November 2013

Five minute writing sprint

So you’re sitting around, you finally have a moment to focus on your website and you think, “I need to get some more content up here”.

You don’t have the budget to hire a writer or a marketing expert to help write your content so instead you write everything yourself.

You sit down but your mind is blank, you expect yourself to write the next most viral content the web has ever seen, making your business blow up, wherein you become a billionaire philanthropist and spend the rest of your life making the world a better place.

But you still have no idea how to start.

I propose a five minute writing sprint.

Sit down, get a timer, use your phone or the classic kitchen timer for added dramatic effect, set it for five minutes and go.

But I still have no idea what to write you say!

Stop! No backspace key allowed. Write whatever is in your head in the moment.

Imagine this:

You start your timer and realize you really should have hit the restroom before you started, well, suck it up, it’s only five minutes.

Start by writing that.

Once your fingers start relentlessly pounding on the keyboard and you command them keep going, the ideas will start pouring out of your brain. Some will be terrible, some will be great, some you will have no idea where they came from. This is the beauty of the 5 minute writing sprint.

As you’re writing, new ideas start popping into your head and you start to get into a deeper flow. Your timer all of the sudden goes off, but it feels like you’ve only been writing for 30 seconds, so you keep going.

If you are having trouble, use the five minute writing sprint to get started and you’ll be amazed with what you come up with.

Don’t worry about editing, that will come easily once you’re done.

Writing as fast as you can will kill your inner critic and help you spew out as many ideas as you can, eventually you might run out of gas, but I bet it will take longer than you realize.

You may write things in a crazy random order. Ideas may come to you in the wrong order. Just keep writing, that is what editing is for. We’re just here to work out ideas and a general outline for the first run through.

Afterwards you may have one complete article, or 5 separate ideas for articles to write. You can expand on these with additional 5 minute sprints or just write normally.

The point is to get started. Half the battle is just opening up your writing environment and go go going. If you notice yourself slowing down to think just start jamming the keyboard fast and without regard.

After all, all you need are words, that you turn into sentences, that you turn into paragraphs, that you turn into sections, that you turn into articles.

If you already have an idea, or if you’re starting round two you can just start freestyle writing on your idea with an outline.  An outline will help you keep some semblance of structure and keep things readable. You may even find that writing with an outline will give you one shot articles. Great, interesting and fun articles that you’ve written in no time.

If you’re a small business owner and you can’t afford a writer or content creator this may be the best piece of advice for you. Anyone can write, and the more you write the more you’ll figure it out. The more things you try the more you learn what works.

allyconstruction.com screenshot

Ally Construction

I worked with the owner of Ally Construction to launch their web presence. After we worked out their requirements and the needs of their customers, we determined a content management system based on Drupal would be the most effective solution to build their on-line presence quickly and efficiently.

I designed and developed a custom responsive theme with backwards compatibility for older web browsers. I also created icons for the site and selected customer provided images for the site.

After the site was completed and launched, I provided support in the initial site marketing, wrote much of the sites content, and provided off-site search engine marketing. As a result, Ally Construction is ranked very highly in Google and has many first page results for local search terms.

Visit AllyConstruction.com

Technologies: HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, PHP, MySQL, Drupal, Responsive design

Learn this one insane trick used by Nobel laureates to create outstanding article titles!

Okay, bear with me and hopefully you’ll understand the [ridiculous] title to this post afterwards.

First, check out this webcomic from the great xkcd.

xkcd comic
http://xkcd.com/1283/

You’ve almost certainly seen similar headlines while browsing the web, and if you haven’t noticed, you’ll probably notice them everywhere now. Headlines like these are common headlines for content, sometimes referred to as Link bait.

Obviously the headlines in the comic are filled with sarcasm but they illustrate a lot of concepts used in writing interesting headlines. Headlines need to grab people’s attention and get them to choose to read one article over the millions of other similar articles out there.

So, how do you get someone to read the article you’ve spent days pounding out on your keyboard? Start with a good headline.

 Associate with someone of power

“How a shocking new theory, discovered by a Dad, proves scientists are wrong about everything” is a decent example of this, although it could be taken even further. The idea of scientists theories being uprooted by a Dad is supposed to be surprising, which is interesting enough for someone to want to know more.

Also, claiming ‘Nobel laureates’ create outstanding article titles is an example of trying to use a perceived authority figure to grab a readers attention. I did a quick search and couldn’t find any references from Nobel Prize (in Literature) winners regarding writing interesting titles. When I do find one I’ll post it here. I would recommend not using this unless you really have a reference. 🙂

Shh, it’s a secret

Simple things often aren’t revealed in the headline in order to compel people to click and read the article. It’s like you’re keeping a secret from your audience until the last possible moment. These are the ‘one weird trick’ articles.

