Writing for the Web, With the Help of Strunk & White

Posted by Elena Tomorowitz on Jul 21, 2020 1:13:00 PM

writing content in notebook

The original The Elements of Style was written by William Strunk Jr. in 1918, but if you ever took an English grammar class, you are probably more familiar with the 1959 version that was expanded by E.B. White. It’s since been edited numerous times to accommodate our constantly fluctuating language. Though it’s sometimes hard to imagine grammar rules are still used and relevant today, when you have full-length books written in emojis, well-written content is still necessary. Getting the right message across is dependent on using the right language and form. As a business, your online presence is crucial, and your only interaction with customers may be through writing or content - so make it good! Using the advice from Strunk & White, we’ll show you how these age-old methods still apply today.

Use the Active Voice

“Brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

How often have you evaded blame, perhaps without even doing it purposefully, by using just the right language to avoid calling yourself out? The CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, was reported as saying “We know mistakes were made,” as a response to the enormous bonuses that were paid to the company’s executives after a government bailout saved them from bankruptcy. It’s as if the mistakes were made by someone or something, or they just sort of “happened.” Insert shoulder shrug emoji.

This passive language blunder is just subtle enough to still be factual, but not direct, and certainly an avoidance of the truth. What he should have said, and what any leader who has strategically referenced some unearthly mistake-maker, is “We made a mistake.” This active voice unfortunately puts the blame on the individual or the group but is more direct and to the point. We’ve all heard from our English teachers, “Use the active voice,” but what does that mean exactly?

You can distinguish between active voice and passive voice pretty easily. Passive voice uses "be," "am," "is/are" or "was/were."

Active voice doesn't. Here are examples of both voices:

Active Voice: "Jack handed the bucket to Jill." Passive Voice: "Jill was handed the bucket by Jack."

The passive voice is sometimes necessary and for a corporate report, for example, you may need to use it to avoid using the “I” or “you.” By using the active voice when writing to an audience, you are saying, “Pay attention to me! This is important!” Readers feel more engaged when the language is instructing them to do so. Active language indicates that life is happening, people are doing things right in front of you, whereas passive language feels like things are happening somewhere by someone, but just in your peripheral vision so it’s not worth your attention.

People want something to connect with, and we are emotional creatures by nature. An active voice offers tangibility and readers will connect with you as a writer, but more importantly, as a person.

After writing your blog or social media post, scan through it and switch around those sentences that are passive. Reread it, and I guarantee you’ll hear the difference. You might even start to feel more alive…

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Know Your Audience

“Focus on writing clearly and effectively so that your readers will grasp your thoughts and ideas or enjoy the story you want to tell.”

In this first scenario, imagine you are a child of an elderly mother and scanning the web to learn more about nursing homes or assisted care facilities. Then imagine you landed on a webpage for a care facility that said, “Come on down to River Lakes Nursing Home to check our crazy cool rooms! Register now for a 10% discount!”

In the next scenario, imagine you are shopping for a new car and are looking at something small and sporty – let’s say a Mazda Miata. You head to your local dealership’s webpage and it says, “Your comfort and health are important to us. Come see us to talk about this Mazda Miata or other options. We’re here for you.”

In both scenarios, something definitely feels off. If you are a nursing home, you should understand that your audience will not be shopping for discounts. Certainly cost may be a concern, but those shopping around may already be uncomfortable about this big life change and are likely more interested in the healthcare aspect of the facility rather than the “crazy cool rooms.” And those shopping for a Mazda Miata? They probably do care about a discount, or if the car is cool and fast. Most car buyers are price shopping, so a 10% discount is going to bring them into your store. The fact that the dealership is concerned with the health of their customers is probably not a huge selling point.

Which is to say, think about your audience. Sure, a product like a car has a broad audience, but you can still consider what type of person is interested in your brand. Where you may not be able to narrow in on one type of “Mazda Miata” person, you can assume that they care about certain things – speed, quality, features, or how quickly they’ll get accused of having a midlife crisis.

You might consider creating some buyer persona profiles to help understand your audience and the language they’ll respond to. As a business, you should know the voice of your company and who you are speaking to, because without an audience, you don’t have customers.

Less is More

Nowadays, when you land on a webpage, you immediately search for those three little bars at the top to find the pull-down menu, or you skip that altogether and Google something like, “chillis resurant hrs” to go directly to the information you want. Luckily Google doesn’t care that you never won the spelling bee, ever, and may still be annihilated by an 8th grader if given the opportunity.

If you are the average internet user, you want to find the information you need as fast as you can. I mean, can we talk about when you want a recipe for scalloped potatoes and you have to scroll through some food blogger’s memories of every single time she ate a potato in her lifetime? And the origin story of how potatoes came to this country?

