This guide is intended to support you in producing posts that are compelling, clear, and easy to read. It’s based on an earlier version of our writing guide, and the Yahoo! Style Guide for online content.
What’s in this guide:
- The basics: headings, sentences, and paragraphs
- Creating your title
- The opening lines
- Structuring your post
- Adding depth to your content
- The final product: junk the jargon, clear out deadwood
The basics: headings, sentences, and paragraphs
Headings are the first thing your reader will see. They should be active, strong, and straightforward.
Enticing, well-written headlines can reach out from searches and mobile devices to pull people into your post; ho-hum headlines will send them away. Once the headline invites people in, it’s up to your content to keep them reading.
Headlines and strong content work together to create compelling Web copy. Master the basic building blocks that make content work – headings, sentences, paragraphs – and readers will return for more.
Headings – which include headlines and sub-headings – perform several important functions: They give readers a glimpse of your content, they organize that content into readable chunks, and they tell a story that makes it possible to grasp the gist of the content quickly.
The headline gives readers a glimpse of the whole story (Hansel and Gretel foil witch, escape), and subheadings lead readers through the content by helping them understand what’s in each section (Witch captures children, Hansel tricks witch, Gretel saves brother, Children arrive home).
TIP: Does your content pass the ‘heading test’? Scan your post reading only the headings. If you can understand the flow and substance of the story, your content passed the test. If something seems confusing, you may need to rewrite the headings or even reorder some paragraphs.
Things to consider:
- Keywords – ask yourself which words readers are likely to use to search for the story. Proper nouns are good. Avoid abbreviations because people tend to spell out words in searches. Then use those keywords in a short sentence, which you can later trim to headline length.
- Subject-verb-object is often the best structure, because it puts the actor (subject) and the action (verb) first. g. Hercules slays Hydra!
- Use strong verbs – short, staccato, ‘muscular’ verbs work best is headlines. The strongest have just one or two syllables. g. Greeks gain entry to Troy, win (weak) / Greeks seize Troy (strong)
- Use the active rather than the passive voice, and the present tense unless the past tense is necessary. E.g. Hare beaten by tortoise in footrace (passive) / Tortoise beats hare in footrace (active)
There are more tips for creating your headline in the ‘Creating your title’ section.
For easy reading and scanning, use short, active sentences with a subject-verb-object structure and front loaded information
Headline writing is good practice for sentence writing. Good sentences are concise and well-formed, using logical word order and solid grammar. They are easy for readers to digest quickly, even people with limited fluency in English. (See ‘Be inclusive, write for the world’ in our Style Guide.)
The below tips cover the basics of clear writing…
- Aim for shorter sentences of no more than 25 words
- Express one main point per sentence. More ideas mean more complex sentences. Don’t get sidetracked.
Before: More than 3,000 residents fled the raging fire, which has burned 10 square miles, while the governor promised to send more firefighters immediately.
After: More than 3,000 residents fled the raging fire, which has burned 10 square miles. The governor promised to send more firefighters immediately.
- Front-load your sentences. Put the most important information at the beginning of your sentence, where scanning readers are likely to see it.
- Keep subject and verb close together.
Before: Good writers, no matter how much they like to interrupt themselves with a verbal diversion, imagine a magnet between subject and verb.
After: Good writers imagine a magnet between subject and verb, no matter how much they like to interrupt themselves with a verbal diversion.
- Avoid splitting verbs.
Before: She likes to slowly walk along the seashore.
After: She likes to walk slowly along the seashore.
TIP: For easy reading and scanning, using short, active sentences with a subject-verb-object structure and front loaded information is recommended, especially in headlines and first lines of paragraphs. However, when every sentence has the same structure and rhythm, even writing that’s about a fascinating subject can start to drag. Variety is key to a good reading experience.
Keep paragraphs short. Three or four lines of text is enough.
Paragraphs, like sentences, should be concise, especially since you have only a few seconds to capture a reader’s attention. Short paragraphs are easy to scan and understand. Follow these basic guidelines:
- Build every paragraph on one idea or topic
- Front-load the essential point. Put the most important information – a topic sentence or a conclusion – first. In journalism and online, if readers aren’t hooked by the first few words in a paragraph, they probably won’t read further.
- Keep paragraphs short. Three or four lines of text is enough.
Creating your title
Take time over your title, as it’s likely to influence a person’s decision about whether or not to read your blog. Use questions, controversy, keywords, or personalisation to draw readers in. If in doubt, keep it simple.
