How to Write for the Online Reader
- The differences between web content and paper
- Consider your audience
- Content to include on any website
- The inverted pyramid
- Write in plain language
- Write well
- Change nouns into verbs
- Use an active voice
- Remove Cliches
- Make important ideas areas stand out
- Place keywords in strategic positions
- Apply graphic highlighting
- Use repetition
- Use simple words
- Write text that is scan-able
- Write a great title or subtitle
- Each page must stand alone
- Keep it current
- Effective hyperlinks
- Check, check and recheck
- Ways to check your work
- Works Cited
Recently, a client asked me to rewrite their existing web content on standardization. They wanted simple language, and a friendlier tone to appeal to a variety of visitors. “Standards?” I thought. “How hard can that be?” I opened their ‘about’ page and started reading.
“Standardization is the development and application of standards - publications that establish accepted practices, technical requirements and terminologies for products, services and systems.”
I shook my head and gulped slowly. I’d zoned out after the first few words. After reading the page, I knew nothing about standards. This was going to be a challenge.
Words matter. Your website is your publication, and it will be one of millions passed by unless you get people interested in what you have to offer. How do you know your content is getting in the way? If the user visits your site and asks “Have I come to the right place? I’m not sure what this site is about.” you know you have some work to do.
Your goal: to keep them interested and engaged. When a reader drowns in paragraphs of fluff-filled information, they are driven to move on the next website. Brush up your content by applying some basic rules of web writing and you’ll be on your way to writing well. The user may just come back for a second look, and keep coming back again and again.
There’s an abundance of information pulsing the internet. Some basic differences between online and paper publishing:
- A web user reads 25% slower online than with conventional paper reading.
- Unlike book readers, web readers don’t read all the content. Instead, they scan the page and look for relevant words or phrases.
- Most websites offer informational rather than promotional material. Promotional material is used subtly and is mixed in with the informational style.
- Since internet users all over the world may stumble on your site or land there in search of information, writing for the web requires writing at a literacy level that appeals to a variety of users.
- Because anyone can publish on the web, trust plays a major role in writing online content. Websites need to be clear and credible.
Before you begin, it’s important to identify who your target audience is. If your website profiles the Top 40 on the music charts, it should look and sound different than the copy for a market research company.
How do you identify your target audience? As yourself questions like ‘Is the website geared to business professionals?’ ‘Is the information directed to novices or experts?’ If your writing is directed to the correct target audience, you’ll be able to write in a voice they can identify and relate to.
Determine the reasons users will visit your site, and what information they expect to find there. Then, test out the content with target audience members. Feedback will let you know you’ve used the right approach. Remember the website on standardization? I wrote that content and tested it by having other professionals and web users read it. Good copy engaged them, and I used their responses as a guideline to proceed.
When building any website, a few key components for content need to be considered and included:
Does the website have a clearly identified theme/purpose? Does it fulfill the purpose?
Be clear about who is responsible for the content on your website.
- Who is the author and ultimate responsible for the site's content?
- What is the authority of the author? State your qualifications and professional standing for the product or service you are writing about
- Can qualifications be easily verified?
- Ensure the contact information is available and easy to use. If you include an email address, make sure the person on the other end is able to answer inquiries.
- Is there a disclaimer present and clearly visible whenever the author's credentials and/or qualifications are not appropriate or good enough to ensure the accuracy of the content?
- Indicate if the website is personal and has no commercial purpose. If you are an educational institution, not-for-profit company or association, clearly identify yourself.
- Make sure your website domain name matches your purpose.
- Ensure you website is always available. Consider changing service provider if you experience frequent down time.
- Keep content up to date. Indicate when pages are written or updated by providing the current date.
- Is it complete? Ensure there are no "under-construction" pages or sections.
- Are there any broken links to internal and external pages? Are all images available and correctly displayed?
- Check to make sure interactive pages such as feedback forms, request for information forms, and contact links are working and available.
