if you build it right they will come – and stay
Do you want more readers?
Of course you do. You’ve got something to say and without an audience all that effort goes unnoticed. In a world where new content is everywhere, how can you get anyone’s attention?
Sadly there are no guaranteed routes to a bigger readership. But there are some changes you can make to shift the odds in your favour.
Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse
The purpose of the headlines must be to convey a message to people who read headlines, (and) then decide whether or not they will look at the copy.
The headline is your shop window.
The world is a noisy place and you have to work hard to catch readers. That might mean tricking people into looking your way; lure them with the candy of an eye-catching banner, then feed them the wholesome food of your content.
It’s fashionable to sneer at so-called clickbait headlines that too often lead to worthless content. But looking at their structure can teach you what attracts attention. Then you can get your good content in front of more people.
Your potential reader will make a decision to stop and read or scroll on based on the offer in the headline. Copywriters and advertising have a lot to teach writers about headlines. We often spend little time on them, but they are as important as the content. If the reader doesn’t stop, he can’t be persuaded by our words.
Sell the benefit of your piece.
Mention the value or learning that readers will get from reading, and then deliver. There’s a reason that “How To” headlines and lists are so frequently used; they work. They draw people in.
The CoSchedule headline analyzer is a free to use resource that scores headlines based on an extensive database. The results can be counter-intuitive, especially for writers used to crafting beautiful prose. Save intrigue and wordplay for later. The headline has a job to do, and it has to be effective, not beautiful.
This example shows different versions of the same idea. The very simple headline scores best, showing the power of “How To” even though for me it’s not the most attractive.
Better writing is one step away = 63/100
You can become a better writer = 67/100
You can become a better writer now = 71/00
How to get better at writing = 78/100
Write and analyse several versions of your headline. It’s hard but you’ll learn what actually makes a better headline, rather than what you think is better.
How Hard Can It Be?
So you’ve got your reader hooked. She’s looking forward to learning something or being entertained. But instead, she clicks away because your piece isn’t readable. Don’t let her go.
Hit the Wall
Few things are more off-putting than a wall of unbroken text on a screen.
We need more white space on a screen, which allows our eyes to rest. Break up the prose. Have one idea to a sentence and two to three sentences to a paragraph. Don’t be afraid to have many short paragraphs, it makes the text more readable.
Important sentences can have a paragraph of their own to make them stand out.
The Long and the Short Of It
Pitch your writing at the right level for your readers.
Reading age describes the ability of an average child of a given age to read and understand a piece of writing. Most people prefer to read for pleasure at least two years lower than their educational level. The average reading age in the US is 12 years. Compare the reading age of some popular media.
- The Sun, UK tabloid 7–8 years
- Harry Potter novels 12–13 years
- Stephen King novels 12 years
- Reader’s Digest 12 years
You might be a true logophile, but most readers want to see words they understand without reference to a dictionary. In most cases use simpler words and sentences, and keep paragraphs short. Avoid jargon unless it’s essential, and explain the meaning of unfamiliar words the first time you use them.
Keep It Moving
Academic and business writing are notorious for being stodgy and dull. These writing styles favour the passive voice. Active voice is more immediate and informal, which keeps readers moving down the page. For example,
The passive voice is disliked by modern writers.
Modern writers dislike passive voice.
Address your reader directly when possible so they can identify with your point.
Avoid The Angry Trap
Keep laments and angry rants in your journal. It’s cathartic but comes across as self-absorbed unless you make a point that’s relevant to your reader.
I recently unfollowed a writer who is angry. All the time. I share many of their concerns, but I wish they’d provide solutions or insight into those issues.
Instead use your emotion as a starting point to help others deal with shared themes. Tell your story briefly then move on to how you dealt with it and your reader can too.
Put Meat on the Bones
So your headline drew the reader in. Your piece is well crafted. But is it compelling? Your content needs to solve a problem for your reader; it should inform, instruct, or entertain.
Here’s where you deliver on the promise of your headline. Ask yourself who your readers are and what problems they have. Make sure your piece answers their question or tells a great story.
If you posed a question, answer it. If you offered solutions, explain them. If you promised information, give it and make sure that it is something worth the time spent reading.
Much has been written about “voice”, that elusive quality that makes a piece unique to its author. A good place to start finding your voice is writing as you speak, as though your reader is sitting next to you with a cup of coffee listening to every word.
Be conversational and friendly. Read it out loud to check that it flows well.
Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.
After all that hard work you might want to rest and admire your words. But instead, you have to do it again. Building an audience is never a matter of one viral post. You need a body of work and you need to give your audience what they want.
Showing up, over and over, is much easier said than done. That’s why so many people fall by the wayside. It’s a long slog with little reward in the beginning, and as soon as you finish one post you have to make another.
Some days you’ll feel exhausted and want to stop. But if you stop, you can’t win. Slow down if you must, but keep moving.
Remind yourself why you started. Celebrate your wins, however small. Remind yourself how far you’ve come.
Actions mean everything. The people you enticed in with a headline and who stayed to read your content want more from you. Build a portfolio and keep adding to it.
You can’t predict which post will make your name. All you can do is do good work, over and over, and share it with the world. It’s as easy, and as hard, as that.
Walk That Talk
An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.
How is it that we consume so much self-help and advice, and yet remain overweight, unfit, unhappy and unfulfilled? The disconnect between reading and nodding sagely, and actually following the steps given is huge. Your success lies in closing that gap. I know — because I live the same struggle.
A few months ago I was very discouraged about my work on Medium. I was putting in more effort but not yet seeing results. Belief in the process didn’t make it any easier to deal with my disappointment.
I leaned into my discontent. I studied harder, learned more and then put what I learned into practice. I followed advice, both my own and others who’ve trodden this path.
The result: more fans for this one piece in 5 days than in the previous four weeks combined.
I wrote more, learned about exponential growth and encouraged myself. In addition, each published piece was a new opportunity to connect with people through the comments. Hearing that my words helped someone else was the reward that lifted my mood and got me working again.
Elite sportspeople know about marginal gains. Even a world champion can improve — as a result of multiple tiny tweaks rather than one major change in their routine. True champions push their personal best by optimising all the subroutines that make up their whole practice.
Let go of what you think works. Experiment with another way of doing things and adjust according to your results. Like any change, it will be uncomfortable until you’ve repeated it so many times that it’s second nature.