While there will usually only be a handful of words in your post title, they are the most powerful words that you’ll write because most of your readers will decide whether or not to read the rest of your post based on them. For some interesting thoughts on headline writing, see this Guardian article.
To name a few, blog post titles appear in:
- Search engine results
- RSS feeds
- Links from other bloggers
- Social media sites
In each of these situations, the title may well be the only thing that people see and make the decision to visit your post upon. Here are a few tips:
1. Keep it simple and (if possible) short
If in doubt, make sure your title tells the reader what they’re going to find in the post. One of our most popular ever blog posts is called “Cool things the NHS is doing with data”. It tells the readers what the post is about in a clear, straightforward, fun way.
2. Identify a need and provide a solution
This can sometimes be challenging when writing about research, but there are other areas of our work where it might be more applicable. For example, we could write a post on ‘How to get your paper ready to publish’.
Example: How to become good at peer review: A guide for young scientists
Example: How to share data with a statistician
Example: How to break out of a scientific career rut, Part 3: Investigate internal barriers
Example: Peer review: how to get it right – 10 tips
3. Create controversy or debate
This could entail making a statement that you know will be controversial. For example, ‘Women are better at multitasking’ – not only is this a well-worn topic and likely to be very ‘searchable’, but it also has the advantage of being debatable, and likely to pique people’s interest.
4. Ask a question
When you ask a question those who read it are wired to respond (or to see what the response is). Question titles can help to draw readers in, and are also (generally) more likely to elicit comments from readers who want to give their own opinion.
5. Personalize it
One of the easiest ways to do this is simply to use the word ‘you’ or ‘your’ in the title of your posts. For example, ‘Could being obese affect your risk of dementia?’
6. Use Keywords
Keywords in titles are good for two main reasons:
- They grab the attention of readers who are scanning content
- They are important for increasing the ‘lifespan’ of your blog post, as they tell search engines what your blog post is about and will help it to rank highly for those words.
(Your keywords will be the things that you think your audience will be searching for – generally at BMC these will be things like different disciplines and research areas, ‘open access’, ‘publishing’, etc.)
Just remember not to stuff lots of keywords in at the expense of creating a title that will catch the eye!
The opening lines
Think about how to catch readers’ attention and draw them into the post. Use questions, stories, analogies, quotes or statistics.
The second most important words in your blog post are those that follow the title – your opening lines. So how can you craft an opening line to a post that effectively engages readers? The key thing to remember is variety. Try not to use the same openers in every post that you write (loyal readers tend to become numb to them if you do). Here are a few suggestions:
1. Identify a need
As with creating a title, identifying a reader’s need and solving it is a great technique to writing successful blog posts. If you’re writing a post like ‘How to get your manuscript ready to publish’, you don’t have to solve the need or problem in the opening line, but an effective way to get readers to read through your post (where you do solve it) is to tell them that you will in the opening line.
Example: How to genetically modify a better garden
Example: How to write the first draft of a novel in 30 days (check out the sub-head)
2. Ask a question which the reader wants the answer to
To do this, ask a question in the opening of your post which is something the reader wants to know. For example – ‘Do you want to discover how to produce papers that will require fewer revisions?’ Asking this type of question communicates what the post is about and the need that it will meet for the reader.
3. Ask an intriguing question
Ask a question that leaves readers hanging and wanting to know the answer.
- ‘What do puffer fish and koalas have in common?’
- ‘What will peer review look like in 20 years’ time?’
- ‘How can we stop people misusing A&E?’
All of these questions will leave readers wondering what the answer will be and give them a reason to read on further into a post.
4. Tell a story or share an analogy
Telling ‘stories’ to open posts can be one way of grabbing a reader’s attention, particularly if it’s something that they can identify with. Stories can be your own personal stories or someone else’s. Going back to the example of preparing a manuscript for publication, the story could be one of you – or someone you know – preparing their first manuscript, and the challenges that entailed. Or perhaps if you’re writing on peer review, you could open with a short intro on a debate you had at a conference about the subject.
5. Make a controversial statement
There’s nothing like a hint of controversy to grab people’s attention. Strongly stating your opinion usually encourages people to read on to see why you’ve said it and to let you know if they agree. An example might be ‘I don’t believe the peer review system will survive the next decade.’
