Good web writers are always reading, always learning new things. Whether it’s figuring out how to use the latest social media tool, discovering new best practices about a particular writing format, or sharing information with others, learning is a key component to what we do.
One of the best ways to improve is to learn from your mistakes. Especially when tackling something new to you, you’re often making a ton of them. Don’t despair. Even the pros make mistakes. It’s all part of life as a web writer.
In this article, I’ve listed 32 mistakes that web writers make, starting with simple writing mistakes, moving to web design mistakes that impact writing (or vice versa), and finishing up with some common business mistakes.
- Easy spelling and grammar mistakes. We all fall into this trap, so make sure you use the tools available to you to help you avoid them. Spell check … online grammar checkers … whatever it takes.
- Changing voices in your content. Here I’m talking about verb voices, so switching from “we” to “you,” “us” to “I.” It often happens when we write content in sections over different time periods. Re-read your content several times before you submit it to clients to catch this. Automated tools probably won’t alert you since it’s grammatically correct.
- Editing as you write. This can be a hard habit to break. You’re so worried about getting it “right” that you don’t let the ideas and words just flow. The best writers often say their first drafts are massively long and filled with all sorts of errors because they just want to get everything down. It’s always easier to edit than to create, right? So leave all the editing to the end.
- Not using any contractions. Copy without contractions sounds stiff and far too formal. If that’s what you’re going for, then by all means, skip them. But chances are, you’re aiming for a more conversational and casual tone in your web writing, right? Start using some contractions then.
- Ignoring your client’s style guide. Many larger web-writing clients use a particular style guide to help make spelling and punctuation choices in their content. Things like using the Oxford comma, how to spell IT terms (email or e-mail), and more are all laid out for you in a style guide. A web-writing pro question to ask is, “Do you use the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP version?” Then make sure to use it when you write for them!
Quick style guide story
I’m a fan of the Oxford comma (or serial comma), which is included in the Chicago Manual of Style, but not in the AP Style Guide (they only recommend using it when leaving it out would be confusing in the sentence). The Oxford comma is the subject of MUCH debate. Many (like me) prefer to use it as it helps clarify a list of items better.
For example, “My heroes are my parents, Superman, and Wonder Woman.” The comma between “Superman” and “and” is the serial (Oxford) comma. Without it, the sentence can be misunderstood as “My heroes are my parents, Superman and Wonder Woman.” — meaning that Superman and Wonder Woman are a single unit, my parents.
Many of my clients don’t even bother with a style guide this granular, so I get to use the Oxford (or serial) comma to my heart’s content. Except with my latest client. They use AP, so I can only use it when the list I’m writing is long and would be confusing to readers. Which I try not to do, so the serial comma gets omitted. *sigh* This subtle change keeps me on my toes as I write for them, and shows that I’m a professional writer since I know they don’t want it. This is why it’s important to ask the style guide question.
- Too much hype in your copy. Online audiences are pretty sophisticated these days and can smell insincerity from a long ways away. Keep your copy genuine and sincere.
- Your copy is too broad. Each page should focus on a particular topic or idea you’re trying to get across. Aim too wide and you’ll lose readers. Chances are, your writing is suffering too, as you’re writing in broad strokes. Instead of talking about an “entire” industry, refer to the exact one you’re targeting (“restaurant supply market” instead of “food service industry”).
- You’ve got bad titles/headlines. I fall in to this trap all the time as writing headlines is not my strong suit. For online web copy, I tend to write one before the first draft, just to keep me focused on the idea I’m trying to convey. Then once I’m done with the second draft, I’ll brainstorm more of them and choose one that fits better. Other web writers do it the other way around. Find what works for you and then use that method.
For practice, I’ll often write out the headlines from writers I admire, or copy that got me to click on it or read through the entire thing.
- Not knowing the competition. This refers to not only your fellow freelance web writers, but also your client’s competition. Find out what content types they’re producing and suggest slightly different ones. Listen in to their online conversations and write content that answers the questions their audience has. There’s a good chance they’re similar to the ones your client gets. When it comes to other web writers, check out the trends and best practices they’re using. Incorporate them into your work and see how you can improve upon them.
- No calls-to-action in your copy. A call-to-action (CTA) is an instruction to your readers that prompts an immediate response. Usually to “click,” “download,” or “buy” something from you. The point is to compel your readers to take an action, and is usually found at the end of your copy. That includes everything from blog posts or landing pages to a social media message. Yet many web writers simply forget to put CTAs in their copy. When readers get to the end of your copy without a CTA to tell them what to do next, they often navigate away to another page or website. Make sure to include a CTA in all of your web copy. You’ll notice an increase in activity if you do.
