauge what your audience is actually liking. Look at the metrics regularly, and adjust your writing accordingly.
Write a ton.
There’s the old saying, “throw it against the wall and see what sticks.” I imagine this saying comes from pasta-making, where you throw a single noodle against the wall to see if it sticks (thus proving that it’s done). In internet writing, the best method is to throw the entire pot of pasta at the wall.
Broadly speaking, the best way to get traffic is to post as much as you can without sacrificing quality. So create a schedule that pushes you to write more, and stick to it. This high-speed writing style also allows failures and flops to roll off your back more easily: if something doesn’t do well, you’re on to your next thing, and don’t have time to worry over it.
Learn to edit on the fly.
One rule has never changed in writing: editors will be way more willing to work with you if you can self-edit. Internet editors are under more pressure to get stuff up quickly, and as such, appreciate writers that send them a first draft that is basically ready to be a final draft. And due to the high-speed nature of internet writing, if you send something in that has typos, an editor is more likely to miss it than in a magazine or newspaper. So if you want work (and don’t want to embarrass yourself) learn how to polish quickly and efficiently.
Don’t take the comments too seriously.
In order to be a writer, you have to expose yourself to criticism. Otherwise, you’re just a diarist. But you can also choose whose criticism you listen to. Internet comments are a particularly nasty hellhole to fall into, especially when they’re on an article you’ve written. Plenty of people will call you names. Plenty of people will say nasty things to you. Plenty of people will completely misread or misunderstand what you were trying to say. And usually, they won’t provide their real name. It’s fair, if you’re putting your name on something you’ve written, to expect the same from the people who are criticizing you. So it may be a good idea to simply not look at the comments when they’re posted anonymously. Take constructive feedback from people you respect, and beyond that, protect yourself emotionally. You don’t owe every commenter a hearing on what you write.