Just make sure when making these kinds of statements that you’ve checked with managers and others at the company to make sure your opinions aren’t going against any company policies.
6. Paint a picture
This technique is widely used in public speaking and can translate across into writing effective blog posts. The basics of it are to get your reader using their imagination to picture some kind of scenario, which can be used in both positive or negative ways:
Positive – get them to imagine a scenario when they achieve some success or overcome some problem. e.g. They get their paper published with minimal revisions.
Negative – alternatively get them to picture the consequences of a problem left unsolved or a failure that they might fear. e.g. their paper is rejected/goes through numerous revisions and is rejected/etc.
7. Use statistics
Using a statistic that packs a punch can effectively communicate a need and grab attention. For example:
Title: Unravelling the associations between childhood malaria and invasive bacteria infection – Opening lines: “Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites of the Plasmodium genus that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes. It is a leading cause of childhood morbidity and mortality worldwide, accounting for 7% of deaths in children younger than five years old.”
Just remember to keep statistics simple. This Sense about Science guide gives details of statistics can become misleading: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/resources/1/MSofStatistics.pdf
8. Start with a quote
Using the words of someone other than yourself can bring authority and credibility to your post. It can also grab attention if you choose the right person.
Example: Learning from the mistakes of others: Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine moves to open peer review
Example: How 1.3 million women are transforming our understanding of lifestyle factors that affect our health
Structuring your post
Structure your post around the key questions readers may have about the topic. Always ask ‘So what?’ – why is what you’re saying important or relevant to the reader?
Sometimes, knowing where to start can be the most challenging thing about writing a blog post. It’s usually helpful to think about some questions that you want to answer in the post – the questions that your audience will also want answered.
For example, if you’re writing about a piece of research, the key questions could be:
- What is the wider context of this research area and why is it important? If it’s about a medical condition, how many people does it affect and where?
- What are the challenges or big questions or debates in this field (that are related to what the research is about)?
- What did the researchers do and what does this add? Does it help to answer a question/add to a debate/etc? (If you can get quotes from the researcher, do!)
- So what does this research lead to? What does the future hold for this research area?
Or another example, if you’re writing about how to write a good cover letter for your manuscript:
- Why is a good cover letter important?
- Why should people listen to your advice (i.e. what’s your expertise)?
- What are the major mistakes that are seen again and again? (give examples!)
- What are the 10 key things that people should remember?
- Where can people go to get advice?
Or, if you’re writing about a call for papers for a series, the key questions could be:
- What is the wider context of this research area and why is it important?
- What are the challenges or big questions or debates in this field (that are related to what the series is about)?
- What are we hoping to achieve with the series? Will it help to answer questions/add to a debate/etc?
- Where can researchers go to find out more?
Once you’ve got the relevant questions for your post, you’ve got the outline structure right there. You don’t need to include the questions in your post, but if you answer them as you write you’re much more likely to give your audience what they want.
The key thing to always ask yourself when writing a post is ‘So what?’ Always show people why the things you’re writing about are important and why they’re relevant to them.
Adding depth to your content
Use examples, stories and analogies;add your opinion; add other people’s opinions using quotes and interviews; ask for your readers’ opinions; consider the other side of an argument.
If you use the question structure above this should give you the basic content of your post, but there are ways that you can add more depth to give people a more interesting read. Below are some ideas for doing this:
1. Use examples
It’s often easy to talk in theoretical terms. Show how the theory can be applied in an actual situation by using a ‘for example’ and you’ll make your post much more effective.
So, for example, if you’re writing about how to produce an effective cover letter, give examples of what to do and what not to do (these could be hypothetical). Or if you’re writing about a piece of research, give examples of how this is applicable to a situation readers may be familiar with, or where it could be used in the future.
2. Add an analogy, story or metaphor
Another type of example; a story or analogy helps readers to understand what you’re writing about. Personal stories can be very effective at establishing common ground between you and your readers, and you can also use stories to illustrate why certain areas of research are important. For example, in this blog on verbal autopsy, the story of the Moroccan neonatal tetanus serves to show that verbal autopsy can have very direct benefits to a population’s health. Or in this post about A&E use and high heels, the personal stories add some humour and also help to connect the research with ‘real life’.
Example: Who’s been sitting in my chair? The microbes that live indoors.
Example: The subway of the brain – Why white matter matters.
