“So what should I know about online content versus what I learned in college? Do I have to unlearn AP English?”
I’ve heard that question from new writers more times than I can count.
Unlearning something doesn’t seem like the best way to approach a new writing position… or is it?
Even though you might know how to write, do you know how to write for the online reader?
It’s waaaay different than what you learned in school. AP classes may have gotten you college credit, but they do not hold nearly the same weight for online content.
When starting out as a freelance copywriter, producing engaging online content is not so much about “unlearning” what you’ve been taught. It’s about building on foundational skills you’ve already acquired.
We’re going to get real for a bit.
It is, in fact, about breaking the rules a little.
NONE of these rules apply to online writing.
(Rule #1: throw it OUT. In fact, you should always use first-person pronouns. So, pretty much do the opposite of English Composition 1 up there.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love great literature, the classics, and English classes. And, I think a fundamental love for English is fairly crucial for online writers. I was a straight-A student who absolutely loved her English professors in college… and they loved me, too (one actually told me I’d written the best essay on Shakespeare’s Hamlet he’d ever read).
But, here’s the fact.
School-taught English essay-writing skills are NOT anywhere close to online content writing skills.
While AP Language and Literature courses pave the way for synthesizing sources and developing arguments, online content should be thought of as a new class. Maybe one that some schools will end up offering in the future.
Well, I want to make it simple.
Over the last several weeks I’ve compiled the below guide, just for this specific pain point: figuring out college English rules vs. online content rules. Let’s call today’s blog: your AP online content guide.
AP English vs. Real Online Copy: A Look at Why Online Content Matters Today
Print is dead.
I never liked that phrase.
I don’t think it is true. Even Amazon agrees. Their first-ever bookstore went live 10 miles from my house this March.
What is true, is that digital content has become a viable option for anyone consuming media. It’s the go-to for a culture demanding immediate answers.
However, it goes beyond the scope of reading your news online. Almost everything has been digitized to surpass the lifespan of your average piece of paper. Plus, it’s just more convenient.
In the last ten years, the paperless campaign has grown extensively. In addition to being a cost effective and environmentally friendly option, it’s honestly just easier for people. Why get my electric bill sent to me in the mail when I can view it online?
Not surprisingly, schools have opted for the digital option as well. In a few years from now, the stereotypical student hauling a 20 lb backpack could completely disappear from college campuses. This may be the case sooner in California, where a law was passed to make all textbooks available electronically by 2020.
When it comes to our education system, research compiled by Business Insider found that the majority of students prefer digital texts, even though they cannot always retain the information as well.
Perhaps it’s the gentle blue light of the screen that calls to people from all demographics.
When comparing print and digital readers, the American Press Institute, found that those favoring digital sources were more likely to admit that they value the quality of the content.
Print and digital readers also interact with the content in different ways. Making content available online paves the way for readers to build a relationship with a company because following, liking and subscribing are only one click away.
Now more than ever, readers value digital media. This makes the call for an AP Online Content course all the more relevant for beginning freelance copywriters.
A Look at How We Consume Media in the Modern World
Now that we can comprehend just how many people get their daily dose of all things text from online, we must understand how they absorb content. Phone and computer screens are an entirely different experience than flipping pages in a book.
I don’t remember ads popping up for tissues as I read through the final chapters of Where the Red Fern Grows. Although honestly, that would have been very useful.
Our screens are filled with distractions that draw a reader’s attention away from the content and onto something more distracting.
I’m losing you. Does this GIF help?
Online content writers have taken on the difficult task of asking people to stay on a page for an infinitely longer amount of time than the average GIF does.
It’s a careful balancing act between being informative and engaging.
Writers should include references to pop culture – and blogs often do.
However, just by mentioning the new season of Westworld, I may quickly send viewers away to anxiously Google the trailer.
Please come back.
More often than not, readers are scrolling through written content so that they only absorb what stands out to them. Unlike AP classes, the content is not carefully analyzed and graded. The sole purpose for online content is to engage readers and speak to them.
Okay, so by now you’re probably ready for the meat of our guide.
That would be the biggest, tangible reasons (with screenshot proof) of why/how online content differs from the English-writing styles you learned in college.
…Hold your horses.
Before we get there, I need to make a very important point.
A VERY important one.
Although Online Content is More “Readable” Than College Essay Writing, Online Content is NOT More “Sloppy”
Many, many (x that “many” by 100,000) new writers think that dropping the essay style means dropping a lack of writing finesse altogether.
This GIF of Dwight sums up how I feel about this, pretty well.
(X that by 1,000,000.)