You want to maintain objectivity when developing content for your website. If your pages provide accurate information and limit advertising you’ve done a good job on presenting your website objectively. A good way of ensuring objectivity: make sure your information or claim is supported by evidence. If you have to have advertising copy on your pages, make sure to separate it from informational copy. It will appear more credible.
What do readers want?
- Write content that is scannable. Readers want to scan text to identify key points and topics. Web users rarely read each page word for word. They scan the page and pick out individual words or phrases, and scannable text facilitates this process.
- Easy navigation. Make content easy to navigate by using titles and fonts to highlight key points and topics.
- Objective language. Users respond to objective language, so get to the point and skip the flowery jargon.
- Write content that is scan-able. Readers want to scan text to identify key points and topics. Web users rarely read each page word for word. They scan the page and pick out individual words or phrases, and scan-able text facilitates this process.
- Easy navigation. Make content easy to navigate by using titles and fonts to highlight key points and topics.
- Objective language. Users respond to objective language, so get to the point and skip the flowery jargon.
Traditionally, when you write, you start with a foundation, expand with supporting information and build to a conclusion. This is pyramid style writing. For example, a typical essay is structured as follows:
When writing for the web, inverted pyramid style writing is more effective, as it helps users scan text. By placing the most important information first, the reader can find essential information quickly and decide whether or not to continue reading. Follow with additional details for users that choose to continue reading.
When writing, we tend to gum up the text with a lot of complicated words and jargon because it appears more academic. We’re afraid of simplicity because we think it will make us look stupid. The result? A block of text that looks like this:
“The challenges of the position surround ensuring the provision of the delivery of the program and carry out the objective in the most efficient manner possible due to the fact that the ever changing profile is subject to the adjustments….”
We read that and think huh? Write in plain language. Keep your information factual and straightforward. Long rambles make you appear less credible and the user leaves feeling frustrated and confused.
A good rule to follow: Write the way you speak. We rarely struggle for the right words when we’re having a casual conversation. If you approach your writing the same way, you’ll find the words flow quickly and sound more sincere. Of course, there are exceptions. Some industries still need to apply a certain amount of technical or industry-related jargon to maintain credibility with their readers, but it can be done so that both industry related users and casual visitors read and feel comfortable with the information on your website.
Stay away from marketing style writing. Boasting that your product or service is the ‘hottest thing ever’ sounds fake and insincere and the user loses attention, fast. Tell them what they want, and tell them quickly, before they go.
A conversational, friendly voice appeals and engages online readers. Your writing style should create the impression that you are confident, energetic, and authority on what you are writing about.
Remember, readers appreciate good writing, regardless of the platform. Here are some ways to maximize the effectiveness in your writing, both online and in print.
Eliminate wordiness. It weakens the overall message and makes you, the writer, appear less credible.
Check out the following phrases and their simple substitutes.
- At this point in time to now
- The nature of the crisis to the crisis
- Due to the fact that to because
- With regard to to about
- It is possible that to maybe
- Upon reflection, I recall to I recall
- In all likelihood to likely
- Has a tendency to to tends to
- In light of the fact to because
Change your nouns to verbs. Nouns slow the reader down by increasing the sentence length. This is a major distraction, especially to online readers.
- Conduct a discussion of to discuss
- Give consideration to to consider
- Made the discovery of to discovered
- Make the assumption of to assume
- Reached the conclusion about to conclude
- Take action on to act
An active voice puts your words in motion and gains credibility. The passive voice is confusing and unclear.
Active: He ran the juice bar at the mall.
Passive: The juice bar at the mall was run by him.
An active voice is often more concise than passive voice. Expressing the same idea in passive voice takes 30% to 40% more words:
Active: In the last generation, the family built a new house and raised a new brood of children. (17 words)
Passive: In the last generation, a new house was built by the family, and a new brood of children was raised by them. (25 words)
Expletives are expressions such as “it is” or “there is” or “it was.” It is better to omit expletives from your writing wherever possible.
Before: It was discovered that one hour lunch breaks were not acceptable by the manager.
After: We discovered that the manager did not want one hour lunch breaks.