Example: What it feels like for a sperm, or how to get around when you are really, really small
Example: When muscle turns to bone – clues for treating deadly childhood brain tumours
3. Add your opinion
Giving your opinion really adds to a post. It makes it more personal and engaging, and it stimulates readers to think about their own reaction to what they are reading. This works particularly well when you’re commenting on news or a debate.
Example: A sensory guide to Christmas drinking
Example: The “strength of weak ties” for interdisciplinary research (and the value of a good conference!)
Example: What can you do with that PhD?: FAQs about non-academic jobs
4. Add quotes
An effective way of adding authority to a blog post is to add the voice of another person using a short quote. Using quotes helps to demonstrate that you’ve researched a topic thoroughly.
5. Interview someone
If you can’t find an existing quote to use from someone – create one by approaching them for a quick comment or interview on your topic. For example, if you’re writing about a research article, ask the author of the paper. Or if you’re writing a commentary on a piece of news, then ask someone you know who is an authority in the field (if you can). While this might sound like a long process, getting a comment could just be a case of picking up the phone.
6. Offer points of participation
Invite readers to respond and participate in the post. For example, ask for comments or add a poll so that people can give their own opinion.
7. Look at the other side
Exploring not only one side of an argument but two can add depth to your post. You don’t need to sit on the fence and can still express your preference strongly in your argument, but showing that you’re aware of other arguments shows readers that you have thought through an issue fully in coming to your point of view.
The final product: junk the jargon, clear out deadwood
Once you’ve written your post be ruthless. Remove any jargon and clear out unnecessary words and phrases.
Short, strong sentences are the essence of good Web content. Clear, simple text is easy to scan and easy to understand, which is important when some of our readers may not use English as their first language.
This section is about cutting unneeded words to let the meaning of your message shine.
Junk the jargon
Jargon is specialized or technical language used by people in a certain field, but not known to those outside of it. Train yourself to write in a jargon-free, reader-friendly way.
Here are some clues that word may be jargon:
- It isn’t in the dictionary
- It is in the dictionary, but you’re using a secondary or specialized meaning.
- It’s in the dictionary, but isn’t a common word readers will know.
- It’s a typical industry/field term, but not a word that people type into search engines. This is easy to check by putting the word into a search engine and seeing how many results it gets and who is using it.
- It’s an acronym. Some acronyms are mainstream enough to use without explanation, but always consider what you know about your audience. Americans understand ‘IRS’ for example, but citizens of other countries might not.
Ways to junk the jargon:
- Replace the term with a simpler word or phrase, one that is also more common or more specific.
- Omit or spell out acronyms. Don’t use an unnecessary acronym; either spell it out or offer more direct and substantive information.
- Explain the jargon. If you must use the term or an acronym, teach your readers what it means.
- Give examples or make an analogy.
Clear out the deadwood
‘Deadwood’ refers to a word or phrase that can be omitted without a loss of meaning. Removing it shortens and clarifies your copy. Once you recognize deadwood, it’s easy to eliminate.
- Words or phrases that add unneeded bulk to a sentence and weaken its message (quite right, very unique)
- Common phrases that use redundant or highfalutin words (added bonus, currently unavailable)
It’s usually good to cut such words and phrases, but be aware that what is ‘deadwood’ may depend on context. In some cases you may want to retain words or phrases to emphasize a point, to maintain a certain voice, or to optimize for search engines.
