Writing Tip: Writing for the Web

Whatever you write for an online environment, be it news, marketing copy, blog posts, sales copy, academic topics, or something else, you have to keep in mind the perks and pitfalls of the environment itself.

Online, readers scan (look over quickly) and skim (read superficially). The next shiny object is just a click away. Screens come in different sizes and resolutions. Internet connections can be fast or slow. How do you get readers to jump the hurdles and stay until the end, pouring over every word?

By making every word count.

Strategies for Writing Online Content

Many people find that reading on a screen is more difficult than reading on paper. As a result, they scan your copy before deciding to read it … if they decide to read it. Headings, lists, tables, and boldfaced terms will be among the first things they read.

  • Headlines and subheads should be interesting and lead the reader through the copy. Although they shouldn’t give everything away, your headings should draw the reader in.
  • Lists and tables are a visually pleasing way to organize information. They’re easy to scan and then skim for details.
  • Boldfaced words stand out. If you bold a word or phrase, it should be important. That might be as far as some readers get.

Readers scan from left to right and from top to bottom, according to eye-tracking studies (one assumes results would be different among readers of languages that do not flow left to right and top to bottom). Your most important points, then, should be at the top of your copy. Journalists will recognize this as the inverted pyramid style of writing. Front-load your sentences and paragraphs with your main points, says The Yahoo! Style Guide.

Front-loading your copy is going to lead to shorter sentences and paragraphs. This is good. Shorter sentences and paragraphs are easier on the eyes online. Think white space isn’t important? Consider this: The second paragraph in this article is 4 lines and 1 word on a printed 8.5 x 11 page, 5 lines on the web page via my laptop’s screen, 9 on the ebook version on my e-reader, and 10 on the web page via my smartphone. Screen size matters.

As a result, a direct writing style is more successful online than an indirect one. Readers are in a get-in, get-out mode. Don’t inhibit that. Use pull quotes to highlight important points:

Eliminate redundancies wherever you can (I can assist with that). Use images, audio clips, and video to help tell your story. It makes the copy on the page more appealing and can say a lot without forcing the reader to read more.

You can also say more with less using links. Linking to more information on your point allows readers to decide if they want more details or not. The link text should be descriptive enough so readers know what they’re getting. For example, look back two paragraphs. You’ll see a hyperlink on this article. This article doesn’t say much about the linked page, does it? In this case it works, because the point isn’t what the article says (although it’s a good one) but the length of a specific paragraph pointed to.

Now look at the paragraph before the one we just looked at. The link there is on inverted pyramid. That’s much better for readers and you. Readers know the page will have more information on the inverted pyramid style of writing, helping them make an informed choice. It’s good for you because readers trust you to send them to relevant pages.

It’s also good for you because inverted pyramid appears on the landing page several times. When the search engine spiders crawl this page, they’ll know that the link is relevant because the hyperlinked term appears several times on the landing page. That fact improves my reputation with the search engines. It will be help push this page higher in search result rankings because the content on it is relevant. (This is only a very simplified explanation of search engine optimization. We’ll go deeper into it another time.)

Finally, remember that even though you are writing for a specific audience, you are also writing for a global audience. “The Web is a global, multicultural environment, so write to appeal to the widest possible audience,” says The Yahoo Style Guide. Yahoo suggests that writers:

  • Keep words and sentences short and simple.
  • Use gender-neutral terms whenever possible.
  • Avoid location-specific references.

No matter which style you write in or what kind of copy you write, your publishing environment affects how you write and how people read. Work the environment to your advantage, and your message will get through.

What do you think? Leave comments below or email me.

About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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