In fact, I’ve talked to the chief editor of SmartBlogger, who helps create convincing “hooks” that are a big factor to their site earning 100+ new subscribers per day.
Do you know how long he’ll spend editing this “hook” – a little matter of 100 words or less, the first words in the blog?
45 minutes or more. That’s after it’s been written, folks.
So, fine-tuning online copy into something beautiful – living, readable, NON-stuffy-college-AP is a work of real art.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s continue into the real differentiation points.
How and Why Online Content Differs from AP English: 3 Big Differentiation Points
Now it’s time for a little show and tell.
1. Online Writing Has a More Conversational Content Structure
Consider the structure of online marketing expert Neil Patel’s blog when compared to an AP Language response that scored an 8, just one point away from perfection.
That’s not fair, you say.
Of course we acknowledge that a professional blog and AP essay are like comparing emails and Snapchat messages but here, the writer’s objective is the same: to persuade.
For English essays, you may have been taught to write in the most logical order. The structure of your paper could read something like A is true because B, C and D. In contrast, bloggers pick their letters from a Scrabble bag and find their own way to prove the same point.
In school, many of us are taught that a new paragraph distinguishes the start of a new topic. The same goes with most AP tests. The structure is rigid and formulaic.
New paragraph, topic sentence, supporting ideas, repeat. The format continues until the time runs out.
This static structure is perfect for graders and students alike. Follow the formula, and you will at least score a mediocre grade until you embellish it.
For online content, keeping a tight knit structure is a sure-fire way to get readers off your page.
Compare the same blog as pictured above to a page pulled from the novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the difference in structure is clear.
Scrolling down a page and turning a page are not the same experience. For online content, readers eyes are locked on the screen.
Blogs have to be structured differently because of the way viewers interact with them. This means altering the length of your sentences and varying your word choice. The overall structure is more of a conversation with the reader.
Just look at how many paragraphs from the book start with the same word:
“He sprang,” “He turned,” “He thanked.”
A mere glance over at Patel’s blog shows a vital difference in structuring online content.
In online content, it’s all about readability. In other words, a differentiated variation and pace in each sentence.
Blogs must engage with the audience as if they’re individual participants. Though there is a basic structure, there is no hard fast rule of how many topic sentences you must incorporate.
The importance lies in the rhythm of your writing.
In this case, paragraphs do not always need to distinguish a change in topic. They should instead follow the flow of your thoughts. Just like writers take a natural pause when typing out their ideas, readers too need a mental break to digest the information.
Another reason why the generally accepted paragraph structure just doesn’t fly for online content is that we have other tools in our belt.
Nothing screams “I’m moving on to my next point!” louder than a heading.
Variation is key when it comes to constructing a stellar online paragraph. Keeping that in mind, here are a few rules to follow:
- Incorporate both short and long sentences and paragraphs to break the monotony. If you’re going to make a few points all in one block of text, follow it up with a short sentence. See. It’s effective.
- For online content, the average paragraph should be between two and four sentences. Include one sentence paragraphs in between to emphasize a point.
- Avoid beating a topic to death. Unlike an AP exam, you don’t have to repeatedly prove your extensive knowledge to the audience. When it’s done, move on.
2. Online Writing is Shaped by Your Style
Online content does little to quiet the voices in your head. If anything, it encourages them.
The basics of writing are taught at a young age. Teachers scribble red marker over the missed capitalization and add commas where students forget.
Though grammar is a fundamental stepping stone in learning how to write, it does not necessarily make you a great writer.
“What voice in my head? I don’t have one.”
That was the response of one 12th grade student in Long Island after being asked to free write.
You would think this would be the easiest assignment for a teenager. In reality, all of the grammar lessons in the world had not prepared her to share what she really felt.
Students are constantly reminded to keep “I” statements out of their writing.
While in context, this is the correct way to approach writing an analysis on To Kill a Mockingbird, the same style rules do not apply for online content.
As a content writer, your words speak directly to the reader.
Blogs are filled with empathetic language to relate to the audience. It’s all about emotional marketing value (EMV).
For example: the words exploit, urgent and miracle are much stronger language to use when selling an idea to an audience.
Just look at how many times Neil Patel directly connects with the audience in this line.
You, you, and you again.
Selling products on Instagram is not a flashy topic in the slightest, but he’s found a way to connect with readers by directly calling them out.
Now, imagine the lack of connection if he’d written:
“A popular Instagram account already has followers and customers that want to buy their products.”
Bam! Point made.
Inserting your own voice into your writing will distinguish it from the masses of online content. You can make it personal by adding anecdotes and details that are specific to your experience.
