Three tools that will improve your content writing, and why you should ignore them
My job is almost all writing, and I’m the only person in our company that writes for a living. Before I was full-time at my current post, I was freelance and wrote on my own as well.
I’ve rarely had other writers around to run things past. So I used tools I found online to get instant feedback and catch any problems with my work. Some were useful, some were definitely not.
There are three I still use, and I’ll outline what I like about them here. I have to give you a warning though — they’re only tools, they’re not crutches.
To quote the Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane:
“If a man does not have sauce, he is lost. But the same man can get lost in the sauce.”
Don’t get lost in online tools. Always treat the advice of machines as guidance, not gospel. When your gut tells you to keep something, read it out. If it sounds good, it’s probably good. Warning out of the way, here’s three web tools I use.
Long sentences make your content harder to read, and you can’t afford to be hard to read. You aren’t a famous poet, you can’t depend on the audience to decipher your work. They don’t care that much, they’ll just bounce off your page.
Long sentences are also easier to write, even if that sounds counterintuitive to you. Winding, unbroken sentences let you string ideas together, combining thoughts and facts without having to put in the work to break your thoughts down into compartmentalised, easily understood slices for the audience.
The sentence you’ve just read, for instance, is 32 words long, but it doesn’t have to be. Many readers on the web are skimmers and skippers, looking for nuggets of info. Break ideas into digestible chunks to make the vital information easy to access.
Hemmingway tries to keep you honest on that front by laying laziness and pretension bare. Bright red highlights your most indulgent, meandering sentences. Icy blue singles out your sinful use of adverbs. Glaring purple admonishes your complicated words and phrases.
All the little stains won’t go away until you edit your copy to be more succinct and clear.
Where Hemmingway shoots itself (in the foot, this time)
It’s a very black and white piece of kit, and it trends towards making everyone’s work sound the same. The use of bright colour, while effective, can shock you into thinking your writing isn’t as good as it actually is.
If you’re susceptible to gamification and perfectionism, you’ll be tempted to try and completely eliminate all of your long sentences and pleasing language choices. Especially as the tool will give you harsh language like “hard to read” and “very hard to read” as feedback.
Don’t let the machine get you down! Even writers like Cormac McCarthy, famous for sparse and simple language, can’t completely escape the Hemmingway highlighter. You goal is write well, not to make an app happy.
Try it, get used to breaking up your longest sentences and using more simple language. See how it improves how effectively you communicate ideas and how readable your sentences get.
But don’t let the machine take all the You out of your writing through over-gamification. If you give in to the need for a white screen, you can bully yourself into taking the flair and flavour out of your work.
It’s fine to write like Cormac McCarthy when you’re trying to explore man’s inability to separate ourselves from violence. But you wouldn’t ask the man to sell you a boat.
Readable, hosted by WebFx, runs your copy through a few of the leading readability tests. They all use slightly different criteria to determine what they think constitutes readability.
It’s the only reliable readability checker I’ve seen that, for free, gives you so much feedback. It’s helpful to get an idea of how easily understood you’re going to be, and where you might be going wrong if you’re not.
If you’re generally trending towards the understandable, great. If you’re generally trending towards bad scores, it’s time rethink how you’ve structured your sentences or the kind of language you’re using.
Where Readable loses its place
Sometimes writing for a specific audience means using complicated language. And no matter how hard you work, it’s impossible to get rid of it without ruining your work.
There are plenty of examples where it’s more complicated to make everything simple for a lay audience than it is to give your audience credit for the expertise and use industry language.
Again, don’t punish yourself for not hitting a gamified score through a machine. If you’re doing a shocking job it’ll give you a shocking score. But if it looks good, you’re gonna be fine.
Both, and Microsoft Word, while we’re at it, are great at picking up uses of passive voice. Yoast, through their Wordpress SEO plugin, works it into their readability feedback. Word gives you the little blue worm of doubt when it finds passive voice.
If you’re wondering why that’s important, passive language takes the bite of the action of what you’re saying, turning protagonists into bystanders.
I’ll confess that for years I had a terrible habit of writing in the passive voice. I have no idea where it came from, but it persisted for years. And habits are hard to break when they get ingrained. Having a tool to highlight it has been helpful for getting out of that habit.
Where active voice needs a rest
Yoast and Word don’t know who, or what, is more important in a sentence. You do. For instance, I write press releases. Often, it’s someone trying to use their bigger clients’ brands as a fulcrum to put attention back on themselves. Reflected glory, you might say.
That means the less familiar company has to take a backseat in the focus of the wording. You care about seeing what Samsung are up to, not the company that’s “delighted” to be offering them a better deal on copper wires until 2023.
So when I’m writing this hypothetical press release, even though the client is my focus, I will choose to make them passive. I have to mention both the client and supplier in a sentence, but I know a sentence that focuses on the big name is going to attract more attention than the one that starts with a copper wire merchant.
Where Yoast can’t boast
Yoast will also offer you a readability test, based on their selection of factors. Sentence length, passive and active voice, language choices, repetition, transition words.
If you read what Yoast says about readability, they make it clear — readability doesn’t directly affect SEO. But it does produce effects that have influence on your SEO. I’ll explain that, in the simplistic terms in which I understand it.
Being readable gives your stuff a better chance of actually being read. Users are more likely to stick around for content they understand, and they’re more likely to stick with content that’s clearly giving them the content they came in for.
In turn, you’re improving retention on the page, lowering bounce rate, and prompting users to stay on your site. These are among the many, many signals to search engines that your page is a Good Page.
If Google thinks you’re answering a query well, they’re more likely to rank you as a response to the search query. That’s a massive, massive oversimplification of SEO but it’s what beginner web writers need to know.
Yoast are trying to make your page into a better answer. And they’re extremely helpful in doing that, their plugin is excellent. But you know your content and you know your audience better than a plugin does.
Don’t be dissuaded if you know you’re answering the question, you know it’s a good piece, and the Yoast plugin still isn’t giving you the green light.
Your mileage absolutely will vary
As with everything you learn in life, nothing is a silver bullet. You can’t “fix” anything, you can’t just flick a switch and do something really well. You just get a bit less shit every day as you learn and practice.
I find these tools helpful for improving the readability of my work. I’m confident you’ll find them useful, too, as long as you’re ready to treat them as help, not instructions.