Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Getting Writing Help from Hemingway

On-line Readability Assistance 

Now this is interesting. There's an on-line app - called Hemingway - which invites you to drop or write text into it, click the edit button, and get readability statistics for your writing.

We all know what we need to be doing to make our writing more readable - cut out the adverbs, make smaller sentences, use simpler words and phrases and so on. And there are already ways to test it out, in Word and other programs. Try going into the options for spelling and grammar and ticking the box for 'Readability Statistics'. After any spell check you then get a box indicating how 'Readable' your story is.

But because this app looks quite user friendly, and they are thinking of producing a (paid for) desktop version, I thought I'd try it out, and 'test' it against Word's version.

So I dropped in the extract from my novel that I took to my writing group last night, and here are the results:

Readability Grade 5

Paragraphs: 29
Sentences: 64
Words: 627
Characters: 2778

3 of 64 sentences are hard to read.
1 of 64 sentences are very hard to read.
4 adverbs. Aim for 10 or fewer.
1 words or phrases can be simpler.
1 uses of passive voice. Aim for13 or fewer.

The 'hard to read' stat is measuring sentence length, so my hardest to read sentence was 41 words long, which I'll agree, is a bit wordy. I pressed edit and split it into three sentences. The problem stat disappeared. Then I changed it into two. One of the sentences was still 'hard to read' - turns out the app deems all sentences over 25 words hard to read. Since it is testing readability, I can't argue with that.

With an overall grade of 5 (the site approves anything under 10), I was quite happy, particularly with the low result for the passive voice. I did the same test on the same text in Word, and here are the results:

As well as the word count etc. I got stats for 

Sentences per paragraph - 2.3
Words per sentence - 9
Characters per word - 4.1

Passive sentences - 2%
Flesch Reading Ease - 89.1
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level - 3 

You can get quite far into this readability stuff, almost to the point of obsession, but I think the main indicator of readability is the Grade Level. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade level used by Word is based on this formula:

0.39 \left ( \frac{\mbox{total words}}{\mbox{total sentences}} \right ) + 11.8 \left ( \frac{\mbox{total syllables}}{\mbox{total words}} \right ) - 15.59

See what I mean about obsession? I don't know what indicator the Hemingway app uses, but In the end it's just an indicator, and it's always good to regularly test out your writing to see if it's going in the right direction.

Becoming more readable.

I would be very interested to know what results you get. Try it out, and let me know...


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Value of Silence

“When the lips are closed, then the heart begins to speak.” Sufi saying

Silence. Ah, if only you could get away from everything. Take a holiday, go walking in the mountains, cycle across a continent, if only...

That's the big problem with our modern world, especially the world of business; you’ve always got to be doing something. Whether it’s checking emails, Twitter or Facebook, looking at web stats, tweaking your website – always doing something, always busy. Busyness.

Even when not at work you are bombarded with distractions, and still can’t get any peace. Locked out from your inner self you become deflated, haggard, dejected. Yet there's no value in any of that noise unless it's counterbalanced, by silence.

It's been taught in mystical philosophies for years, the art of silence, of withdrawing into oneself through yoga or meditation. Increasing stillness, and forging that bond between silence and contemplation: thinking, contemplating, and focussing.

Look at a cat, or a dog. They know when to rest, and sit in repose. You can say, oh a person is different from a dog, but for most purposes, are we? And why have them as pets if we don't want to learn from them?

There's a mystery in silence, in contemplation, of which most people are ignorant. Yet after a great deal of stress or activity we feel we need it more – so we strive to have a holiday, to “get away from it all”. But you don't always need to get away to relax. The peace on a beach or in a hotel room is the same peace that’s always waiting inside.

Try it Yourself

So when you get home from your office or place of work today turn off all distractions, like TV, mobile and computer, and find time for yourself. Or even take part in some monotonous exercise, like running, cycling or walking – come on, we all know the activities that do us good.

Why should you do it? Because your body is whirring away doing a million different things automatically, every second of the day, and needs some respite. Listen to yourself - the body intrinsically knows what's good for it. It already knows when to breathe, how to organise the biological clock, when the heart needs to beat faster, how to eliminate toxins, deal with infection, monitor trillions of chemical processes in trillions of cells all at once without your knowledge. So give it a rest, literally, and help yourself while you do it.

Turn off those distractions, and allow yourself as little as 20 minutes a day, a couple of hours a week, to relax, meditate or exercise. With a little regular self-control, self-discipline, and self-mastery, you will begin to understand what you can really get from life.

photo credit: aturkus via photopin cc

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Why You Need Great Web Content & How To Write It

Fact: you need fresh content for your website

Great Web Content & How To Write ItWhy? Because over the last few years Google and the other search engines have changed the way they rank websites in organic (as opposed to paid) search results.

Which means they now value excellent site content above most other considerations.

Yes that's right—good, fresh, content posted regularly on your site will earn you respect with Google, Bing, Yahoo and the rest, and make your site more visible to those searching for your products or services.

Which also means that practices like keyword stuffing, comment spamming, cloaking and paid links have been consigned to the dustbin of SEO time. Not only that, but using these principles will actively result in your site being penalised by search engine crawlers.

Gulp. But before you get on the phone to your webmaster and demand she takes all the back links off your site, it's also true that valid SEO practices still endure. Proper configuration of H1 and image alt tags, browser page titles (with a valid keyword placed as near to the front as possible), are all good methods for getting better page ranking.

