Improve your writing structure: fixing the muddle in the middle

In 2006, I needed to start writing optimized blog posts for a client in the car sales industry. I wanted to write something better than what currently existed in that online space, so I looked for blogs from competitors and:

  1. There wasn’t much out there.
  2. The blog posts that did exist were only about 150 to 250 words long.

Fast forward eight short years, and we now have Google rewarding in-depth posts, which tend to be at least 2,000 words long – with some as long as 5,000 words or even more.

Yes. Content standards have changed, in large part because of the increasing amounts of competition. According to NM Incite, a Nielsen/McKinsey company, the number of blogs has increased in this fashion:

  • October 2006: 35.8 million blogs
  • October 2007: 61.4 million blogs
  • October 2008: 78.7 million blogs
  • October 2009: 127 million blogs
  • October 2010: 148.5 million blogs
  • October 2011: 173 million blogs
  • October 2012: 181+ million blogs

Three important notes:

  1. There is no magic number for the length of an article or blog post but it’s awfully hard to create quality in just 250 words.
  2. Because articles typically need to be longer than they were a few years ago, it’s easier than ever to accidentally create a muddle in your article’s middle.
  3. Even though articles typically need to be longer to be competitive, people’s attention spans keep shortening. One 2014 survey says that a one-second delay in page load time can result in 11% fewer page views – and readers don’t miraculously get any more patient once they’re actually on a page. So keep it scan-able.

Strengthening the structure of an article/blog post

Let’s say you’re writing an article about a man who created a widget that boosts the power of laptop computers significantly, allowing them to operate much more efficiently. You start out with a compelling anecdote that grabs people’s attention – but then your text starts to lag. Perhaps it reads this way:

After three months of using the new widget, laptop speed went up by 5%; after six months of use, 10%. With continued use, the speed increased to 20% at the nine-month mark and as much as 35% after a year of steady use. When asked if people liked how much faster their computers work, Stanley replied, “Yes.” When asked why he invented this widget, Stanley said he was “obviously meant to do this type of work.” And, he adds that in order to do this work, he “needed plenty of time and focus.”

You take a look and all of the elements are there. You included information gathered from a primary source (an interview with Stanley) and you’re providing solid figures, not just generalizations. So, why is the middle of your article so dull?

The fix we’d recommend has three parts:

  1. Pull stats into an eye catching visual
  2. Use quotes to include the interviewee’s emotions, opinions and unique turns of speech
  3. Tighten the text

To accomplish the second, you may need to conduct a follow up interview with Stanley. Questions I might ask include:

  • Why do you feel that you were meant to create this widget?
  • How long did it take you to create it?

Now see if these three suggestions helped pick up the pace of the original:

Studies show that, after just one year of use, Stanley’s widget increases laptop speed by a hefty 35%. How did he make that happen?

“I’d gotten really ill,” Stanley recalls, “to the point of being bedridden for a year with just my laptop to connect me to the outside world. Frustrated by its slowness, I used the entire year I was stuck in bed to create my widget.”

Additional tips for streamlining the structure of an article

  • Use bullet points when appropriate
  • Use helpful subheadings
  • Remove adverbs and change the current verbs to stronger ones whenever possible
  • Shorten wordy phrases; for example:
    • “in order to be able to” (to)
    • “are in possession of” (has or owns)
    • “along the lines of” (like)
    • “as a result of” (because)
    • “bring to a conclusion” (conclude)

What challenges do you face when creating longer articles? Please leave a comment with your writing structure questions below.