Writing Effectively for the Web

You're good at writing, but can you write for an online audience? Turn your writing upside-down and you're on your way.

Web Writing Guidelines Not the Same as Print

Writing for the Web is different than writing for print. It is 25% more difficult to read on a computer monitor than it is on paper. Onscreen reading is fatiguing to people's eyes. Web content should have half the word count as its paper equivalent. Read on for more guidelines on creating web-readable content.

Writing for Search Engines

Your web pages must be written to be accessible to both search engines and people. Before you start writing a word, you should identify the key words and key phrases for your business. These key words/phrases should be judiciously integrated throughout your content, as well as in your page titles. Your key words/phrases will vary from web page to web page. Work with your web design team to identify which key words/phrases will be most effective with search engines for reaching your goals.

Writing for Your Audience

Your web audience is composed of busy people who are searching for information, and they want to find that information as quickly as possible. Studies show that 79% of users scan web pages instead of read word for word. Your content needs to be scannable. Follow these guidelines to create scannable text:

  • Organize your content into logical "chunks."
  • Provide summaries of the information that allow users to decide if they want to read more.
  • Write in inverted pyramid style—begin with conclusion, details follow.
  • Provide informative headings—not vague, cute, or clever ones. Many people will only read your headings, or a few words or lines of text. Try reading only your headings and see if your message is getting across.
  • Have one idea per paragraph and limit paragraphs to about three sentences.
  • Write topic sentences for each paragraph.
  • Use bulleted lists or numbered lists (use numbered lists only when order is important, such as with step-by-step procedures).
  • Create tables for information that is suited for a table, such as comparison data.

Writing Style

Your web pages need to answer users' questions immediately. To accomplish this, your content needs to be both concise and consistent.

Concise content:

  • Deliver objective content over promotional style—users want facts, not hype.
  • Content should be short, to the point.
  • Write in simple sentence structures.
  • Choose shorter words over longer equivalents.

Consistency is critical to clarity, and clarity is critical to user understanding. Don't confuse your users by calling something one thing one place, and another someplace else, such as "customers" or "clients." Decide on a word and stick with it. Determine your style—will you use "on-line" or "online"? Decide and then be consistent.

Create a style guide and give it to anyone who will be writing content for your web pages. Make it for yourself for an ongoing reference. Next month you may forget what you decided. Give your style guide to your web design team so they can follow your style choices.

Writing for Navigation

It is important to know your audience so you can use words and categories that make sense to them. Avoid using trade terms if they aren't familiar to your target audience.

Keep in mind that web pages aren't like book pages that people read from front to back. Users may come into your website at any point. Each web page should be able to be understood on its own—explain your topic and provide a point of reference.

Your page titles should also make sense on their own and should provide a reference to what the page is about. Each page should be titled differently. (And don't forget the use of key words/phrases in your page titles.)

Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar

Errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation will be noticed and can negatively impact your credibility.

Use of a spellcheck program is mandatory, but your copy should be reviewed again to catch spelling errors spellcheck programs can't, such as "manager" and "manger"—both correctly spelled words with very different meanings.

You'll want to learn, or relearn, punctuation and grammar rules. Obtain reference books and refer to them. The best is still Strunk's "The Elements of Style" which is online at: http://www.bartleby.com/141/.

Pet peeve: its vs. it's—here's the difference:
"Its" is possessive, meaning belonging to or of.
"It's" means "it is" or "it has."
If in doubt, read it as "it is" and see if it makes sense.

Print your pages and read them on paper. Read them aloud. Have others read them, because it is difficult to objectively edit your own writing.

What to Avoid in Your Writing

Avoid the use of the following:

  • Web terms, such as "click here," "this link," "this website," etc.
  • "Welcome" or "Welcome to..." in page titles or as a salutation in page content
  • Use of all capital letters—they are hard to read and may come across as shouting
  • Use of italics—again, hard to read

Overall Content Optimization

You want both search engines and potential customers to be attracted to your content. You don't want to use key words or phrases in ways that may get your site banned by search engines. Take advantage of professional copywriting services to enhance your content properly. They will edit your content to be formatted for both web readability and search engine accessibility. They create page titles, headings, links, and alt tags to obtain the best results. They structure the content for best placement, flow, and navigation for an optimal web presentation. It's been said that poorly written content is the number one reason for website failure. Don't become a web casualty—hire a professional copywriter.

About Cool Plum Design

Cool Plum Design is a full-service web design business. We work with clients throughout the United States who need to represent their business online. We offer quality, customer-focused solutions integrating design, functionality, and content.

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