8 Simple Scientifically Proven Ways to Improve Your Writing

How do you have the most impact online? Should your writing be short and sweet, or long and detailed?

There are lots of times when I’m stuck on a title for a post, or the perfect word for something I’m writing.

Fortunately, we’re pretty keen on experimenting and testing here at Buffer, so I can try lots of different ideas and see what works best.

Even better, though, is having some data to give me a rough guide on where to start. I found some really useful data about crafting the perfect blog post or copy, and hopefully you’ll find it useful too.

1. Create a "curiosity gap"

Upworthy is arguably one of the most successful content marketing companies around, with massive successes on social media to their name.

One of the tips Upworthy offers from analyzing their own success is to ensure every headline has a "curiosity gap." That is, the headline needs to be tantalizing enough to get a reader to click through, but mustn’t give away the whole story.

A great example comes from an Upworthy story about Mitt Romney:

Too vague, so readers aren’t interested: Mitt Romney Says Something Bad, Again

Too specific, so readers already know the whole story: Mitt Romney Says, "I Want The Middle Class To Be Tied To The Roof Of My Car."

The final title ended up being: You Will Not Believe What Mitt Wants To Do To You—just enough intrigue to encourage click-throughs and still enough mystery that the payoff of reading the story will encourage readers to share it.

2. Use numbers: Our brains can understand it more easily

BuzzFeed is a perfect example of just how popular listicles can be. It’s not really surprising, either, given how we’re constantly bombarded with content and don’t have time to read it all.

The Takipi research found that while numbers work well in headlines, digits in particular are more shareable. For instance, instead of "Ten ways to…" you should use "10 ways to…"

In the analysis, higher numbered lists (e.g. "100 ways to…") were shared more, as were headlines that started with a digit.

The scientific back-up: These stats are backed up by the research of Stanford Business school professor Chip Heath and corporate education consultant Dan Heath, who found that one of the six principles of all ideas that "stick" is to make them concrete—using digits and specific facts rather than broad statements.

3. Choose the right words: These are the 27 most retweetable and sharable ones

Specific words are more popular than others, particularly in headlines. From Takipi’s research, the most popular blog posts had these words in their titles:

If you’re tweeting a post, you might want to include these 20 most-retweetable words/phrases:

  • you
  • twitter
  • please
  • retweet
  • post
  • blog
  • social
  • free
  • media
  • help
  • please retweet
  • great
  • social media
  • 10
  • follow
  • how to
  • top
  • blog post
  • check out
  • new blog post

Back to blog post titles, though. Interestingly, Takipi’s research found that using the word "you," which many of us (me included) assume is one of the most powerful words we can use, actually didn’t have any effect on how many social shares a post got.

4. Make it scarce

The team from Takipi analyzed a bunch of tech blogs to see which posts were shared more on social media than others, and what they had in common. One of the things they found was that using negative, dark, and aggressive words in titles lead to more shares.

For instance, including the words no, without, and stop lead to more shares that more positively framed titles using words like do or start. Another part of this finding was that aggressive or violent-sounding words encouraged more social shares, as well. For instance, words like kill, dead and fear seem to be more shareable.

The Takipi post provided a good example of this from three similar articles on TechCrunch, where these two headlines were extremely popular:

Oracle makes more moves to kill open source mySQL and Oracle is bleeding at the hands of DataBase rivals

But this headline had less than a third of the number of shares that the other two garnered:

For Oracle it’s about the machine, not the fantasy of a new world

Solution: Of course, writing about negative things or trying to make things negative isn’t that great of a way to help us lead a happier life, which is what we’re all about. So, one way to use this technique is to still focus on the positive, but to turn it inside out. Here is an example where this worked very well for us:

5. Don’t expect announcements to be popular (and turn them into a story instead)

One of the most interesting things I found in my research was about what doesn’t work. It turns out that announcements generally get shared the least.

In Takipi’s research of tech blogs, posts including the words "announcing," "wins," "celebrates," or grows usually fell near the bottom of the most-shared list.

Using the word "lose," on the other hand, usually landed a post in the top 50% of the list, backing up my earlier point that negative words seem to be more shareable.

Solution: Since we know that announcements can be boring, create a story instead. One example where we had this work incredibly well, was when we announced the 1 million user milestone for Buffer. Instead of making it an announcement we made it into a story full of pictures and events that happened throughout the Buffer journey.

Story-telling is in fact the most powerful way to activate our brains. You can in fact, create the exact same emotions that you had when experiencing a situation in the other person if they are listening to your story. This Neural Coupling modal describes it best:

The same emotional areas of the brain are activated in the listener, that the speaker experienced as he tells a story of an event:

6. Know exactly who reads your posts and tailor your words to them

As with most of the social media topics we discuss here at Buffer, your particular audience will determine what works best for you.

Upworthy noted that middle-aged women are the biggest sharers online, so there’s a pretty high chance you’ll want to get them on board if you’re trying to increase how much your content gets shared.

This could mean avoiding jargon or slang, keeping your word choices simple and your sentences short, or avoiding swearing.

The trick to getting it right for your audience? Test everything.

We often try multiple headlines for the same Buffer post to see which one will work best on social media and we’re sometimes surprised to see a big difference between our tests.

Research has actually shown that different audiences will respond better to different messages. One study used two different marketing messages for TiVo: one that used abstract messages about the freedom TiVo offers, and another that used more concrete messages emphasizing specific features of TiVo.

