Writer Training and Resources
At the top of this guide is a summary of essential writing tips, created to quickly address common writer mistakes. Below, the guide covers various writing issues in more depth.
Essential Writing Tips
- Use subject-verb agreement with prepositions
- Don’t use dangling modifiers
- Use the same pronouns to refer to an entity
- Make sure reflexive pronouns have pronouns to reflect back on
- Use the pronoun “it” for companies
- Review adverb use of so vs. so that
- Use em dashes instead of hyphens, en dashes, or even some commas
- Use em dashes instead of parentheses as asides
- Don’t use exclamation points, ellipsis, and semicolons
- Don’t use comma splices
- Use a comma when connecting two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction
- Don’t use a comma if one clause is dependent,
- Don’t use commas with subordinating conjunctions
- Don’t use commas to suggest a “pause” in a sentence
- Use double-quotes when using scare quotes or quotes for words-as-words
- Use title case for headings
- Use sentence case only if it’s part of a brand’s style
- Only capitalize proper nouns, unless otherwise noted
- Don’t use double negatives
Structure and Organization
- Don’t use filler/fluff
- Clarify title changes with client/editor
- Use the point of view requested by the client, and ask for clarification if needed
- Don’t include irrelevant sections
- Don’t include tangents unless otherwise instructed
- Don’t ask too many questions within an article
- Don’t include multiple questions in one paragraph
- Use a structure that is scannable at a high level
- Use H2 headings for items ordered from good to better to best
- Use parallel structure in lists
- If the beginning of a sentence applies to multiple items in a list it must apply to every item
- Use the same conjugation for verbs in a list
- Don’t include a mix of nouns and verbs in lists
- Don’t write paragraphs that are longer than 4 lines
- Use 50-60 non-space characters per line
- Use a maximum of 20 words per sentence for best readability
- Use keywords as naturally as possible (add/remove punctuation if necessary)
- Use sensible anchor text like this
- Don’t use more than a few words or subordinate clauses for anchor text
- Make anchor text relevant to the link contents
- Don’t split noun or verb phrases in anchor text
- Don’t use more than 5 or 6 bullets
- Use specific, descriptive, and searchable headlines
- Highlight the purpose of the section with headlines
Table of Contents
Communication is key to a successful Compose.ly project for both the writer and client. For writers specifically, communicating with clients could mean less revising and editing. As such, please pay special attention to the following notes.
Read project guidelines thoroughly.
Before you begin drafting a project, be sure to carefully read and review your client’s instructions. Clients are quick to express their disappointment when they receive drafts that clearly do not follow the guidelines they have outlined.
Whether clients provide feedback through in-line comments on your draft or through Compose.ly's messaging system, it is important that you respond in a timely manner. Even if a client's comments do not seem to warrant a reply, it is best to at least send a message of confirmation.
If you're unresponsive, a client may be uncertain that you've read their message at all. Feeling ignored may cause clients to rate working with you poorly.
Below are response templates you can use and modify when corresponding with clients:
- Thanks for your feedback! I'll be sure to review your comments thoroughly as I revise the piece.
- I appreciate you taking the time to review my work and provide detailed comments.
- Just wanted to confirm that I've read your feedback and will be incorporating it into the next draft of this piece.
- If you have any other suggestions, please let me know.
Do not duplicate content for the same client or different ones.
It is imperative that you produce original content for clients. Even if guidelines for multiple projects are similar, do not duplicate your work.
If you feel that some work can be duplicated acceptably (e.g., a disclaimer statement at the end of an article), clarify with your client. It is ultimately on you, the writer, to communicate any questions or confusion about assigned projects. Proceeding without a client’s input may raise questions about plagiarism or deception.
General Grammar and Writing
The notes below are common issues clients have observed and brought up. Please keep these in mind when drafting or reviewing your work.
Use active voice.
Writing in an active voice tends to be more engaging than sentences written in a passive voice. Take a look at the following examples:
Can you see how the first sentence in both examples sounds more actionable? Meanwhile, the passive sentences read rather blandly.
That’s not to say that every sentence in your project should be active, of course. Do not force active voice when it may result in awkward phrasing, but avoid clustering passive-voice sentences together, e.g., four consecutive passive-voice sentences.
Use descriptive language.
Rather than repeating “good” or “great,” aim to use more detailed descriptors in your writing.