Clichés are overused and should be avoided in all writing. Some examples of clichés:
- At the end of the day
- Through the roof
- Step up to the plate
- As easy as pie
- Cutting edge
- A team is only as strong as its players
- Industry standard
- Tighten its belt
- Easier said than done
- It stands to reason
- Nip in the bud
- With all due respect
- Increase by leaps and bounds
- There is no time like the present
- Strike while the iron is hot
- Bend over backwards
- Burn the midnight oil
- Time is money
The most emphatic parts of a sentence are the beginning and end.
Before: The Monster contract will be a money-maker, despite our early concerns.
After: The Monster contract, despite our early concerns, will be a money maker.
Underline, italicize, and bold are effective ways to highlight information. Also, organize a long list of thoughts by using headings and bullets. An example of readability from Jacob Nielson:
Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).
In 1996, some of the most-visited places in Nebraska were:
- Fort Robinson State Park
- Scotts Bluff National Monument
- Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum
- Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer
- and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park
*Example taken from Jakob Nielsen's book Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity (105).
“Startac connects you with people all over the world. Startac is made to handle today’s advanced networking technologies. With Startac, you can easily connect with friends and family, and tap into information all over the world. “
So what product did you just read about? Hard to forget, isn’t it? Repetition is a successful technique to get your message across. It captures the reader’s attention and keeps the focus on the main idea. By repeating key words or phases, you’re also assisting search engine optimization, which we’ll talk about a little later.
Get to the point quickly and clearly and your reader will thank you. Write the message simply and you leave little room for interpretation.
Resist the urge to slip back into using formal language and consider the following simple alternatives:
- Utilize to use
- Subsequent to later
- facilitate to help
- endeavor to try
- initiate to start
- obstacle to problem
Readers don’t have the time or patience to get lost in large blocks of text. When text is scannable, they find what they’re looking for quickly and easily.
- Highlight key words and phrases.
- Use bulleted lists, but don’t overuse them. Use bullets to break up copy but you don’t want to end up with list after list.
- Include one idea or thought per paragraph, and keep paragraphs short. Five or six lines are more than enough.
- Keep one idea per page, if possible. This way, the user does not have to decide where to focus his/her attention.
- Keep line length short, no more than 10-12 words per line.
- Make the text easy to read by using colors that contract. Black text on a white page is the easiest and most acceptable.
- Stick to one or two fonts at most. Using a variety of styles is distracting.
- Use a san-serif font such as Arial, Tahoma or Verdana and keep the size to 10-12 points.
- When considering format, a good rule is to try to stay above the fold. Information that fits the screen eliminates scrolling and the opportunity to miss vital information
A good title makes it easy to determine the goal of the page content. Here are some dos and don’ts for writing a good title or headline:
DO keep titles short. Six to ten words is more than enough.
DON’T use irony. The title is there to label your content. If the title is out of context, you run a higher risk of having users miss your point or your page altogether.
DO write a title that stands alone. A title that stands on its own instantly tells the user what the webpage contains.
DO use words that represent common web searches. This will drive traffic to your pages and get users interested.
DON’T assume you have it right the first time. Write your titles and then let them sit for a while before coming back to them. This will help you make sure they make sense and fit with the content.
DON’T underline. The use of underlined text is confusing because underlining is associated with hyperlinks.
Some examples of a good title:
- Letter Writing Tips for Effective Sales
- Persuasive Writing: Hypnotic Titles
- Top 10 Myths about small businesses
- Vintage Clothing by Steven
You may or may not have heard the term Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Search engine optimization improves the number of visitors to your website from search engine listings, such as Google. How do you optimize to increase traffic to your website? Writing a good title or subtitle is one way. Badly written titles get missed during web searches, because they miss the keywords users use most often when searching on the internet.
Take the following example: ‘Welcome to Optimal Insurance Company’. The user will never start a search with the word ‘welcome’ or the word ‘optimal’, though they may find you by searching ‘insurance’.
Now let’s change it: “Insurance: Home, life, and health packages for your business or personal insurance needs.” A lot more key words have been added to increase the chances of being found on the internet.