Customers in the study responded more positively to messages that aligned with their own attitudes—whether they were to fulfill their aspirations and satisfy achievement goals, or to fulfill their responsibilities and satisfy their security goals.

Keep in mind your audience and their attitudes and goals when crafting your copy or tweaking your headlines.

7. Make it surprising (our brain likes it!)

Another of the six principles of ideas that "stick" from Chip and Dan Heath’s research is to use the element of surprise.

Presenting something unexpected—breaking a pattern—will help you to capture attention, according to their research.

This works in two parts: surprise captures our attention initially, and interest holds it.

We often try to use this in our Buffer posts, for instance:

Why is this so powerful? According to Dr. Gregory Berns unexpected rewards have an incredible power on us:

"This means that the brain finds unexpected pleasure more rewarding that expected ones, and it may have little to do with what people say they like,"

So surprises are more stimulating for us and will get our attention much more easily than things we already know well. Even if we really like those things!

8. Use more verbs and less nouns

I’ve mentioned which words are the best to use, but knowing which types of words are best can give you more flexibility.

Social media scientist Dan Zarrella analyzed 200,000 tweets that included links and found that those that included adverbs and verbs had higher click-through rates than those using more nouns and adjectives.

Interestingly, verbs are also more persuasive in college admission letters. Dee Leopold, Harvard Business School’s head of M.B.A. admissions said in an interview that the best recommendations for student contain lots of verbs, as these are stronger than adjectives.

Belle Beth Cooper is a content crafter at Buffer and cofounder of Hello Code. Follow her on Twitter at @BelleBethCooper.

This post originally appeared on Buffer, and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Theilr]

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36 Comments

  • Fmengineers Ghani

    Coca-Cola is one of the best known brands that inspire the customer. Those readers, visitors or prospects whatever you call them, they feel totally in tune with the brand and want to be part of the conversation. Usually we're talking about a post that has a high probability of being vitalized.

    Content types can be inspiring personal stories, brand or a case study. They need not be directly focused on life or something emotional or personal. Although there is something very true in this kind of content. From time to time out of the comfort zone, ask you some questions and tell you what comes in and share it can give you more than pleasantly surprised. So I experienced the day I decided to tell why I decided to be copywriter and embark on the net.

  • Angelica Urquijo

    Great nuggets of info. Each bite size tip easy to implement. My favorite the 27 most shareable words.... some examples. smart surprising science history hacks (or a variation like hackers) huge/big

  • Gregory Caron

    Loved it. Shared it. Hope all of my writer friends will read it.

    Big question: Gathering statistics. Is there any place on the web that offers up free statistics? I'm thinking like a Getty Images only for scientifically backed or research backed claims.

  • Früit Selleck

    Stuff like this, though proven to work, is why I cannot buy in to the lie that what we're trying to do with the internet is create "quality content"...

  • Bradley Blanchette

    Beth: "fewer," not "less" nouns. Old trick = Things you can count (nouns) gets fewer. Stuff you cannot count (water) gets less.

  • Roxanne Fawley

    Bradley, she used it correctly on the graph. I wonder if she was just trying to avoid using the same word twice so close together.

  • As a general rule I refuse to click any story with a headline that begins with "You won't believe..." or worse still, ends with "... will blow your mind."

    It's cynical clickbait and an insult to intelligent people.

  • Roxanne Fawley

    I must be a gullible, dumb fish because I "bite" and click on those every time! However I am just smart enough to not share them. So far I have never used them in one of my own titles and after reading Beth's article, never will!

  • As a general rule I refuse to click any story with a headline that begins with "You won't believe..." or worse still, end with "... will blow your mind."

    It's cynical clickbait and an insult to intelligent people.

  • Christopher Alexander Gibson

    Interestingly, verbs are also more persuasive in college admission letters. Dee Leopold, Harvard Business School’s head of M.B.A. admissions said in an interview that the best recommendations for student(s) contain lots of verbs, as these are stronger than adjectives.

    singular/plural--subject verb agreement-

  • altruschel

    Under no. 4, Scarcity, in the box to the right, you say: Unique content can illicit ...
    Should be: Unique content can elicit ... Sorry. it's the editor in me.

  • David Sollars

    Belle, I think you've encapsulated how to help and audience find your post and engage with the meaning of your message. I especially like the storytelling section.

    “Because stories allow us to express our values
    not as abstract principles, but as lived experience, they have the power
    to move others.” Marshall Ganz
    Our brains are hard wired for stories and open wide for messages that are framed in a well laid our story. My grand kids never ask for the sequential data of the 3 Bears. they ask for the story! They get all the data points in the context of a compelling story. Thanks for all the connection tips.

  • Jesse Rebock

    This was really cool! Awesome info, at least for a start for a beginner like me. Digging it, saving it for reference, and sharing it.

  • jmrowland

    These tricks (tricks, as in deceptions — not tips) have been so done to death that using them will brand your website as slutty. When I read a "10 Surprising Things" blog post, I read it in spite of the title, not because of it. Such a title telegraphs to me "You're about to be scammed, not informed." How about just attracting quality readership by building a reputation for good writing and real information?

  • Amy Campbell

    Agreed. These headlines have become so ubiquitous and the content usually as vacuous I cringe every time I see them. It's lazy and manipulative.