Five ways to effective web writing

By Bernadette, 15 April 2012

1.    Who are you writing for?

As the writer, you are the tour guide for your website. Your job is to draw visitors in and to keep their attention so that they will not click away to another site.

Your website is likely to have more than one audience, more than one kind of reader. You may be writing primarily for your peers – other professionals in the same field – but you might also want to educate other visitors about your work. To encourage them to spread the word or contribute to your cause.

You need to use language that will communicate to all of your readers. Use the active rather than passive voice as often as possible. Keep your words moving and your reader engaged with simple words and everyday language.

Think about what you want your readers to know and what you want them to do. Think about all of your readers all of the time.

2.    Keep it short

We read from a screen about 25% more slowly than we read from the page – write half as many words (at most) for online reading as you would for print. Keep your sentences as short as you can stand.

Write only one idea per paragraph. Fewer than five lines to a paragraph are fine – as is one line or even one word. Your paragraph is only too short if you’ve left out anything you really wanted your reader to know.

You may share some specialised language with your readers – words you are both familiar with – and these can offer useful shortcuts from you to them. But avoid unnecessary jargon and never use a long word where a short word will do. Long or obscure words will not give your writing authority, they will only annoy your readers who will tolerate these far less than in print – and click away in a moment.

Stay above the fold: online readers hate to scroll below the screen. Another reason to keep it short.

3.     Write to be scanned

Reading from the page can be characterised as reading / studying in a linear sequence.
Reading online can be characterised as scanning / searching in a random sequence.

Online visitors don’t read web pages – they scan them. They scan for key words to take them where they want to go and skip over those parts they care less about. When you write for the web, write to be scanned.

Bullet lists are even easier to scan than paragraphs – but readers can only reliably remember 7 to 10 ideas at a time, so keep them short. No more than seven bullets.

Internal cues will make it much easier for your readers to find what they’re really interested in. If you segment your writing with sub-headings you will make your material much more scannable. They will also help you to organise your thinking. Use two or even three levels of headings: an overall page heading plus sub-heads and sub-sub-heads where appropriate. Sub-headings will also make reading easier for visually impaired users with screen readers.

4.    Use hyperlinks

Use hyperlinks to break long or complex information into multiple pages. Online readers navigate pages via hyperlinks, which stand out and provide more cues as to what the page is about.

If you’re concerned your writing may become too simplistic as it becomes shorter, use hyperlinks to take readers to further information / resources. Keep it short without sacrificing depth by dividing your writing into multiple sections connected by hyperlinks. Each can be brief and yet the full hyperspace can hold much more information than the printed page.

Background information can be relegated to these secondary sections. Information of interest to a minority of readers can be made available via a hyperlink without distracting those readers who don't want it. Divide your writing into coherent pieces that each focus on a single idea. Your reader can then choose the subjects they care about and only download those. Avoid using too many hyperlinks: you want to keep your reader with you, not be distracted by a rash of other choices.

5.    Keep it clean

Take the time to read everything through before you send it live. Typos and spelling errors will undermine your credibility and send readers away from your pages.

Proofread everything before you post it to the web.

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