There’s more to creating a professional, high quality article than just perfect spelling, grammar, and sentence structure.
The best copywriting is for nothing if people don’t read your article. Content has to survive a cost–benefit analysis on the part of users:
- Cost: how much hassle and pain do I have to suffer on this website?
- Benefits: What’s in it for me, what will I gain if I read this information?
When you write an article that looks complicated, messy and/or confusing, the reader will suffer. If you write an article that is dense, overly complicated or obtuse … the reader will suffer.
So how do you create scannable content?
Rule #1 – One Paragraph. One Idea.
There is one simple rule that you can follow to use paragraphs correctly and drastically improve your writing.
Think of paragraphs as ideas. Each paragraph contains a single idea.
I love cats.
In order for the next sentence to fit in this paragraph, it needs to further describe or support this single idea.
I love cats. When they sit on my lap and purr, it makes my heart melt.
Rinse and repeat.
I love cats. When they sit on my lap and purr, it makes my heart melt. Just seeing one excites me.
If the sentence does not further describe or support this simple idea identified in the first (and only the first) sentence, it starts a new paragraph.
I love cats. When they sit on my lap and purr, it makes my heart melt. Just seeing one excites me. When I see a pizza, I ‘m excited about dinner.
Even though I talked about being excited, the idea is related to loving cats. It is not about being generally excited.
And even though I was talking about seeing exciting things, I shouldn’t jump to the idea of pizza and dinner, even though they’re also exciting.
Each paragraph must only contain one single idea.
Let’s use a real-world example from an article about Tunisian sweets:
We pack our treats with healthy vitamins and proteins. With Mediterranean influences and Tunisian recipes, you can choose from various delectable bites that your mom will enjoy.
The first sentence is on the subject of nutrients. The second sentence is on the subject of Mediterranean food. The two ideas are not related.
Yes, perhaps they have a tenuous relationship both being somewhat on the subject of food. But … it’s not enough. It’s too disruptive for the reader. One minute you’re talking about nutrients and the next you jump to something about the Mediterranean and my mom!?
Break the two sentences apart and decide whether they are able to stand on their own. I think that both would need another few sentences in order to be substantial enough to be kept in the article.
Rule #2 -Bold, Italic, Underline. Which One Should I Use?
Bold, Italic, Underline. Oh, and CAPS. When should you – and when shouldn’t you – use them?
As a rule:
- Use them sparingly.
- Use Bold to highlight text and capture the reader’s attention.
- Use Italic for quotes, names, dialogue and a weaker emphasis than Bold.
- Avoid using Underline – it makes it look like a link.
- Only use CAPS for expressing very strong emotion or acronyms.
Though bold text is great for adding emphasis to a word or phrase, over time it causes eye fatigue and reduces reader comprehension. The use of white space and headers is a far more effective method of calling out important information.
- Bold, Italics and Underlines: How to Use Them Effectively in Your Blog
- Learn the Correct Way to Use Bold Type Fonts Effectively in Design
Rule #3 – Don’t Overuse Bold
- Bold is used to highlight certain parts of important text in order to capture the readers’ attention on that particular point.
- Never bold an entire phrase or sentence.
- Use bold sparingly. Use it to highlight something that is important to the reader, not you, not the client.
- Use bold on phrases or words that would be of great interest to the reader. Or perhaps it’s a point that you REALLY want to make sure the reader notices.
- Do not use bold as a substitute for heading formatting.
- Do not bold a list of items.
Rule #4 – Hyperlinks and Underlines
Don’t use underline, ever. The reader will think that it is a link.
Make sure that your hyperlink is only attached to the anchor text, not spacebars and not full stops.
Correct: You can click here to read more.
Wrong: You can click here to read more.
Wrong: You can click here to read more.
Rule #5 – Use Heading Styles in Order – H1, H2, H3
Start with your article title as (Heading 1) H1 and work your way down to the H2, H3, H4 and so on.
When your headings flow in hierarchy, search engines can easily tell what your article is about. And your reader receives a visual queue that a block of text is sub-ordinate to the one above.
Rule #6 – Use Consistent Spacing Between, Before and After Lines, Paragraphs and Words
A lot of white space can kill the flow of your article and make it look horrible. Whereas, consistent spacing makes your work look neat and tidy.
Remove inconsistent or extra spacing from between paragraphs and words.
Avoid additional spacebars between words as these can inadvertently end up in the final published article. It looks bad.