Less is more, and less is plenty. When you use the right words and the right language, your reader doesn’t get distracted or frustrated and leave your page. We are impatient. Don’t worry, this is the end of this section.

Omit needless words

“This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Imagine your house is on fire so you call 911, but you only have a few seconds to tell the dispatcher the problem before your phone line melts and hangs up on you. Okay, so you also have to imagine that it’s 1999 and you are using a landline telephone. Google it if you don’t know what that is.

Anyway, you are trying to describe what’s going on by saying, “Well I left the oven on, and then there was this huge, bright orange, and really hot flame that began to light the flammable items around the oven…” Before you know it, your house is completely engulfed in flames and your phone has gone out and the dispatcher still doesn’t really know that your entire house is on fire. “My house is on fire,” is all you needed to say because the word “fire” provides enough information. And for the sake of this argument, most people can understand that a fire is a hot flame, and it’s dangerous.

In any case, your listener or your reader isn’t settling into the great American novel. Boring writing is different from succinct writing. You don’t have to be boring to be clear, just use the right language and your reader will be fully engaged and process the message you’re trying to get across.

Use the Right Tone

What would we do without emojis, am I right? How else would you send that rude text message if you didn’t have an accompanying winky face to indicate you are just being sarcastic, plus maybe a smiley face and an “LOL” when you don’t get a reply right away. Tone of voice is challenging to get across in written text, which is why someone may have gotten offended by one of your emails if they took it the wrong way. Tone can be thought of as the underlying message of what is actually said or written. For example, you may have a sarcastic tone when saying something like, “I love getting a root canal.”

In writing, it’s important to use the right words that have the right connotation because you may not always have emojis at your disposal. For example, “cute” and “beautiful” are basically synonyms. But what if your Mother’s Day card said, “To my cute mother on Mother’s Day,” instead of “To my beautiful mother?” There is really no clear way to define whether a tone is right or wrong, because it really depends on the situation, but you likely already have an ear for it.

Using the right tone links back to the idea of knowing your audience. Tone and language go hand-in-hand. It’s important to know what language and tone are appropriate for your message, so be clear in defining your voice.

Know Your Subject

You know when you ask someone a question and they say, “You know, that’s a great question,” or “Let me get back to you on that.” Even if they are the expert on the subject, they don’t know everything, and a great question probably means that they don’t have an answer for you or they’re scanning their knowledge for an answer that is close enough. Or they just want you to stop asking questions.

Most people surfing the internet for information aren’t looking for an academic paper; they want something that they can comprehend with enough information to answer their questions. The key to getting there is good research, and guess what? You can Google anything. Chances are, as a writer, you are smart enough to piece together your research into something interesting to read.

By having confidence on the subject, readers will be on board with you. You can achieve this by using your own words. If you are only pulling small bits of information or sentences from each article you research, it won’t seem cohesive or that you understand the topic, and will instead look like you are plagiarizing someone else’s words. Read as much as you need to on the subject until you can talk about it in a casual conversation.

You probably knew something about the topic before starting your research, so that’s a good place to begin writing. Include small bits of interesting trivia so that readers come away and say, “Huh, I never knew that.” Don’t be scared when you sit down to write and trust your brain. Before you know it, you will be an expert.

Do not overwrite

“The click and flow of a word processor can be seductive, and you may find yourself adding a few unnecessary words or even a whole passage just to experience the pleasure of running your fingers over the keyboard and watching your words appear on the screen.”

Karl Ove Knausgård is a Norwegian writer known for a series of 6 autobiographical novels titled, My Struggle. Each book is about 600 pages long. He wrote them while living pretty much a normal life. A very talented writer, sure, but some may argue that his books are a tad overly written. Okay, maybe more than a tad. Either way, I would say his books are probably not a good example of how to write a blog post.

Readers may choose to read a Knausgård book curled up in a blanket on a snowy winter day, but most people aren’t interested in settling into a 2 million word manifesto every time they open an article on their computer. You can be creative while still being succinct, but every sentence should do some work for your article and not written just because it sounds pretty.

A common creative writing trope says, “Kill your darlings,” meaning delete those sentences that are truly inspired but maybe not necessary. Personally, I don’t think you have to kill your darlings, but maybe stash them in a document you might use another time; it makes it easier to let go of them.

Our world looks a whole lot different today than it did in the time of Strunk & White’s, but good writing never goes out of style. Despite the downward trend of books and magazines, I might argue that we are reading more than ever - blogs, social media posts, online recipes, news, search results, video scripts, and more. So think about what grammar errors you’re guilty of and what advice your fourth grade teacher would give you. I know you’ll make Mrs. Libertowski proud!

Elena Tomorowitz

Written by Elena Tomorowitz

Elena Tomorowitz is a writer and a part-time professor. She earned a PhD in English and an MBA because she wants to be good at all things. She is Hubspot certified in Inbound Marketing and will never stop learning.