Yet regular, informative site content in blog posts or articles is now a big part of giving your potential customers what they want.

So if great content is indeed king, how do you go about writing it?

Well, the details will of course differ depending on your business. Your story and the way you want to present it is up to you. It may be information you are giving away, or a service you want to tell people about. Perhaps you have a free offer for visitors in exchange for their email address (and subsequent inclusion on a mailing list). Whatever it is, just keep in mind when writing that your website's function is both to give your visitor what they want, and what you want them to have.

However, regardless of these details, what follows is a list of proven techniques that can be applied to any written content, to make sure the connection between you and your reader and between reader and 'sale' are maximised.

Hook them with a snappy headline

Eight out of ten people will read your headline, but only two of those will go on to read the rest of the article. So you should make your headline inviting. And it should be helpful, not funny, or quirky; leave the daft-but-entertaining straplines to the tabloids. For your purposes a good old 'How to' headline is still one of the best options. It appeals to our thirst for information and advice, and should also hint at an easy way to get it.

List type headlines are also very inviting. You know the type—'10 easy ways to lose thirty pounds' or 'Three essential tips for catching monster carp'.

Constructing a headline around a main keyword phrase is another good way of optimising content. You'll already know the search terms people will be using to find your site, but it's more important to use a keyword phrase in your headline rather than a general keyword; it makes the headline more specific and human-friendly.

Another good tip is to always write the headline before the copy (once you've determined the outline of your post or article). Devote a good slice of your time to it. Then bear the headline in mind as you write the content, keeping your words relevant to the already-hooked reader.

Also remember, two of the most powerful words for attention grabbing are 'You' and 'Free'. Two others are 'Easy' and 'Now'. Try to slip these into your headline if you can.

I'll have a lot more to say about headlines in an upcoming post, but for now I'd like to concentrate on a much-neglected aspect of writing advertising content—the introductory paragraph.

Reel in your audience with a killer intro

Your headline is the initial hook, but it's the introductory paragraph that will reel the reader further into your content. It's vital you spend as much time as possible on it.

Start with the first sentence, which should be short, perhaps even one word. Its purpose? To get the next sentence read. And the aim of the second sentence in your introduction? That's right, to get the third sentence read, and so on. If you write this part well enough, after the first 50 words your reader should be on a slippery slope of desire or emotion, well on the way to consuming your words of wisdom, or tumbling headlong towards the selling conclusion (what copywriters term the CTA, or Call To Action).

Here are a few time-tested methods to use for your opening sentences to entice readers in:
  • Pose a nagging question—your reader will want to read on and find the answer, particularly if it's a question they can relate to.
  • Start with a quote or anecdote—the reader continues to see how the quote relates to the headline.
  • Shock them with a huge and/or relevant statistic.
  • Begin with an story—a personal, business or related story is a powerful way to bind your reader emotionally into an article.
  • Conjure up a powerful mental image, something like: 'Imagine yourself lazing on a Caribbean beach, the waves lapping gently while the sun beats down on white sands...'
Once you are past the introduction and into the content itself, the most important thing is you deliver what your headline and opening have promised. Its like ordering a meal—you wouldn't ask for pasta and be happy if cod and chips arrived on the table instead!

Variety is a spice

You'll have your headline and intro in mind as you write, and the outline you planned at the very beginning. And although you have the attention of your reader by now and can start to deliver the facts and information you hinted at, it's vitally important to pay attention to your formatting.

Long swathes of words and great blocks of text look intimidating and can turn the busy browser off, however excited about your words they might be! So mix longer sentences (but no more than 12-15 words) with shorter ones. Very short ones. One word ones. Even.

Use paragraph breaks and shorten your paragraphs. Keep to one point in a paragraph, then create a new one for the next point.

And don't be afraid to highlight blocks of text or important phrases with bold or italic. The aim is to draw the reader's eye to more relevant parts of the text.

Use bullet lists to summarise or highlight—they do a good job of breaking up those blocks of text too. And how about:
  • Internal links—use them in your content to link to other posts or parts of the website, search bots love that!
  • Break up long copy with frequent subheads.
  • Deep captions are captions with up to three lines. They've been proven to work, so why not try them in your content?
  • And don't forget to use images —always try to use one at the start of your post, and for longer posts more than one. It breaks those big blocks up and keeps the reader visually interested.
Don't forget your target keywords in all this, but don't mention your main keywords in copy too many times—it's better the content reads naturally than to have it stuffed with keywords. Use one pertinent keyword in each article, with maybe four or five lesser ones sprinkled about.

And lastly, keep the copy bright and interesting. Once written, leave it for a day or two before you start proofreading and editing. It also helps to read it out loud, and as you do so begin to edit for a more conversational tone. Find and visit the best blogging sites on the web to see how they do it.
To summarise then:
  1. Put 30-50% of your effort into a potent headline.
  2. Write a killer intro, perhaps posing a question or telling a story.
  3. Keep your target keywords in mind when writing.
  4. Mix up your formatting with subheads, deep captions and images.
  5. Make use of short sentences and paragraphs.
  6. Don't forget to highlight passages or words you want the reader to pay more attention to.
  7. Bite into bullet lists.
  8. Sprinkle in some internal links.

In a Nutshell

Remember, the most important thing to do if you want to increase the SEO performance of your website is to make sure it's brimming with great well-formatted content, as well as being optimised for the keywords and phrases your customers to use to find you.

Happy writing!

©George Wicker 2014
More Tips for Better Business Writing at Wicker's Work