Now, onto a good example. Take a look at the screenshot below.
The green arrows are all pointing to consistent spacings. The paragraphs also contain consistent line spacing. Aim for that when you write your articles.
Notice how consistent the spacing between lines and paragraphs is?
Rule #7 – Left Align Text
- Left aligned text is easier to read.
- Do not full justify your text. Do not right align any text.
- Sometimes you can centre align text such as testimonials, quotations and social proof.
Rule #8 – Use the Same Font Type and Size Throughout Your Article
- Except for headings, stick to one font size for your paragraphs. Your article looks better when it uses a consistent type and size.
- Stick with the Google Doc default. Or, use Arial 11pt for the main body.
- When you copy/paste from another software programme such as Microsoft Word, it can pull inconsistent formatting across. Remove it.
Rule #9 – Place Images Between Paragraphs
It may be okay to place images inside a paragraph and allow the surrounding text to flow around it, and if your employer prefers it that way, then go ahead and do that.
But generally speaking, it can damage readability, especially in data-driven reports.
The safest option, particularly for graphs and charts and tables, is to put images in between paragraphs and keep them centre aligned. That way your images are never vying for attention with the surrounding text.
It also helps captions to stand out and it makes it easier for us to publish.
The rules are:
- Do not wrap text around images.
- Avoid long vertical images. Use horizontal images.
Rule #10 – Lists: Ordered vs Unordered
Lists are good for breaking up slabs of text and drawing the reader to important points. People read bullet points because they are easily scannable.
Use numbered lists when counting a set of items (e.g. “the five attributes of a successful entrepreneur”) or when providing step-by-step instructions.
How to Wash A Dog
- Fill the tub with water
- Wet the dog
- Pour shampoo on the dog
- Rinse with fresh water
- Dry with a towel
If you moved the last point (dry with a towel) to the first position it wouldn’t make sense to the reader. You can’t dry a dog with a towel before you’ve washed it!
That’s when you know it’s correct to use a numbered list.
Use bulleted lists when you have a set of ideas or points that you want to make, but it doesn’t matter to the reader what order they appear.
Reasons to Wash A Dog
- Dirty paws are leaving marks on the floor
- Smells bad after rolling in something dead
- Skin is itching from allergens in the grass
If you moved the last point (skin is itching) to the first position it wouldn’t confuse the reader. That’s when you know you should use a bullet list instead of a numbered list.
Learn more about lists:
- 7 Tips for Presenting Bulleted Lists in Digital Content
- Little Known Ways to Write Fascinating Bullet Points
- 8 Quick Tips for Writing Bullet Points People Actually Want to Read
- How to Write Powerful Bullet Points
- Best Practices for Bullet Points
Rule #11 – Don’t Overuse Exclamation Marks!
We get it! You’re excited! But, there’s no need to overuse exclamation marks, particularly when you are extolling the virtues of the client’s product. Or exhorting someone to buy! Buy today!!!
Correct: Wow! What a blast!
Wrong: Buy now and save!
Wrong: He rode to town and saw a cow!
Got more than 3 exclamation marks in your entire article? It’s likely that you’re overusing it.
Never end an article with an exclamation mark.
Rule #12 – Keep Your Paragraphs Short, 3 Lines or Less
This is a really important rule that’s often overlooked. It goes hand-in-hand with Rule #1 (one paragraph, one idea).
Paragraphs should be no longer than 3 lines.
It’s a fundamental building block in good design and layout. Big chunks of text aren’t easy on the eye. They’re intimidating and often they will put the reader off reading the article.
Yet, by keeping your paragraph less than 3 lines you guarantee:
- Good legibility
- An easy to scan-read article
- A well-balanced article (all your paragraphs will be similar-sized)
- One paragraph, one idea.
- Use headings in sequential order.
- Don’t combine headings and lists.
- Use consistent spacing between paragraphs, lines and words.
- Left align text.
- Use the same font size and type in your paragraph text.
- Don’t wrap text around images.
- Learn the difference between ordered and unordered lists.
- Learn when to use bold, and when to avoid it.
- Don’t use underlines.
- Learn how to apply a link to only the anchor text.
- Don’t overuse exclamation marks.
- Don’t end an article with an exclamation mark.
- Don’t add an exclamation mark to the client’s product or call-to-action.
- Keep your paragraphs shorter than 3 lines.