Common one-word deadwood:
These words can usually be cut…
Common phrase deadwood:
Watch out for and replace these phrases which include extraneous words and pretentious vocabulary…
|a few of the||a few|
|a large number of||many, most|
|a large part of||many, most|
|a large proportion of||many, most|
|a lot of||many|
|a number of||some, many|
|according to our data||we find|
|add a new||add|
|adequate number of||enough|
|afford the opportunity to||give the chance, enable, let, allow (Consider deleting the phrase)|
|after the conclusion of||after|
|ahead of schedule||early|
|all of the||all, all the|
|along the lines of||like, similar, to|
|any of the||any|
|appointed to the post of||appointed|
|arrive at a conclusion||conclude|
|as a consequence (of)||because (of)|
|as a result of||because (of)|
|as long as||if|
|as of this moment||now|
|as well as||and|
|ascertain the location of||find|
|at a high rate of speed||fast|
|at a time when||when|
|at such time as||when|
|at the conclusion of||after|
|at the moment||now|
|at the present time||now|
|at the rate of||at|
|at this point in time||now|
|be a combination of||combine|
|be able to||can|
|be capable of||can|
|be deficient in||lack|
|be in a position to||can, be, able|
|because of the fact that||because|
|biography of his life||biography|
|both of the||both|
|by a factor of two||two times, double, twice|
|by means of||by, with|
|by virtue of the fact that||because|
|change the size of||resize|
|circular in shape||circular, round|
|close proximity to||close to, near|
|come to a conclusion (an end)||end, conclude, finish|
|come to an agreement||agree|
|conduct a search of||search, find|
|consensus of opinion||consensus, agreement|
|continue to remain||remain, continue to be|
|create a new||create|
|despite the fact that||although|
|determine the location of||find|
|display a list of||list|
|does not have||lacks|
|drop down to||drop to|
|due to the fact that||because|
|during the time that||while|
|each and every||each, every|
|each of the||each|
|edit an existing||edit|
|every one of the||all, every|
|exactly the same as||identical to|
|few of the||few|
|fewer in number||fewer|
|find the location of||find, locate|
|for a period of||for|
|for the most part||mainly|
|for the purpose of||for, to|
|for the reason that||because|
|for this reason||thus, therefore|
|found to be||is|
|give a summary of||summarize|
|give consideration to||consider, examine|
|give indication of||show, indicate, suggest|
|give rise to||cause|
|half of (the)||half, half the|
|happen(s) to be||am, is, are|
|has a tendency to||tends|
|has been proven to be||is|
|has the ability to||can|
|has the need to||needs to, must|
|has the option to||can, may|
|if conditions are such that||if|
|in conjunction with||with|
|in connection with||about|
|in excess of||more than|
|in large measure||largely|
|in many cases||usually|
|in no case||never|
|in order that||to, so that|
|in order to||to, so|
|in recognition of the fact||therefore|
|in reference to||about, regarding|
|in some cases||sometimes, occasionally|
|in some instances||sometimes, occasionally|
|in spite of the fact that||although, despite, in spite of|
|in such a manner as to||to|
|in terms of||in|
|in the case of||for|
|in the course of||during|
|in the event that||if|
|in the field of||in|
|in the near future||soon|
|in the neighborhood of||near, about, nearly|
|in the vicinity of||near, about, nearly|
|in view of the fact that||because|
|involve the use of||use|
|is able to||can|
|is capable of||can|
|is contingent upon||depends on|
|is deficient in||lacks|
|is found to be||is|
|is in a position to||can|
|it appears that||apparently|
|it is clear that||clearly|
|it is essential that they (it)||they (it) must|
|it is evident that||evidently|
|it is interesting to note that||note that|
|it is obvious that||obviously|
|it is often the case that||often|
|it is our opinion that||we think|
|it is possible that||perhaps|
|it is possible to||you can|
|it should be kept in mind||remember, keep in mind|
|it should be noted||note|
|keep track of||track|
|longer in length||longer|
|majority of the||most|
|make a change||change|
|make a copy of||copy|
|make a decision||decide|
|make a purchase||buy, purchase|
|make a statement saying||say, state|
|make an adjustment in||adjust|
|make an effort||try|
|make an enquiry||enquire|
|make use of||use|
|manner in which||how|
|many of the||many|
|may possibly, might possibly||may, might|
|more or less||approximately, about, roughly|
|most of the||most|
|on a daily (weekly, monthly,…) basis||daily, weekly, monthly,…|
|on a few occasions||occasionally, sometimes|
|on the basis of||from, because, by|
|on the order of||approximately, about, roughly|
|on the part of||by|
|one of the (two of the, three of the,…)||one, two, three,…|
|owing to the fact that||because|
|perform a search||search|
|postpone until later||postpone|
|present a list of||list|
|provide a description of||describe|
|provide a list of||list|
|put an end to||end, stop|
|quite unique||unique, unusual|
|reach a conclusion||conclude|
|rearrange the order of||rearrange|
|run the risk (of)||risk|
|send an email|
|serve the function of being||is|
|several of the||several|
|share the same||share|
|share with||tell, notify, inform|
|shorter in length||shorter|
|some of the||some|
|sufficient amount of||enough|
|surrounded on all sides||surrounded|
|the majority of||most|
|the question as to whether||whether|
|total number of||number of|
|will be able to||can|
|with reference to||about|
|with the exception of||except, except for|
|would be able to||could|