By now, we’ve probably convinced you that producing high-quality web content that converts readers into clients is both easier and harder than it first appears.
It’s easier because you have already mastered the subject matter, whether it is medicine, the law, or some other technical or service specialty. You have the factual information down cold. You understand the precise needs of your best clients or customers, and most of the time you have the answer ready before they can even figure out how to frame the questions.
But, while you are great at one-to-one meetings, expository writing is still new to you. Organizing your thoughts in way that seems natural to a reader is actually very demanding, and wrestling with the quirks of English grammar and usage often makes the task frustrating. You’ve learned that every word counts, and that there’s a vast gulf between using the right word and the almost-right one. Worst of all, you now realize that an innocent turn of phrase that goes wrong may mean your reader becomes hopelessly confused or offended. That’s when you lose him as a contact and potential future client.
Rachel Sanders, a Foster Web Marketing editor, recently reminded me that some of the worst writing errors appear when writers randomly switch their writing perspectives (for example, from the third person to the second person) or when they use tense inconsistently, switching from past to present and back again. Let’s see how these mistakes can send an otherwise well-written piece astray.
A Tense Situation
The word tense refers to the time of action in a piece of writing. A sentence’s verb determines the tense, conventionally by using suffixes and auxiliary or “helping” verbs. For example, the two preceding sentences are each in the present tense.
It’s often useful—even necessary—to shift between tenses while writing prose, but the writer must be careful to establish a clear understanding of the sequence of events. Unfortunately, we frequently see poor website content that shifts between tenses without any planning or justification. Let’s look at some examples; as always, these have been culled from real-world website content with just enough changes made so we don’t embarrass the people responsible.
- The light turns green, but instead of immediately entering the intersection, you wait for a few moments to check how traffic will continue. It’s a good thing you did, because the car to your left apparently didn’t see you and turned in front of you without warning. What went wrong here: The first sentence establishes the present tense. The next sentence, which describes action that happened next in time, should also be in the present—but the writer lapses into the past tense instead.
- Throughout dinner, he kept holding his chest and breathing heavily. When you asked him what was wrong, he said that he was fine; but ever since yesterday’s fainting spell, he just hasn’t been himself and you are beginning to worry. What went wrong: This falls apart at the very end. “Kept” in the first sentence sets up the past tense, and that’s carried through with the verbs “asked” and “said.” The “hasn’t been” is an example of the past perfect tense, indicating an event that happened even earlier than the simple past tense we have been using—but that’s absolutely appropriate here, because the reference to the fainting spell shows that occurred deeper in the past. But “you are beginning to worry” throws us abruptly into the present tense.
- Where were the security guards while you were assaulted in the parking structure? Could their absence contributed to your attack? Find out here. What went wrong: The second sentence lacks the right auxiliary verb; “could…contributed” isn’t a valid tense indicator. The wording must change either to “Could their absence have contributed” or to “Did their absence contribute.”
Shifting Personal Perspectives
Sudden shifts in the grammatical person of prose is another mark of the inattentive writer. You’ll recall that prose is said to be written in the first person when the subject of the sentences is I or we; in the second person, when the subject is you (singular or plural); and in the third person when the subject is he, she, it, or they. Just as with tense, a writer is not confined to his or her initial choice of person, but any transitions from one perspective to another should be planned and justified by the text.
Before we get to the examples (everyone enjoys looking at other peoples’ mistakes), I want you to consider this: changing the person of a text piece may be essential for some of your best content writing. Why? Because it can be a key element motivating a reader to act. If you’re writing a medical blog, for instance, the bulk of the content may be a third-person discussion of how people suffer from ankle pain that’s often a sign of a more serious condition. In the conclusion, you may shift to a compelling second-person slant to talk about how “your ankle pain”—the reader’s pain—demands a proper medical examination as soon as possible.
So learning to make skillful transitions between third-person and second-person writing is very, very important. Let’s look at examples from my back files to show how those transitions can flop:
- Millions of Americans have diabetes, and for many of us, it’s a daily struggle to control your blood sugar. Oops! This starts off in the third person, stumbles to first person with “us,” and ends up in second person with “your.”
- Bicyclists are harder for car drivers to see, making it easier for collisions to happen. Cars can turn in front of you or drift off into your designated lane. Oops! Third person suddenly becomes second person.
- We are experienced in helping people like you get to the root of your hearing problem. Oops! It would be better to keep the whole sentence in third person by changing the end to “get to the root of their hearing problems.”
- Not many construction jobs can be completed without welders. Unfortunately, welding is extremely dangerous and can result in injuries that can have long-lasting effects and leave you in debt. Oops! The transition to second person is jarring, thanks to that “you” near the end of the sentence.
- While the insurance adjuster may seem friendly and helpful, it’s important that business owners stop to think about the role of loss adjusters and to be sure that the needs of your business are met by the insurance coverage you carry. Oops! The writer here is trying to personalize the risk but fails to make a smooth transition. One solution would be to break this into two sentences after “the role of loss adjusters,” and begin the next sentence “If you’re a business manager or owner, be sure that the needs…”
You Can’t Get There Without a Map
I’m convinced that one reason why unexplained shifts in tense and person show up so often on professional websites is that writers often skimp on planning their writing. They don’t rely on outlines or even notes, but instead trust to their ability to patch things together along the way.
Most of the time, it works. When it doesn’t, though, the consequences are serious. The people who are scouring websites for reliable and accessible legal, medical, and professional advice are usually desperate for clarity. Often, they are not strong readers. When they run into prose that is confusing or disjointed, well, that’s when they click away to some other website. Let there be no mistake: bad content writing on your website can only help your competition.
An outline—as detailed as you need it—is your map to developing great content that attracts readers and converts them into clients. That’s the keystone to everything we build at Foster Web Marketing.
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