Writing Engaging Text

There is no one writing style that is effective for the Internet, as the Internet is not a singular thing: in some cases, it's a sentence fragment on Twitter or via cell phone messaging; in others, the loose, casual tone of a personal blog; and in others, the carefully-crafted and well-polished content of a corporate Web site. To communicate well online, you have to know a variety of formats and write in a manner that is appropriate and effective for each of them.

Craft Reputation-Building Text

The words that you write are the atoms of your online reputation. There is the suggestion that much depends on volume - the author quotes a source who says:

"err on the side of having too much online ... the more you put out there ... the more you're controlling your online persona rather than letting other people control it. There have been some awful things written about me on various blogs .... But I know it's not going to be the first thing you come across when you Google my name."

Jakon Neilsen reports that 79% of users scan any new page they encounter, versus the 16% who read it word-for-word; and the implication is that you should write text that will be easily scanned. However, do not neglect to develop well-detailed material: people who scan information stop to read what catches their interest.

White Papers and Online Books

Most advice about online writing focuses on the small bits of information that is "chunked" on blogs, e-mail, and Web pages. This can be effective in getting out bits and pieces of information, but your authority as a knowledge leader is established by longer works: white papers and books.

High-quality white papers can promote your thought leadership very quickly. They carry more authority than blogs, and are more often quoted and cited by influential individuals. Publish online as a free PDF download (or even a paid e-book on Lulu or a similar site) and use other media (blogs and Web sites) to spread the word.

Articles and books online are similar in may ways to printed articles and books. They may be read on-screen, but a more common practice for lengthy items is to print or download them for offline reading.

Do be aware that some will read them online as a PDF, or download them to a handheld device, and consider the needs of those media (possibly publish multiple versions), but insofar as the writing is concerned, the traditional standards apply.

Also, the author dispels the notion that the two are exclusive: he cites a case in which an online book was provided in HTML and PDF formats, but also published on Lulu as a soft cover book - and even though the same material is available for free online, the book has sold over 50,000 copies (which is excellent, given that it's a discussion of logistics, which is of interest to a very small audience).


Communication fails if the reader doesn't get the writer's point. Period.

Clarity is believed to come primarily from word selection and sentence length. If your primary goal is to cram as many keywords as possible into your text, or use jargon or complex language to make a subject (or an author) seem more important, clarity suffers and communication fails.

Organize well (most important facts first, followed by supporting material), chunk the content (use subheads to show the structure of longer documents), and be as concise and clear as possible.


Writing for the online medium is often informal - but the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation are still important to maintaining a professional image online.

Keeping to standard English, avoiding colloquialisms and slang terms, is also important to maintaining a professional image. It's even more important when you consider that the Internet is a worldwide medium, and international readers may have great difficulty understanding them.


A number of tips and guidelines for making your content more engaging:

Use the Art of Storytelling

The author bumbles around the topic of storytelling: how using dramatic devices can make your information more compelling to readers.

He's pretty clumsy about it, but identifies some of the key elements of a "story" - a hero, a crisis, other characters, a developing plot, and an ultimate resolution.

I'm skipping over much of this, as it's very clumsy and random.

Is Your "About Us" Page Boring?

An "about us" page is a fairly standard place to stick a profile of your company. And that's what most sites do, but there is opportunity to make this more compelling.

This is an excellent place to do branding - to tell an interested reader what your company is about, and how it wants to be perceived. Boilerplate is a waste of an excellent opportunity.

Some tips:

Reputation-Enhancing E-mail and Other 1:1 Messaging

Companies pay a great deal of attention to the content that they place on their Web sites, but seldom consider the 1-to-1 messages they send to their customers, proactively or reactively.

Great E-Mail

Your e-mail address reflects on your brand: a silly user name, or an impersonal one, speak poorly of a person. The best approach is using yourname@company.com for business communications. Next best is a standard personal address (yourname@yourprovider.com). The author warns that your ISP must be reputable. E-mail addresses from aol.com, msn.com,. and hotmail.com are a strike against you, before the message is even opened.

A bunch of random tips for e-mail communications:

Finally, note that users are sensitive to spam, and are aggressive in the sue of filters to block it. One "bad" message could end up getting you blocked from reaching a user ever again.

Your subject line is usually the second thing most users consider, after glancing at the sender's address. It is also the second most important criterion to filtering software. Make sure it's descriptive of the content, and that it doesn't smell like spam.

Salutations are optional in e-mail ("dear mr. smith"). If you can't use the person's name, don't include one. The author suggests that people are more responsive when there is a personalized salutation, but presents no evidence to back this assertion.

The message content should be brief and to the point.: open with the purpose, provide as much detail as necessary to support it, and end by telling the user how to react. That's all.

A closing and signature (Regards
John Smith) are used more often than salutations, as some e-mail clients do not identify the name of the sender, and gives the user the impression the message comes from a real person rather than an automated system. He presents no backing research, but this sounds reasonable.

A closing and signature (Regards

A signature file is common on the Web, as a standard footer for messages (it functions like a letterhead in postal mail). Typical sig files include contact information, links to websites, a brand statement, etc. It should be brief and informative. Also, consider creating multiple sig files for different audiences.

Instant Messaging

EN: the author focuses exclusively on cell-phone style instant messages: a brief note that does not include the context of a conversation.

The typical uses of IMs are for communications with colleagues (58%), getting a quick answer on a business matter (49%), providing a link to a file (25%), communicating with others while in a conference call or meeting (24%), organizing phone calls or meetings (22%).

In general, users send an IM when they want an immediate response to a simple question, and nothing more. And so:

The author doesn't have much to say about sending outbound IMs (not in response to an inbound) - my guess is that's because you shouldn't. An IM is very intrusive, and likely to be considered unwanted unless there is a compelling reason it was sent.