There's a balance to be struck when writing for web, and it's the difference between sounding like you're writing a letter to the Queen of England or, on the other end of the scale, sounding as though you're baby-talking a tiny Chihuahua. The arrival of the web brought with it a dilemma for those looking to fill it with content.
How a web-writer approaches their audience depends very much on how much they know their readers - but there are a number of rules that can be more generally applied to ensure that you don't sound like you're out of touch with the people at the other end of the cable.
As with everything in life, the key to getting good in the game of digital article-writing is practice. But even those of us who write multiple articles a day can slip up from time-to-time. Take a look at the rules below and help yourself to minimise the risk of sounding far sillier than you actually are.
Don't approach every post like a journalist
You have an audience and you have an instrument - your computer - by which you can feed them information. With that kind of responsibility, it can be tempting to slip into a bad habit, a syndrome I refer to as The Bad Journalist Habit. Sometimes, when we start typing, the copy that pops from our fingers can somehow arrive as starchy, uptight and stilted, reading like the over-ordered, thunderously delivered words of a terrible news anchor. It happens to all of us, and there's no explaining why it happens. It simply happens.
When it does kick in, the only way around it is to wipe the slate clean. Go and make a hot beverage, reconvene with yourself and remember that you're writing for web. Your audience won't be expecting total authority. In fact, they really don't want to be patronised in any way shape or form, so when this kind of earnest and clunky text starts to appear before your very eyes, it's time to take a step back from the word processor and envisage your audience demographic and how to write in a way that they'll find appealing. But also don't sound like you're unhinged.
So often, however, things can start to swing in the opposite direction. In looking to reverse the formal Bad Journalist style you might sometimes slip into, you might find yourself writing as though you envisage your readers are all teenagers who expect swearing, pop culture references and an over-reliance on web slang. Both bad habits start when you forget that a web readership is made up of a ton of different character types - of all ages, creeds and classes. If you write specifically for one, you risk alienating another, so keep your strokes broad and ensure that nobody will feel left out.
A constant source of neuroses for the writer can be the worry of whether or not your second hand information has been justly referenced back to the originator. This isn't a dissertation and you don't really want to be sticking footnotes and addendums in your piece when you eventually reach the end, so it's important to make the most of your hyperlinks. Like a gift from the gods, they're there to be used to the maximum, making your life easier and making your readers web experience a far more engaging one. So long as you hyperlink back to your sources, nobody's going to mind if you didn't come up with the info yourself. Your readers and even the people who originally created the work you reference will be glad of the link, and you'll have added value simply by dint of revealing your sources.
Do I use web-slang?
This is trickier than it might seem. Though slang is frowned upon in traditional journalism and column-writing, on the web the rules have changed somewhat. Because we're all using what is essentially a new technology, we're constantly having to adopt newly created words as a matter of course. New software and applications are being found every day, and if we want to survive in the online environment we are forced to adapt. Also, as new cultures arise from the dust and out of nowhere, they can go global off the back of a viral buzz and forge new terms and phrases to enter common use before you've had chance to catch up. If you asked 'I can haz' instead if 'May I have?' online ten years ago, you might have drawn concerned emails from your readership, but now any web-savvy onlooker will instantly know what you're talking about.
The wisest thing to do is to proceed with caution. Be arch when applying well-known web terminology, but don't stuff every sentence with FTW and ROFL. It might start to look a little desperate.
Proofread, then proofread again. Even if you're getting subbed
When writing for any medium, this is the golden rule. Even if your piece is going to fall into the hands of a trusted Editor, you can never read your article too many times. Even on the fourth or fifth read-through, you'll find worthwhile tweaks and adjustments that can be made - so give your copy the benefit of at least two re-readings. Double that and you're heading in the right direction. Simply sending off copy the second you hammer down that last full stop is the first step down the mountainside of disaster.
Constantly bone up on online copy
Even if you've got a massive readership, your stats are rising and there's no end to the inspiration you're finding for your articles, there's still every reason to keep reading around your topic online. If you constantly expose yourself to similar and better writers in your field, you can only hope to improve your already sparkling prose.
So, stick a couple of dozen blogs on your chosen specialism into your Google reader and make sure that you set aside regular time-patches to catch up with other writers. You'll not only see where (and if) you're going wrong, but you'll also grab ideas from the tricks and wordplay of others. After all, there's no better way to learn the trade than to study the masters, your competitors, and the comments of your readers - so make sure it becomes a habit and you'll end up among the best in the business.