Learn five easy tricks to help pull readers into your blog posts.
Okay, so you’ve written an article for your blog and you’re all ready to publish it online. You’re confident that the article’s content is well-written. And you’re sure it will appeal to your blog’s regular readers.
But wait! Before you put it out to be read by the world, have you done what you can to make it more readable?
By readable, I mean formatted in such a way that visitors will be drawn into its content and want to read every word. Or have you simply composed 20 paragraphs of good, solid information, formatted as big solid blocks of text?
No matter what blogging tool you use to publish your blog, you should have access to the standard array of formatting features available in HTML. In this article, I’ll explain how and why you should use them.
Break Up Long Paragraphs
What’s less attractive on a Web page than solid blocks of text? Long paragraphs of unbroken text can intimidate readers. They look unapproachable, like a college textbook. (For me, they bring to mind the textbook in my college tax accounting course, which further reminds me of two semesters of boring hell on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.)
Break up long paragraphs at logical points. This will require some writing skill, since you can’t arbitrarily chop paragraphs up — each one must still communicate a complete thought. But shorter paragraphs are a lot less intimidating than long ones — a point that applies to sentences, too (although I can’t seem to get that one into my thick skull).
And one more thing about this: be sure to use a space between paragraphs (usually with the
tag rather than the
tag, if hand coding is required). On the Web, that’s the standard way to end one paragraph and begin another. Just starting a new line isn’t going to break the paragraph at all — at least not in the eyes of the reader.
Headings cue the reader about the content of paragraphs that follow them. For example, my Use Headings heading here tells you that I’m going to talk about headings in this paragraph and, likely the few that follow up until the next heading. Readers can scan your article’s headings to get a better idea of what the article covers.
Of course, there are two kinds of headings. There’s the kind that actually reflects what’s in the paragraphs they head — that’s what I’m using in this article. And then there’s the kind that doesn’t quite explain what the following paragraphs are about, but are humorous or witty. Both types can work, but for serious content, I recommend the first type.
Headings can also help with search engine optimization (SEO), but not being an SEO expert, I can’t elaborate much about this. I seem to recall reading that h1 and h2 level headings are more effective for SEO than other lower levels. I use h3 because that’s how formatting is set up on my blog and I’m not terribly concerned with SEO. If SEO is very important to you, you might want to look into this claim. Of course, for headings to be effective at all in SEO, they must be coded as headings using
tags (or other level tags as appropriate) around them. The appearance of text coded as headings will vary depending on settings in your
style.css file or other style information for your blog. (And now we’re getting a little more technical than I wanted to get in this article.)
Format Lists as Lists
If any paragraph in your article includes a list of four or more items that are longer than four or more words each, for heaven’s sake, format them as a list!
There’s nothing so boring or potentially confusing as long lists within a paragraph, especially when those lists include explanations, commas, and semicolons. Why worry about proper in-paragraph list formatting when you can simply create a bulleted or numbered list that’s clear and easy to read?
Lists, like headings, are also extremely scannable, making it easy for readers to get an idea of the content they include. They draw the reader in by giving them information in bite-sized chunks. Bold formatting used at the beginning of a list item (see below) can act as a heading, letting the reader know that an explanation or more information about the item follows.
In summary, lists can do the following for you:
- Break up long blocks of text. Long lists in a paragraph make big, fat, intimidating blocks of text. Isn’t this much nicer?
- Make one point easy to distinguish from the next. Since you (and your readers) don’t have to worry about how list items are separated (comma or semi-colon?) you don’t have to worry about someone misunderstanding list items.
- Take advantage of built-in formatting options. I’m not just talking about standard bullets and hanging indents here. As you can see in this list, a blog’s
style.cssfile can include instructions for graphic bullets or other fancy formatting.
- Give your readers important points quickly. By presenting information in an easily scannable format, your readers can see what a list is about without wasting time. If it’s what they want to learn more about, they’ll dive in and read it.
Apply Other Formatting…but Sparingly!
There are other, more basic formatting features you can apply to text. Want some basic information to stand out? Use bold formatting (as I did in the bulleted list above). Introducing a new word or phrase? Italicize it. Got a quote to share? Here’s what I say:
If it’s longer than a dozen or so words, consider putting quotations between
tags. This clearly identifies the text as a quote from another author. (Well, in this case, it’s still words of wisdom from me, but you can quote me if you like.)
Don’t use ALL CAPS. It’s childish and unprofessional and considered by many to be “shouting.” And don’t use underlines. On the Web, underlines indicate hyperlinks and you can confuse your readers.
And don’t use too much formatting. There comes a point when the repeated application of bold and/or italic formatting loses meaning and simply fails to do the intended job.
I’m a firm believer in the old adage: “One picture is worth a thousand words.” Maybe that’s why I’ve been writing Visual QuickStart Guides for Peachpit Press since 1995. Those books are full of screenshots — mine average 3-4 per page — and are excellent tools for teaching readers how to perform tasks with various software.
In regular writing — such as the writing you might do for your blog — images can also help communicate information. Did you write a software how-to piece? Screenshots of the steps would be extremely helpful. Did you write about a recent vacation? Include a few photos to show the scenes you’ve written about. Does your article explain the organization of a company or one of its departments? Include an organizational chart to put things in perspective.
On the Web, images do more than just communicate information. They also add visual appeal. Think about it as you visit sites on the Web. Which pages or blog posts caught your attention more? The ones without images? Or the ones with photos or drawings?
Let’s face it: people like to look at pictures. By giving them pictures that relate to your article, you can capture their attention and reel them in to read more about what the picture shows.
A word of warning here: Don’t use photos that don’t belong to you — doing so is likely a violation of copyright law. You can probably use company logos — if your use is consistent with the company’s rules governing logo use (normally available on its Web site) and you’re writing about the company. But taking photos off another Web site or scanning them out of a print publication for use on your site could get you in a lot of trouble. It’s stealing, plain and simple, and you could get sued. Use photos, screenshots, and drawings that you’ve taken or that you’ve received permission to use. The rule of thumb here is, if you don’t know whether you have permission to use it, you probably don’t.
As you can see, each of these techniques is relatively easy to implement on your blog. While it isn’t necessary to use all of them in one article (as I’ve attempted to do here), you can mix and match them as you see fit to liven up the layout and appearance of your prose.
The main thing to remember is this: the more interesting you make your text appear at first glance, the more likely you are to get readers to stick around and read what you’ve written.
Oh, and by the way, just about everything in this article also applies to your non-Web writing efforts: reports, articles, white papers, and books. You just won’t need HTML code to get the job done.