By Natalie Canavor

What follows are general guidelines for online business writing that apply to relatively traditional content: blogs, profiles, newsletters, websites. These are considered “long form” media, and long form is in! These techniques adapt to the various social platforms.

Does good writing matter online? Absolutely. It’s indispensable for establishing credibility and trust. People may not consciously evaluate writing excellence, but it’s how they automatically decide whether a stranger merits their time and trust. Do you buy products that are described in boring, or overly hyped, error-prone language? Or find badly written arguments persuasive? If you do, you’re unusual.

The guidelines for print writing presented in Part 1 apply to online writing but more intensively. You need to be more direct, concise, clear, and dynamic. Imagine a formal, stiff, academic-style essay — you may have written your share in college — with long, complex sentences, weighty words, and a dense look that warns of slow reading ahead. You know the piece may take a few readings to ante up its thought nuggets.

Try to write for online media in exactly the opposite way. First, snag attention. Then make it look like easy reading. Writing that looks and is complex works poorly online because reading anything on-screen is physically harder. Our eyes get tired, we blink more, resist scrolling, and bypass anything that looks hard to access. Readers expect speed and immediacy online — not meandering messages that take work. Strive for simplicity and brevity.

Loosening up online

Online writing can ignore many formalities of grammatical correctness. Contractions are fine: for example, won’t rather than will not, I’ll be rather than I will be.

Sentences can begin with words like and, but, and or. Or they can consist of a single word: Never. Ask. Maybe. Why? Sentences like these can effectively punctuate copy and make it feel lively.

What your computer’s grammar checker identifies as sentence fragments often work well, too:

Why web surf? Because it’s fun.

Too many choices, too few good ones.

Better than excellent.

Hardly ever.

Well, you asked.

Does it work? You bet.

But be sure your incomplete sentences are clear in context and don’t read as mistakes.

Keeping it simple and visual online

If you’re targeting general audiences, stay short and simple by stashing complexities elsewhere. Or keep them in a separate section. Of course, exceptions abound. For example, you may pinpoint an audience that specifically likes technical material or sophisticated thinking. Long-form blogs are generally more widely read and valued than short ones. And if you’re trying to establish thought leadership, white papers and opinion pieces must treat their subjects in depth.

Acknowledge your skimmers and speed readers by finding ways to present information telegraphically, at-a-glance rather than as narrative. Descriptions and technical specs lend themselves well to this approach. Use introductory phrases to summarize long lists of information and help readers move more quickly through complex material:

Product suited to:

Kit includes:

Caring for your item:

How to reserve your place:

Bulleted lists work well. But don’t make those lists too long or present them without context. Start each item with the same grammatical part so that they read consistently.

What about humor? If you can write content with a sense of fun or surprise, good for you. Often such material is hard work that talented teams labor over for weeks, months, and even years. If you’re a writer, of course you want to showcase your skills. But for most websites and other content, good substance presented in a down-to-earth, easy-to-absorb way works just fine.

If you have a gift for spontaneity and charm, by all means use it. But try your experiments out on your friends before launching them into digital orbit.

Communicating credibility

If you use the Internet to promote yourself or a business, everything you post must convey that you’re authoritative, knowledgeable, trustworthy, reliable, responsive, open to input, and a nice person, too. Viewers scout for clues to your credibility. In addition to writing your best and proofing meticulously, convey your trustworthiness with these techniques:

  • Include only verified information and keep links updated.
  • Use technical language sparingly and only as audience-appropriate.
  • Provide clear, easily found contact information.
  • Identify your credentials and highlight any sign that your authority is recognized.
  • Use attributed testimonials to show you’ve met other people’s needs.
  • Invite input in specific ways, and respond to it.

And never, never, ever:

  • Criticize anyone on a personal level.
  • Conduct personal arguments online.
  • Reveal anything about yourself you don’t want the world to know.
  • Post photos or videos that may embarrass you if your grandmother or a future employer sees them.
  • Use offensive language or an angry tone.

Do not use Internet platforms for blatant self-promotion more than appropriate to the medium. A website, for example, naturally includes product information and a purchasing pathway. A Facebook business page is intrinsically commercial in a soft-sell way. But for social media, the message is best supported by creatively interpreting the subject to connect with audience priorities: What might your readers want to learn? What entertains them or makes them laugh? How can they be part of the action? Scout the channel to see how companies and individuals do this successfully.

Ultimately, you can only reap rewards from Internet platforms if you deliver value in their own terms. For the more purely social platforms this may mean sharing a smile, a bit of inspiration, a behind-the-scenes glimpse, a special moment. On long-form platforms it’s giving your readers useful information, teaching them something they want to know, or expanding their world.

Whatever the medium, always share your best. The Internet is an overwhelming source of information and entertainment. Followers must be earned with authentic contributions. Most successful ecommerce specialists give a great deal away through blogs, videos, webinars, and ebooks. This makes sense.

As a buyer, why would you send money to a total stranger you’ll never meet, who may be thousands of miles away, and will be hard to hold accountable if you’re disappointed? You must prove value and reliability to sell. People who are impressed with your expertise want to know more and may become loyal customers.