How Storytelling Techniques From 4 Famous Novelists Can Help You Bake SEO Into Your Content
Written by Carly Gillis, former creative director at Upworthy and expert contributor
Are SEO and creativity at odds?
It can be tough to write search engine optimized content, not just because there are so many rules, but because it can just feel boring.
For instance, repeating keyword phrases can make copy feel redundant. Using the simplistic language that many optimization programs demand can become mind-numbing. And a couple of wrong moves when you’re weaving in backlinks can make whole sections feel like weird, irrelevant tangents.
But did you know the work of novelists you’ve probably studied — or even loved — are full of best practices for SEO?
Let’s take a look at a few and see how we can use their techniques to help us use SEO without even realizing it.
Ernest Hemingway: Keeping it concise for optimized sentence structure.
If you put any of Hemingway’s stories into a modern SEO optimization program, chances are it’d go instantly green. (We did, it does.) And when you know how he wrote, the reason becomes obvious.
Let’s take an example from a famous short story he wrote in just six words:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
It’s a compelling story because it follows a common axiom of writing — show, don’t tell. Instead of telling the reader how to feel about something, give them the details they need to arrive at the meaning themselves.
However, you can also see Hemingway’s SEO-friendly side quite clearly. It does not use a passive voice, it uses accessible language, and there’s a definitive phrase that sets it apart (a “keyword phrase,” if you will).
All of these are hallmarks of not only his writing style, but of optimized web writing.
Hemingway’s legendary balance between implicit meaning and concise communication is referred to as the "theory of omission"— but just don’t go hog wild with the delete button. When you’re writing for the web, you still gotta be clear. However, keeping Hemingway in mind (or putting your prose through this handy Hemingway app) can help you tell a story like one of the greats while also conjuring the magic of SEO.
David Foster Wallace: Crafting high-quality footnotes for link strategy.
Wallace is a polarizing novelist because of his penchant for extreme length, dense language, and excessive footnotes. At first glance, this may all seem terrible for SEO, but maybe you’ve already noticed that there’s something to that last point.
Anyone who has basic training in SEO knows that linking to both interior pages and exterior sources are important to the health of a web page. And it’s not a far stretch to compare those links to footnotes.
But what makes Wallace’s footnotes, endnotes, and references extra special is that they’re extremely thoughtful.
Wallace knew that his most dedicated audience members were people who would appreciate his references to dense academic studies just as much as pop culture — so he catered his sources in a similar way. He also used his footnotes to expand on the topic of his work in another narrative dimension, catering to his audience’s wandering mind.
Why is it a good idea to be realistic about your audience spacing out? It validates their intelligence. If your copy references an obscure author, know that any loyal reader would probably want to know more about them so they can understand your reference.
Make it easy for them to get clarifying information about details in your article, and they will be delighted.
Jonathan Safran Foer: Visual cadence for mobile optimization.
Why are so many media companies “pivoting” to video? Why do memes and emojis rule our lives? It goes beyond the aphorism of a picture being worth a thousand words — it’s in our DNA.
Humans are visual creatures. Our genetic ancestors were guided through nature and evolution to prioritize the sense of sight, and our brain has the mass to prove it — almost 50 percent of it is dedicated to visual processing. We just love to watch.
Some authors include pictures in their work to appeal to this, and to great success. In the wake of the volumes of fiction that followed 9/11, Jonathan Safran Foer’s massively popular “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” stood out, not only for its engaging story but for its unique use of images and visuals throughout the book — most notably a series of pages depicting a universally salient moment of the tragedy.
The quality of his images is important to note. They are powerful, emotional, and in some cases, a little mysterious, which invite the reader back into the text to learn more.
All of these aspects are best practices to remember when optimizing a web page with images. Not only do modern SEO programs look for images to break up text every 300 to 400 words, the use of keyword phrases in the alt text of such multimedia can strengthen your content’s performance. A picture is worth a thousand words, or at least as many views.
Kurt Vonnegut: The “hero’s journey” for page retention.
How does one keep a visitor on a page? Some rely on cheesy slideshows, content links that feature “lowest common denominator” subjects, or other means to keep visitors clicking. But wouldn’t it be so much more useful to have organic page health rather than relying on click tricks?
Learning the “hero’s journey” story format does just that. In Vonnegut’s seminal speech on the shapes of stories, he discusses three forms of the hero’s journey:
What do all of these have in common? Surprise, adventure, vindication -- are all present. But the most straightforward way of putting it is this: it’s about telling a suspenseful story about a hero finding a unique solution to a universal problem or struggle.
When you give your readers a way to stay engaged with the story of your content, your page retention metrics can become more healthy — because they’re actually entertained.
You can do this in a variety of ways, such as:
Making headers enticing with twists and turns of story.
Inserting an engaging twist or using a listicle in lieu of a typical article.
Interviewing an expert who has struggled with a problem that your audience knows well.
All of these strategies use facets of the “hero’s journey” and will garner healthy, organic page metrics — as well as help you avoid “black hat” SEO strategies that could flag your page as click-bait or spam.
These dudes were way ahead of their time when they refined their craft.
With these nifty reminders, you can bake in SEO without feeling too much like a sell-out — and include some pretty exceptional storytelling techniques that will benefit both the quality and quantity metrics of your content.