How do you know if you’ve chosen the right key words? Conduct your own searches of similar companies or interests and take a look at what they’re using as a guide for your own website.
Remember to optimize every page of your website. Copy the keywords you use on one page to other pages to make them equally competitive.
Write so that your page stands alone. What does this mean? A user may not stumble on the first page of your website. Create each page to clearly reflect who you are and the message you are trying to send. A book is read cover to cover with each page leading to the next one. On the web, each page must stand alone so the written information is recognized and understood. As the web writer, you have to assume that each individual page may be the only part of the website your user sees. One way to make sure your pages stand alone is to print them and look at each one individually. If you still get a good sense of what your product or service is offering, then you’ve done a great job of creating stand alone pages.
In the old days of the gold rush, towns boomed overnight, expanded quickly, and then eventually became abandoned. Many websites fall to the same fate when the content becomes tired and stale.
Keep information current. It’s a great way to let web readers know you are credible. How can you keep the copy moving? Check your website regularly. Freshen up the copy with new stories and information. Remove old content and update headlines so they reflect new developments.
After you’ve perfected the page content, consider writing links that are relevant and compelling. When users encounter hyperlinks, they don’t want to click unless they know where they’re going to end up. If a page loads and the user feels ambushed or mislead, you’re going to have a very unhappy visitor. As a writer, consider where the reader wants to go next, and use the links to get them there.
When you write hyperlinks, don’t use the old method of injecting ‘click here’ into your text. Instead, use short, meaningful sentences to move the reader into action.
Take a look at the following sentence: The Smith Text Editor is current and effective.
Now, try to add some hypertext: The Smith Editor is current and effective.
The sample is ok, but adding the hypertext at the beginning of the sentence cuts the reader off and sends them clicking before they finish the sentence and get a full idea of the subject.
To edit it further: For an informative look at a great text editor, see The Smith Editor
With the last version, the user can read the full sentence and then decide if they’d like to follow the hyperlink to read more.
If the user clicks on a link, reassure them. Try to include the text from your hyperlink in the next page heading so they’ll know they’ve arrived in the right place.
Unless it compromises your page design, it’s best to stick with conventional link colors, so use blue for links, and purple for visited links. Stay away from crazy color schemes and fancy text effects. The familiarity of the standard web colors will add to the user’s level of comfort.
What should be linked?
- Typically, if another company or organization is mentioned, a link to that company website is usually provided.
- Internal links to other parts of a website are also widely used. A company may discuss services on one page and link to a detailed list on another page.
- Hyperlinks to printable pages such as PDF’s.
Check your copy for mistakes. When you’re done, check again. A good writer is also a good reader. Learning to read and identify weaknesses in your writing will make the text stronger every time you do it. Correcting your mistakes is just as important with online text as it is with print. Some good reasons to check your work:
- Glaring errors annoy users
- A well edited website tells the user you are credible and establishes trust
- A well written website can generate interest in the product or service you offer.
- Put the piece aside for a day or two. Coming back to it will allow you to see your work with a fresh pair of eyes.
- Use spell check but keep in mind, it doesn’t always catch all errors.
- Read it out loud. It sounds different and you’re able to hear your mistakes.
- Print the page and proofread. Remember, web users scan, they don’t read. The words look different on paper and allow you to focus on errors you might miss on the screen.
- Read the text backwards. Yes really. A writing professor once recommended I read my work backwards. At first, I felt foolish but I was astounded at how many mistakes I caught. Reading backwards removes you from the meaning of the content and allows you to focus on the words and structure by removing the familiarity.
- Check your facts. If you’ve quoted something, make sure your reference actually exists
- Check for the correct spelling of names and titles.
- Get someone else to do the copy editing. An impartial reader is more likely to catch errors you’ve missed because they’re reading your work for the first time and have no expectations.
Above all, remember that you won’t learn to write well by talking about it. You’ll learn to write well by doing it over and over. Give yourself time and practice and you’ll begin to see great results.
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