For our last Workshop Wednesday our Digital Marketing Team Leader presented a detailed overview of how to both understand and reflect the tone of a business in your writing. Nothing is more important for content and copywriters, nor for social media marketers, or really for just about anyone writing for SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). It can be easy to get bogged down by the technicalities of SEO and forget about the user experience, but the more you understand your brand and understand how to best write for it, the more valuable and engaging your content will be. The more valuable and engaging your content is, the more Google will appreciate it and rank it highly. Good writing is fast becoming the most important technical tool for SEO practices.
If good writing is now becoming such an important technical tool, then the technicalities of writing are very important indeed. We all learnt about the basics of sentence structure in school, and a lot of the following information will be things that you are subconsciously aware of and instinctively carry out. However, by bringing these techniques for sentence structure to the forefront of your mind, and by engaging these techniques consciously, you’re going to find that your writing has a vastly higher impact. Not only that, but it’s incredibly interesting to be aware of these techniques because guess what? They’re everywhere, and you’ll start to notice it in adverts across all devices, all mediums, all industries. Writing is clever; be clever with it.
As the SEO Team Leader, I wanted to run a workshop that went back to these basics on sentence structure, to ensure that we were all starting with strong foundations that we could then build upon. I’ve put together a presentation which you can find at the bottom of this blog post. However, below are some of the key points outlined.
The Very Basic Basics
What is a sentence? It may seem a simple question, even rhetorical, or common sense; however, this is a fundamental question that every writer should be able to answer quickly. You need to learn the rules before you can break them, but in the interest of creativity, many writers push their luck further and further in order to chase that elusive ‘new’ way of saying something, (I’m looking at you, James Joyce).
Which Sentences Do What
When aiming to write persuasively, there are two main decisions to make in regards to your sentence structure. Firstly, should your sentence be periodic or loose? Secondly, should your voice be active or passive? There is no right or wrong answer, but each serves a different purpose, and a clever utilisation of each structure will help you make the most of your writing. Here’s how each style works, and the potential benefits of each:
A loose sentence starts with the point that you’re trying to get across. The relevant information in the sentence is presented at the start. It not only gives the reader instant information, but also a clue as to how to interpret the rest of your sentence.
The point of my sentence is to tell you that Glass & Co. are wonderful: the second half of the sentence simply expands on this point and seeks to justify my statement. The loose sentence structure is effective because it is direct. It is punchy and it ensures that your readers have complete clarity.
A periodic sentence, in contrast, is all about the suspense. The information isn’t given to the reader until the last moment, which means they’ve had to follow your train of thought before finding out why you think it or what you’re trying to tell (or sell) them.
In the above periodic sentence, I’m justifying my argument before I’ve even clearly stated what it is. This can be a very persuasive writing technique. The reader is already on your side (because they like the sound of these bespoke services) before they reach your statement. This is especially useful for things like political campaigns, where people like to hide their statements behind a long string of positive points. You’ll also notice this sentence structure technique in a lot of advertising, especially in television commercials where the company has to not only hook but also convince the viewer of something quickly.
An active voice is generally advised. Strangely, I have a penchant for the passive voice, which is why I can comprehensively say that it’s a good idea to be aware of which you’re writing – overusing the ‘wrong’ sentence structure can weaken your writing: as I have (begrudgingly) learnt. An active voice is when the subject of the sentence is acting on the verb of the sentence:
The boy is the subject and he does the verb to the object: i.e. he kicks (verb) the ball (object). It’s direct and clear. An active voice is easier to read, the information is given up front, and the sentence flows smoothly. Due to this, when writing you should almost always use the active voice. However, a case can be made for the occasional passive voice, no matter what my Creative Writing tutor told me at University.
The passive voice makes the reader work harder: that much is true. If one were to fill their writing with only the passive voice, it’s going to be a difficult read and it’s going to prompt a lot more work (and possibly anger) from those reading it. If you’re going to use it, make sure it’s justified. Some amazing creative works use it heavily and to great effect – but it’s never done without a reason. The passive voice is when the subject is essentially ‘passive’ to the verb. The object and verb become the focus of the sentence:
Or, my preferred example and a good demonstration of when a passive voice has more impact:
In the above sentence, the murderer is the focus. In the active voice, it would be: “The police questioned the murderer.” This is not entirely striking: we’d expect police to question murderers. However, by making it passive, we’re being shown by the sentence structure that the murderer is of great importance – far more important than the police questioning them. Who is this murderer? What have they done? Are they in my garden?
Headlines and titles can use the passive voice to great effect. Has your client or company completed a service for a person that is particularly attention-grabbing? Let’s say a clothing store styled Angelina Jolie. In the active voice it would read:
That’s concise and clear, of course. However, when the passive voice is utilised it becomes:
Now, there’s a sentence that will grab you some attention on social media. For more ways that sentences can be structured and used, and a cheeky plug for the Oxford Comma (because I couldn’t resist), take a look at my presentation below. Also, make sure to watch out for our next Workshop Wednesday, as we’ll be moving onto more data-driven aspects of technical SEO with a look at Google Analytics.