- Using the same anchor link text for backlinks. Backlinks are incoming links to a website, and are a great way to increase your search engine rankings. But they’re also a hard thing to do well. That’s why people like Brian Dean of Backlinko have made careers out of helping people with it.One of the keys to using backlinks well is to hyperlink the external site with anchor text in your copy. (That’s where the site is hyperlinked to a few words or a phrase in your copy.) Many web writers will link to the site with the same anchor text in their copy several times. Which is not only boring to your readers, but is also not good for your SEO. Search engines value quality over quantity. Hyperlinking the same anchor text to the same external site doesn’t add value for the reader, so it is seen negatively and doesn’t earn you anything. Just add your links in naturally to your text where appropriate instead, and you’ll be fine.
- Inserting too many hyperlinks in your copy. Just like repeating the same anchor link text in your copy can get you penalized by search engines, so can inserting too many hyperlinks. Not only that, but it’s distracting to readers who may become irritated with all the hyperlinks as they read. Finally, you may end up losing readers as they navigate away to the other sites. The majority of those readers may never return.
- Putting too few hyperlinks/backlinks in your copy. And now for the flip side. You can also use too few hyperlinks. The number of links can be a subtle signal to your readers. They show how much research you’ve done on a topic; how well you “share” with others online; that you’re a professional web writer who understands the technical aspects of SEO; and more. If readers judge your content and copy lacking, they’ll go elsewhere. Insert your hyperlinks appropriately and you’ll reap the benefits.
- Your bullet points aren’t consistent. As web writers we understand that changing up the way content appears on a web page can increase readership. Bullet points are great for this, yet can also be distracting if done the wrong way. Use a consistent sentence structure from bullet to bullet and readers will be drawn in to what you’re trying to say, rather than being distracted by the way you’re saying it.
- Not varying your content length. Especially when it comes to online content, varying the way your copy appears on the screen can be beneficial to readers. It’s easier to read, easier to scroll through on a mobile device, and easier to get your point across. Copy length is a greatly debated topic online, however the rule of thumb is to write your copy as long as it needs to be. If it’s only 500 words, fine. If instead it’s 2,500 words, so be it. Use your analytics to see which works better for your audience and then vary your copy within that range.
- Leaving your writing to the last minute. We’ve all done it at some point — just slapped some words on a page and sent it off to the client because there just wasn’t enough time for you to refine it to your liking. Do it consistently however, and you’ll find your clients dropping off your roster one-by-one. Make sure to plan out your content so you’ve got the right amount of time to research, write, and revise it before sending it to your clients. Schedule your work with clients so you can do your best, every time.
- Writing content that’s out of touch with your audience. One of the key questions to ask yourself and your clients before you start to write is “who is the audience for this content?” You want to target your content to the right audience, whether that’s upper management, executives, or consumers. “What’s your goal for the content?” can also help you write better content for your clients, as you’ll be hitting all the right notes. It can be a challenge to balance both of these questions, but if you do it well, you’ll hit the mark for your clients.
- Not asking your clients any questions when you start working with them. Working blindly on a project can be a waste of time for you and your client. You don’t deliver what they’re looking for, causing a lot of frustration on both sides. And you end up losing the client after all is said and done. Make sure to ask all of your questions before you start work and save yourself future issues.
- No sub-headings to break up the content. No one likes to read a web page with big blocks of content on it. It’s hard to get through and hard to retain the information. Break up the content with sub-headings in the appropriate spots and you’ll see your bounce rates decrease dramatically.
- No images. There’s a reason we love infographics and other visual mediums. They’re easy on the eyes and a great way to convey a lot of information in a small amount of real estate. That’s key for mobile devices, but also for laptops and desktops too. Bonus points if you’re able to modify the images to include a website address or social media handle. As the image is shared online, your content gets an even wider reach.
- Completely ignoring SEO tactics like keywords and meta tags. Even with all the changes search engines are making to their algorithms, old school SEO tactics still work. It’s just a matter of tweaking your approach slightly. Instead of blindly including keywords in your copy (aka “keyword stuffing”), try incorporating them naturally as you write. That’s because we no longer just type in keywords into search engines. We’re asking questions and making statements with the keywords in there, and search engines have taken notice. For example, years ago I might have simply searched for “infographics” when looking for content on how to create them. Now I will type “how to create an infographic.” Sites that have that keyphrase in it will appear first in the search engines.
