Applying Stephen King’s Writing Tips to Create Web Content That Converts
September 16th, 2019 by
All great ideas start with words—maybe even just an utterance. “What if… let’s try…” There’s the excitement about the idea, talking about it over scribbled notes and endless cups of coffee, and then putting those words down on the page and getting your business plan running. Years ago, once you conceived of your brand and wanted to advertise and market your company, traditional media was the only option. And there was often a great rift between short and cheap advertising options like yellow pages listings and extensive and expensive options like TV commercials, billboards, and local print or magazine ads.
Now, with the exception of niche industries where images alone can represent a business, website content is the dominating force for 1) convincing a visitor to your site that you can help them solve their problems, and 2) reassuring Google that you’re an authoritative source in your industry. However, not all writing is transferable across different mediums. Sprawling lines from Faulkner would be lost on visitors to websites, and similarly, website content would make a horrible novel. But, we can still take some inspiration and writing advice from one of the most prolific and spooky writers of our time, Stephen King. Here’s an essential checklist for writing website content, alongside some quotes from the horror bard’s technical writing opus, On Writing.
Know Your Audience
“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”
It’s daunting to start a website from scratch, but that’s the perfect time to draft buyer personas before writing any copy. Buyer personas serve as a representation of a business’ ideal customer. They should be based on existing and prospective customer data, such as demographics and psychographics. Explore your ideal customer’s pain points, preferences, shopping habits, demographic information, etc. Once you’ve figured out who your ideal buyer is, you’ll be closer to understanding your brand’s tone. Is it more professional and reassuring, or playful and creative? Whatever you land on, the objective will be the same—welcome the reader with inviting copy, earn their trust by assuring them of your expertise and authority, and move them toward a sale with focused language that’s action-oriented.
All the best copy in the world won’t help if your audience can’t find your website. Think about how your audience might be searching for you on Google. What questions do you hear from clients or patients? Gather these common questions before even starting to draft your copy, and think about how you can answer them. You should also do keyword research on how users are searching for your company and similar competitors. If you’ve never performed keyword research, Moz has a great breakdown with strategies and online tool suggestions. Once you’ve recognized trends in search terms, try to fit those terms into your copy naturally (bonus points if you can work them into your H1s and H2s).
- Understand your customers’ worries
- Establish buyer personas
- Find your appropriate tone
- Do your research
Keep It Simple
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”
There’s a time and place for long, drawn-out sentences. For websites, follow King’s advice and keep it simple. Think short sentences (below 20 words) and short paragraphs (around five lines). Research suggests “the new norm is skimming.” One great way to help out the skimmers of the world? Bullet points and lots of H2s. Put some of your unique selling propositions (USPs) as bullet points. That way, if someone is skimming, they’ll catch your most marketable features. Large H2s with USPs also help deliver valuable info in a short amount of time and space. Considering the average user’s attention span is now eight seconds, the more skimmable, the better.
Also, a quick note about jargon—it’s best to avoid it. While you might think it shows off your expertise, it will more than likely come off as exclusive and confusing. Odds are, someone visiting your site doesn’t know as much about your business or industry as you do; don’t constantly remind them of that by throwing around obtuse industry phrases and abbreviations. It’s all about connecting and building trust. The best way to achieve this is by sticking with the brand voice that you established from your target research.
- Short sentences. Short paragraphs.
- Use bullets when possible
- Avoid jargon
- Make it accessible
Avoid Filler and Fluff
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”
King does an interesting job here of showing how not to use filler and fluff language by… using filler and fluff. “Totally, completely, and profligately.” We get it. It’s a bit much. So what exactly are filler and fluff?
Filler language uses too many words to describe something when fewer will do. It can also be generic terms that don’t add value to your sentences. Think, I need to finish this term paper so I’ll keep adding some sentences that don’t really say much and hope the professor doesn’t notice, kind of sentences.
Fluff language comes down to vocabulary, or, often, a writer’s love for a thesaurus. The goal is genuine, but the result is copy that ends up wasting the reader’s time. When going over first drafts of your website copy, comb through every sentence and ask yourself, “Is this adding value?”
- When in doubt, cut, cut, cut
- Watch out for unnecessary adverbs and adjectives
Develop a Brand Lexicon
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
So you’ve done keyword research to understand what people are searching and to what degree. You’ve created buyer personas. The next step should be to develop a brand lexicon with your team. How will you refer to your customers? As clients, patients, buyers? How do you refer to your team? Staff, crew, talent, personnel, employees? How do you talk about your services or products? Finalize your choices and make it consistent throughout your entire website. Once you’ve got a list going, make it accessible for your writers and editors, either in a digital or print format.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a variety of language in your writing. Mix up the way you write about your company and services. We don’t talk to each other in narrow language scopes. When we talk about a wedding, we don’t just mention repetitions of basic services that could be common keywords (weddings, wedding services, wedding DJ). We bring up the flower arrangements, lighting, cake, bridesmaid dresses, centerpieces, dance floor, photo booth, signature cocktails, first dance, flower girl, ring bearer. It’s this variety of language that sends positive SEO signals to Google. You’re not writing to a keyword (something Google hates). You’re writing to the experience.
- Draft a lexicon that pairs with your brand’s tone, and stick to it
- Use varying language, not just keywords
Trust Your Editing Team
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
There’s almost always a team of support to make sure your website content is just right. For the first draft, don’t worry too much about hitting every mark. Get the important information down first, and then go back and revise. While writing is for exploring, editing should be for fine-tuning. When editing, get collaborative and make sure multiple team members oversee the drafts. There are often subtle details that even the keenest eye will overlook when editing alone.
You may also find that there are just too many words at first. You wanted to make sure every.single.awesome.detail. about your company was included and, as a result, went a little overboard. That’s okay. It’s always easier to cut down than to try to beef up your sentences with additional information. The latter often leads to filler and fluff anyways, and you should know that’s a no-no at this point.
- Set up a team dedicated to editing
- Don’t be afraid to revise, revise, revise
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
Hopefully, at this point you’ve started to write some copy. Hurray! But, are you making sure you’re giving your readers an actionable “next step” in their buyer’s journey? Focus on getting closer to a natural call to action at the end of your copy. You can start off more broad by talking about what you offer customers, but by the time you’re reaching the bottom of your copy, the focus should be heavily on the reader.
One quick trick you can use while editing—search for how many times you’re referencing your business in the collective first person, e.g., we can better help… our team is skilled… we, we, we. If there’s a lot of them, then get the hypothetical red pen out and start marking. Make it more about who you’re talking to. What do they get from working with you? How will their frustrations be solved? Start with your capabilities and expertise, but end with the reader taking action into their own hands.
- End with a natural call to action
- Focus on the user
Above all, good website content comes from authors that know their brand inside and out. You’ve got your elevator pitch down, and you can talk comfortably at networking events about what puts your business above the competition. This authenticity and confidence in your brand will shine in your writing. It’s about making a connection in a short amount of time, recognizing the worries of your readers, and assuring them their goals can be met by working with you. So don’t rush it—get to know your brand, do some research, plan accordingly, keep it simple, and focus on the end-user.
Feel like you could use some assistance with your website content? The content marketing team at Search Influence can develop a content strategy that helps get the right visitors to your site at the right time. Reach out to our team at any time to get started.