After all, generic words like “good” and “great” do not offer much information to readers. Try to find words that provide more specificity. Consider the differences here:
- Good writing vs. articulate writing
- Bad speech vs. incomprehensible speech
Using more descriptive language strengthens the visuals created by your writing, and it can also enhance clarity.
For help with finding more descriptive vocabulary, check out Thesaurus.com as you write. However, remember to double-check that a new word and definition fit the context of your piece.
Keep continuous tense to a minimum.
For a quick review, continuous tense (also known as progressive verb tense) refers to actions that are, were, or will be in progress. There are three main types, as shown below:
- Are going (present continuous)
- Were going (past continuous)
- Will be going (future continuous)
Using continuous tense is appropriate in certain contexts—for instance, when describing ongoing actions. However, it should not be used in excess.
Consider the two excerpts taken from the same CNN article.
Excerpt 1 uses past tense to describe what has already occurred. This is more effective than using past continuous tense, e.g., “locals in the tiny village of Kulusuk, Greenland were hearing what sounded like an explosion.”
Meanwhile, Excerpt 2 uses continuous tense to describe ongoing research. It would not be appropriate to use past tense in this sentence, as the investigation is not yet complete.
Use a mix of sentence structures.
Here’s a quick review of the different types of sentence structures:
- Simple: A sentence consisting of one clause (a single subject and predicate)
- Example: We should go out for lunch.
- Compound: A sentence consisting of two or more independent clauses, connected by a conjunction or through punctuation
- Example: We should go out for lunch, and then we should stop by the ice cream shop.
- Complex: A sentence consisting of one independent clause and one or more subordinate clauses
- Example: Since it’s already past noon, we should just go the place next door for lunch.
- Compound complex: A sentence consisting of two or more independent clauses as well as one or more subordinate clauses
- Example: Since it’s already past noon, we should just go the place next door for lunch, and then maybe we can stop by the ice cream shop.
Using just one type of sentence structure will make your writing sound repetitive and even choppy. Aim for a variety to improve your writing’s “rhythm and flow.”
For an example, compare the two paragraphs below:
Unvaried Sentence Structures
The movie Titanic was directed, written, co-produced, and co-edited by James Cameron. It is a fictionalized account of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Cameron's inspiration for the film came from his fascination with shipwrecks. He felt a love story interspersed with human loss was essential for conveying the disaster’s emotional impact.
Varied Sentence Structures
The movie Titanic was directed, written, co-produced, and co-edited by James Cameron. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, it is a fictionalized account of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. According to Cameron, inspiration for the film came from his fascination with shipwrecks, and he felt a love story interspersed with human loss was essential for conveying the disaster’s emotional impact.
Can you see how varying the sentence structures changed the flow of the paragraph? If not, try reading the two paragraphs aloud to better observe this difference.
Give details and specific examples.
Avoid general statements or “fluff.”
What exactly counts as fluff? Sentences that don’t give the reader much value. While they help reach your target word count, they read as pointless statements. Clients are quick to see through these and demand edits (or refunds) if you’ve written them in excess.
To avoid this, aim to provide rich detail and specificity that will benefit the reader. For an idea of how that might look, check out the two paragraphs below:
The Chinese language actually refers to a group of related language varieties, many of which are not mutually intelligible. About 1.2 billion people (around 16% of the world's population) speak some form of Chinese as their first language.
Many people around the world speak Chinese as their first language.
Use gender-neutral language appropriately.
It was once common (and some people may still prefer) to use “he/she,” “he or she,” or even “s/he” when referring generally to a hypothetical person in the third person. Using singular “they” for this purpose is much less clunky and has support from multiple dictionaries, style guides—and even Shakespeare.
Verbs still need to agree with their antecedents in any case. If this is still awkward for any reason, try rewording the sentence instead.
Link to your references.
Enrich your writing with facts and statistics—but also remember to give credit where it’s due. This means linking to any sources you’ve pulled information from.
When it comes to choosing sources, look for well-established sites, like universities, government offices, and companies that have demonstrated expertise in a subject. Avoid using or linking to unusual domain URLs (e.g., www.freewifihotspotservicez.info) that are more promotional in nature.
Ensure that your source of choice contains the most up-to-date information available. If you're citing statistics, for example, use the most recent numbers. Don't cite a 2018 article or study if a 2020 version is available.
Formatting, Punctuation, and SEO
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a crucial part of content writing for the web. Keep the following tips in mind to make your work more search-friendly.
Use line breaks generously.