- Bonus Tip: Include your key phrases in the ALT text of your images. You’d be surprised at how many site owners still don’t do this.
- No way to share your content. I admit that this one baffles me. There are so many ways to share content online these days that there’s no real excuse not to use them on a website. WordPress users can try any number of sharing plugins, while other platform users have so many different sharing tools at their disposal, as well.
- Using small font sizes on your website. Larger fonts create a more immersive reading experience for your audience. You appeal to a larger audience and keep people on your content longer. According to this study, readers are more emotionally impacted by larger font sizes. Who knew?
- Use more bold formatting. Bold the content you most want your readers to read as they skim your content. You know they’re often just going to skim it anyways, right? So emphasize a point or highlight strong keywords with more bold formatting.
- Insert more parentheses in your content. They let you inject more emotion into your writing, as you imagine what your readers are thinking as they go through your writing. Readers see those parentheses and think that you’re letting them in on a secret, and that you’re the only one who’s seeing it (which of course they know isn’t true, but they buy in to the idea). When done right, it’s an easy way to provoke an emotional response (either positive or negative) and develop a deeper connection with your readers. Brian Dean of Backlinko does this a lot in his writing and it works well. For example:
Today’s super-smart Google doesn’t care how many times you cram a keyword into your article.
Instead, it pays close attention to Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) keywords.
(LSI keywords is a fancy way of saying: “synonyms and closely-related words”)
Here Brian acknowledges what the reader’s probably thinking, “Great, here he goes with the sophisticated, techy talk that’ll go right over my head.” He lets them know that he realizes that’s a fancy term for something, and he explains what it is in the parentheses. Makes me trust Brian even more now; what about you?
- Charging too little for your work. New web writers do this more often than not, yet you’d be surprised to find out how many experienced writers do this, too. To figure out a fair rate, you’ll have to do a bit of research and then some trial-and-error work. Some freelancers do this by charging each new client a higher rate until they reach that target amount where clients complain more often than not. Others determine what their hourly rate is, then incorporate that into their proposals. Find your sweet spot and go with it.What works in one industry or market may not work in others, so you can’t simply take a fellow writer’s rate and apply that to your own without some experimentation. For example, I compared rates for business blog posts with a fellow writer recently, and we discovered that his industry sustains a rate that’s about 15% lower than mine. I also discovered that another writer is charging 80% more in another industry. All for the same 500-word business blog post.
- You have trouble saying “No.” Accepting every project that comes your way may fill your bank account, but it can wear you down. You’ll be more fatigued and produce sub-par work. Whenever a client comes to you with work, try to add them to your schedule when it’s right for you. If they’ve done their due diligence, they can absorb any reasonable delay you might throw at them. If they can’t, then maybe they’re not right for you. Otherwise, just say no.
- You don’t pay attention to the business side of your writing business. Stay on top of your business like expense tracking, taxes, and more. Outsource what you need to keep you focused on your writing.
- You’re not comfortable doing follow up. To succeed as a freelancer, you have to get comfortable with a few things that are hard. Like following up with prospects and clients. Whether it’s following up to secure the work or following up on a late payment, you’ve got to learn how to do this if you want your business to grow and prosper. Take all emotion out of it and simply reach out to them as you need to. Ed Gandia recently interviewed Ilise Benun on this very topic, and Ilise made a wonderful comment that all freelancers should take to heart—one that I’ve heard Rebecca Matter make as well: “Follow up until your prospect or client says to stop.”
- You haven’t diversified your income streams yet. Freelancers need to have ways of staying afloat when client work hits a tough stretch. Create a number of different income streams that you can rely on in those moments, like selling your own information products, becoming an affiliate of products you believe in, charging for consultations, and more. There are so many ways you can avoid relying on one or two clients for your income.
- You don’t ask for referrals or testimonials. Social proof is good for your clients’ products and it’s good for you as well. Make it a part of your “end of project” process so you’re never stuck using three-year old comments or recommendations from clients.
- You only market when business is slow. We all fall into this when we’re busy. We just don’t make time for it and then when we hit a slow period, our bank accounts start complaining. Make marketing a part of your regular routine and you’ll avoid this issue all together. When you’re busy you can dial it down, but don’t stop it completely.
We all make mistakes in our web writing
It’s unavoidable. What’ll make your business successful is what you learn from these mistakes, and how you apply them to your work. If you’re always trying, you’ll always be learning — even from your failures. And in the end, you’ll be very successful.