I spend a considerable amount of time each week preparing articles on writing for Internet distribution, making posts on various writing blogs, responding to users on our discussion board, and writing new posts for our blog—basically trying to give away as much information about good writing as I can. When I am not working on clients’ documents or promoting our services, I am probably writing about writing.
From time to time, my Internet marketing specialist and I search the Internet to discover where the articles have been reposted and what feedback they have received. Sometimes this is quick and easy, such as for our article “Creating Sentence Transitions,” which has good content but seemed dull to many readers. Sometimes this takes a long time, such as for our article “10 Overused Words in Writing,” which was reposted several hundred times.
We look for the articles because we are curious to discover what is resonating with readers, what their needs are for writing instructions, and the like. We read the feedback for the same reason, and because we want to continuously improve our ability to connect with readers’ needs.
From feedback over the last year, I have learned 4 lessons.
1. Editors are arrogant, self-centered, snotty, ivory tower, out-of-touch, disrespectful, irrelevant, good-for-nuthin’ know-it-alls.
I figured I might as well start with the negative feedback. While most feedback is positive and, in many cases, grateful, some people will disagree with what we write and will criticize our expertise. Most criticism comes from people who don’t “get” what we do, meaning they don’t recognize the value of external advice and they confuse recommendations for improvement with personal insults and attacks.
Negative feedback is expected. We could mimic our critics and lash out in return. Instead, we try to do what we counsel our clients to do: 1) Accept that criticism is a part of being a writer, and 2) Learn how we can better address readers’ needs without compromising our integrity.
We have a purpose for our writing: help as many people as possible improve their ability to communicate in writing. If we are going to accomplish our purpose, we need to address the attributes and characteristics that hinder reader acceptance and understanding, which is good advice for all writers.
2. People don’t always read carefully.
Words get missed, sometimes entire paragraphs. This may cause a reader to misunderstand what we write and not understand how to apply the information we present. For example, one reader criticized our article “10 Overused Words in Writing” by writing, in paraphrase, “It’s ok to use these words sometimes. Telling people that they shouldn’t use them is not right.”
I agree completely. In fact, I said so in the article, which states, “We don’t recommend that you remove these words from your writing. Instead, we recommend that you become aware of how often you use them and that you revise your documents to limit their use.”
This is a case where a concept was clear to the writer (me) but not to the reader. However, the point I was making was important. Had the reader read and understood my statement, the reader would not have criticized the article and, perhaps, would have accepted what I was trying to communicate. I can’t change what my readers do; I can only change what I do.
Since that point was so important, I should have found a way to emphasize it, make it clearer, and make it easier to find. For example, I could have made this statement a paragraph by itself. I could have used bold text. I could have used very short sentences. The point is this: I needed to employ a strategy to help the reader find and understand what I thought was important. It was my responsibility, not my reader’s.
3. Reader’s needs differ according to the format.
People read using different strategies and for different purposes depending on the format. A person reading a printed novel will read differently when perusing an informative article on the Internet. A person reading a white paper has a different purpose than someone reading a blog post.
Reading online is harder than reading printed copy. Reading a long, long web page is harder than reading a 6” x 9” printed page. A writer needs to understand how these are different and make adjustments to meet the readers’ needs. Some strategies include:
- Using shorter paragraphs;
- Writing shorter, simpler sentences, especially for significant points;
- Create lists;
- Adding headings and other signposts; and
- Using text formatting, such as bold text.
Fortunately, some things don’t change. Clear, concise, and direct writing is essential regardless of the format, as are logical organization and using an appropriate style and tone.
4. A niche market has the highest frequency of readers.
One of the analyses we perform when we find our articles and review feedback has to do with placement. “Placement” is a marketing term that refers to choosing where the product is displayed and where the buyer completes the purchase process. For our writings, placement has to do with where we publish our writing and where people are reading.
In the best case scenario, an article (or blog comment) is posted on a site where the readers are actively interested in the topic addressed by the article. Where the content and the readers’ interests are not accurately matched, the article receives very little attention. On the other hand, we can apply the marketing concept of placement to increase readership.
What I have learned to do is this. First, identify the specific ideas I am communicating. Second, identify the specific type of reader who will be interested in those ideas (the niche market). Third, find where those readers are making reading selections (i.e., buying). Fourth, present the ideas to that niche in that place. The number of readers and overall reader interest is much greater.
This is how we get readers when we publish externally. When we publish on our blog, the same concept applies. In this case, readers are coming to us because they are interested in our topics. However, if we don’t keep focused on that niche market (for example, if we start providing movie reviews instead of writing advice), we will lose readers. By responding to the specific needs and interests of our niche market, our niche readers, we can maintain a large, loyal base of readers.
The lessons we have learned from our readers are the same lessons we give our clients:
- Use feedback to improve your manuscripts and achieve your goals.
- Present information in a manner that is accessible to your readers.
- Consider the reader’s needs and purposes.
- Match the content to the appropriate audience.
You can find other lessons learned by bloggers at ConfidentWriting.com.