Having a distinctive voice will also make your writing more relatable.
A blog isn’t a paper you turn in at the end of fifth period. Blogs are conversations.
Choose your language on purpose. Don’t be afraid to talk to your audience. Defy your teachers and use “I” statements. Just don’t use them too much, you’re only one piece of the puzzle.
3. Online Writing is Formatted for Readability
No matter how enthralling the content of your writing is, people see your writing before they start actually reading it.
Where speed is a key factor in AP English, appearance holds the same weight for online content. Nothing instigates a quick click to a new website faster than large blocks of text.
This point is made apparent when circling back around to Patel’s blog and the page from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Say goodbye to the five paragraph rule. Blogs are all about white space.
Shorter paragraphs are essential because they imply simplicity. Even if you are writing about a heavy topic, readers will be able to navigate through the blog without feeling intimidated. The rule new topic, new paragraph, doesn’t apply here.
Look closer at Patel’s blog. In only nine sentences, he’s managed to include seven separate paragraphs.
Had he chosen to combine all of the sentences into one paragraph, it would look too overwhelming.
Before reading a chapter of a book, I always check how long it is. I’m more inclined to read two chapters that are ten pages each as opposed to one twenty page chapter. In my brain, the small break awarded to me after I finish the first chapter makes me want to keep reading.
Line breaks visually show readers that they can handle the material. They gently coax them in as they whisper, “We can do this. It’s not too dense.”
Most online content is screened rather than thoroughly read, so shorter paragraphs also allow you, the writer, to emphasize what is important.
The best way to accomplish this is by including short, one sentence or even one word paragraphs. They also break up more detailed content to directly speak to the audience.
Do you need more reasons to include short paragraphs?
Good, because the list keeps going.
Why short paragraphs? Well, they…
- Create a dramatic effect
- Highlight a specific idea or statistic
- Directly address the reader’s emotions
- Can be an effective call to action
- Catch the reader’s attention
Short paragraphs shouldn’t be thrown in purely for drama. You must carefully consider your language and the benefit to your piece as a whole.
Also, you do not always have to switch back from long to short paragraphs. That will just create an awkward and noticeable pattern in your writing. Short paragraphs can be added in sporadically or even follow a more gradual decline in words.
The Final Test
Are you ready to take the exam?
If this was indeed the end to the brief course in AP Online Content, what would your grade be?
The good news is that there is no final exam, learning to write is a continuous process.
Although scoring a 5 on your AP English exam didn’t exactly prepare you for the world of online content, don’t let it hinder you either.
Instead of unlearning what you were taught, try to learn more.
At their core, these extensive English courses are building blocks for everyone to become strong, honest writers. The approach to writing as a process and emphasis to write on demand, are solid preparation for the tight deadlines required by many clients.
Although I hope you never encounter a client that uses a stopwatch.
There is no need to curse your teachers for the lessons they taught and for those they left out. What is vital to understand is that writing online content and writing an AP English essay are not the same thing.
Writing a blog with the same scientific approach as a student does for AP English will not score too hot with audiences.
But that’s the thing, it’s not about the grade anymore.
Online content puts you in both the student’s and the teacher’s chair.
Expand Your Knowledge in Online Content
As an online content novice, it can be hella difficult to navigate your way through this world alone.
Beyond structure, style and formatting, you’ll soon encounter lingo like SEO, algorithm, responsive, tags, meta and well, you get the picture.
So – don’t go it alone.
If you like to read, here’s a few books I recommend to assist your knowledge of why and how online content fits into today’s world. Disclosure. I wrote two. But they’re really good, and lots of others think so, too.
- Everybody Writes by Ann Handley (a great primer on good online copy)
- Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Holiday (a must-have guidebook into WHY really good marketing, through content and other formats, matters so much)
- Content, Inc by Joe Pulizzi (great guide on our industry of content marketing)
- So You Think You Can Write (online content writing guide) and Practical Content Strategy & Marketing (practical help on building your own brand strategy), by yours truly
Need structured, 1:1 help? Trying to comprehend the extensive ins and outs of content marketing can feel like diving in the deep end before learning how to swim. That’s a big reason behind why I created a course last year – to answer those massive questions in profitable content strategy.
And, of course, we also have to ask… Need some backup with writing your own online business content?
Don’t worry, we won’t let you drown. Our writers weren’t born with the ability to produce perfect online content. Writing is a skill that takes constant research, devotion and above all, practice. After completing more than 11,000 projects to date, we know all about that. Check out a few of our expert team writers here. And if you need some help, talk to us about how to get started.