When it comes to formatting your writing, remember:
Writing for the web ≠ writing for print
Though print articles and books often feature lengthy paragraphs, their online counterparts tend to avoid these.
Check out the difference between the two articles below. Which do you think reads better?
Use line breaks throughout your writing to make it more visually friendly. It's okay to even insert a line break after a single sentence, as Neil Patel does in the example above.
As a general rule of thumb, avoid paragraphs with over 100 words; these tend to overwhelm readers.
Incorporate bullet points and numbered lists.
Like the aforementioned tip, web content should be easily skimmable. Incorporating lists into your writing will do this and ultimately make your work more visually friendly.
Use the appropriate formatting buttons on Compose.ly’s writing toolbar to make bullet point and numbered lists.[/caption]
However, this does not mean lists should be forced into your article. Use them when relevant, such as when providing:
- Steps to take to complete something
- Pros and cons of a point
You can optimize your writing for better search engine performance by using headings to break up your text. This also makes your writing more scannable and easy to read.
For SEO purposes, aim to include your client’s specified primary or secondary keyword(s) in your article’s headings whenever possible. This should be done naturally, however—do not force keywords when a heading does not call for it.
Limit your use of parentheses.
The use of parentheses breaks up the flow of a paragraph—readers have to settle themselves back in after reading them. For this reason, it's best to avoid them in running text whenever possible.
Try other devices if you really want to use a parenthetical, such as commas or em dashes. Also consider whether or not you could just incorporate the parenthetical information into the text body itself—or, whether it's needed at all.
Know the difference between em dashes, en dashes, and hyphens.
An em dash is not the same as an en dash or a hyphen. Please use the correct one.
- Em dash (—): The longest of the three; used to create a strong break in a sentence
- En dash (–): Used to replace the word "through," generally in number or date ranges
- Hyphen (-): The shortest of the three, and generally used to combine words, e.g., compound modifiers like "soot-covered" and "two-faced"
Chicago style guidelines—typically followed by magazines and other non-wire informational sources—dictate no spaces on either side. AP style uses a space before and after. When in doubt, use Chicago.
Leave one space after a period.
Your typing teacher may have taught you to leave two spaces after a period, but it's time to unlearn this rule.
Two spaces after a period is a holdover from the days of typewriters. Today's word processing software understands that a slightly larger space is needed to divide sentences, so it is automatically added in the formatting.
Be selective about the stock photos you include.
Incorporate stock images into your writing with prudence. Not all clients expect images—in fact, it’s best to ask about this directly if your project guidelines do not mention a need for pictures.
If you do include images:
- Choose relevant images and graphics that reflect the concept or emotion you’re trying to convey.
- Opt for natural-looking, candid photos. Posed and airbrushed photos come off as artificial and even cheesy.
- Use only well-lit, high-resolution photos.
- Avoid pictures that look “busy”—for instance, those with cluttered backgrounds or foregrounds.
Optimize your anchor text.
Anchor text refers to the clickable text used in a hyperlink. Remember that you should include links to sources in your writing—and these links should be well-optimized.
To do so:
- Make your anchor text relevant to the page that is being linked to. Avoid generic anchor text like “click here”—this is also generally inappropriate when writing articles for clients.
- Keep your anchor text on the shorter size. A full sentence should not be anchor text.
- It’s fine for anchor text to be a single word when referring to a company or brand name.
Examples of Acceptable Anchor Text
Samples of Common Errors
Below are common writing mistakes and examples our editors have seen when reviewing writer submissions. Please be aware of these errors.
Ambiguous parallel structure
"That said, if you don’t reach out to service and miss a payment…"
Editor's Note: This can be parsed in two different ways: “If you don’t reach out to service and don’t miss a payment” or “If you don’t reach out to service and do miss a payment”. Confusing.
“They do not simply deliver your mail, rather they print your documents and envelopes, stuff the envelopes, and mail it without you even needing to leave your computer.”
Editor’s Note: “Rather” is not a conjunction.
“A video's script can tell a story, aim for the heartstrings, or even use humor.”
Editor’s Note: This is an example of trying to combine two idioms into one confusing thing.
“Top-performing teams perform better than average ones.”
Editor’s Note: That’s what a “top-performing team” is.
Different form, same sentence
“…providing reliable, ongoing performance for any security and alarm requirements you require.”
Editor’s Note: Using “requirement” and “require” in the same sentence is awkward