Imagine trying to get someone to read an article about cutting their hair every other week. Yeah, right, who would read that?

“Get a hair cut from a qualified hair stylist biweekly to maintain your desired hair length.”

That sounds like the most ridiculous article and reading it would most definitely cause a mass departure of brain cells. I would not bother to click on an article like this, and I’d probably put whatever site served that article on my block list. However, how about something like this:

“This one crazy productivity hack eliminates unnecessary hair length!”

Alright, so I wouldn’t read this article either. It sounds terrible, and come on, it’s an article about hair. It sounds a little more interesting though, right?

61047 ways to write winning headlines

People love lists.

I’ve read many theories on why list posts are effective. People are busy and like to know how much they are going to have to read. List posts make an article easier to scan. People like lists in general.

If you hadn’t already noticed the massive amount of informational ‘list posts’, now you will see them everywhere.

Although list posts are pretty effective, use them sparingly. They can be effective but with so many articles based on lists these days they can also be perceived as a joke. Not everything is a list, and in general you should stick to covering one topic in an article. Don’t use the list post format for something that clearly doesn’t need to be structured as a list.

Can writing an article about writing headlines make me a better writer?

Steal some clicks by asking a question. I ask you a question, and you feel compelled to answer. I read a question, at least an interesting one, and I want to know the answer. I’m curious, everyone is curious. What’s the answer?

Asking your potential readers a question is a great technique to interest them in reading further. Make it an interesting question and make sure you have an interesting answer.

Don’t lead anyone on though. Give a terrible or generic answer and you alienate your readers.

Conclusion

These are just a few standard techniques to write interesting headlines. Whatever you do, make sure your content lives up to the hype of your headline. Find the right balance for the type of reader you want into what kind of direction you take your headlines.

The goal is not to ‘trick’ someone into reading your content, but to write interesting headlines so your target audience will find and appreciate it.

Images and Search Engine Optimization

While the bulk of content on the web is text, images play an important role. Images support your content and can help illustrate concepts more clearly or provide an interesting break from content. They can also encourage people to read your content, but not every visitor to your site necessarily has images enabled.

In this post we’ll be talking about the best practices when it comes to using images on the web.

To insert an image into an html document we use the <img> tag. We need at least the src and alt attributes, and preferably the width and height attributes as well.

Image tag attributes

There are four important image tag attributes. The only required attribute is the ‘src’ attribute, however the other three mentioned here are important as well.

src

The src attribute is pretty straightforward, it tells the browser the location of the file.

alt

The alt attribute is used to describe the image. This description will be visible before the image loads (like on a slow connection), by screen readers (blind users or users with poor site), or if an image referred to by the src attribute cannot be found.

width & height

The width & height attributes are important to specify so the browser knows before beginning to render how much space the image will need. However, this may also depend on the layout of the site and if responsive/fluid images are being used.

Optimizing for Search

There are a couple important factors to consider when optimizing images for a website. Here we’ll talk about the alt tag and image size and compression.

Optimizing your alternate text for images

The alt attribute is very important, not just for search but to ensure your website is accessible to all users. Well written alternate text is human readable (not just a list of keywords) and concise (aim for less than 10 words). Search engines will use this text to index your images. While it’s not the only technique that may be used (surrounding context, file name, and other factors may contribute as well), it is best practice to always include alt text.

Optimizing image size

Site speed is important to both users and search engines. If your site does not load quickly enough users are more apt to click the back button and look somewhere else. If your site is really slow search engines like Google are likely to rank your site lower or even not index it at all.

Images often make up the bulk of the size of a page, so it’s important to ensure that the correct image format and compression is used.

When saving an image for the web you will want to make sure it’s saved at the size it will be shown on the web. I’ve often encountered images taken directly from a camera uploaded to a website and re-sized by the web browser. The sizes can differ wildly, but this can easily be the difference between downloading a 12 megabyte image vs a 40 kilobyte image.

It’s very simple to open your image up, re-size to a smaller size, and save as a .jpg. In software like The Gimp, when saving as a .jpg you will be given the option of choosing compression quality and be able to preview the result.

This week was just a brief overview of what to consider when using images on the web. I’ve gone through the basics, but there is plenty more to learn out there, such as responsive images, svg format images, image sprites, and more image optimization tips.