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How to write for the web

Writing content for online readers is not like old-style report writing. It needs to be fast, smooth and easy to read if you want to keep visitors' attention. Here are some tips.

1

Recognise the arena

The first step is to take on board the importance of reaching your audience through this communication channel - and the need to tune your writing habits to make that work.

Web readers are not committed or obliged to read your words. If a page looks like it'll be hard work, they'll walk on by. If they get bogged down part-way through, they'll simply stop. Each paragraph has to earn their attention to the next one.

Reading on screens is a more difficult experience than paper for many people, so their tolerance for anything that makes it harder is low. And nowadays you don't know what size or quality of screen your reader will be using. Big wodges of text look even bigger on a phone. Use a website template that is Responsive to the device it is being viewed on.

Just cranking out any old text is a good way to soak up your time for little benefit.

2

Paragraphs

The most immediately offputting thing to a potential reader is a page that looks like a wall of text. What do you do when you see that? Probably groan inwardly, and only read it if you have to.

Paragraph breaks are your main way to overcome that. Content for web pages (and download documents) should have short paragraphs. As a rule of thumb, no more than 6 lines. Then it looks like bite-sized chunks of info: we won't get lost inside enormous lumps of text, and we can digest each idea before moving on to the next.

Vary the length of your paragraphs too. This gives a sense of variety rather than monotony, and makes the page easier to navigate visually. It also plays with the rhythm of the writing. A 1-2-line paragraph is punchy, and gets the reader's attention. It's particularly good to make a point that challenges them somehow (which you then go on to unpack).

Make the first paragraph on the page short, telling them what they're about to read in 1-2 sentences. That helps the right audience for the page to be clear that they should carry on. The wrong audience sees that it's not for them and appreciates you saving them time.

3

Headings

For any content longer than a few paragraphs, it's important to break it up into sections with descriptive headings. That's especially true if you're working through different ideas, or major steps of an argument.

Headings are like signposts along a road. A lot of visitors to a web page start by scanning it rather than reading through, and the headings show them the shape of the content. If that interests them they might read it start to finish, or just dip into particular bits. You can't control that behaviour! You can only make it easier and more productive for them.

When someone is reading your content, headings help them keep track of where they are. So sections shouldn't be too long, because you want readers to always have a heading in sight or be able to get to one quickly.

Moreover, you might want to make your headlines in a way that they capture readers' attention. To do that, use numbers and statistics, try to be original and even mysterious. Here's more on how to write a headline that's catchy.

4

Sentences

The full stop is one of the most powerful pieces of technology a writer has.

If you start a new idea, start a new sentence. If you're making a sentence of many parts, and using colons, semicolons or dashes - especially if you're wondering which of those to use - it's often better to go for the full stop. Make the bits their own sentences. Keep it simple.

If the reader has to focus on navigating their way through a winding, overgrown sentence, they've taken their attention away from what you're trying to say.

5

Style

What words do you choose, and how do you put them together to make sentences? That determines how your writing 'sounds' to the reader.

Web writing needs to sound like speech, while giving info more clearly and being more correct than speech usually is. It needs to feel like a really useful conversation between equals.

Is your website working for you or against you? Is there a call to action in the content or does the page style drive visitors away? This KnowHow article provides tips on making sure your website gives out the right message.

I often talk about a 'journalistic' style as opposed to 'bureaucratic' or 'poetic' ones. Organisation cultures in the voluntary and public sectors can breed bad habits, like jargon and convoluted sentence structure. People pick them up because they see others doing them.

Have you ever had one of those letters that makes you think, "Nobody talks like this"?

Thankfully most organisations recognise the need for plain English now. But watch out, and if you catch yourself saying, "Notwithstanding the negative impact to yourself at the present time", rap your knuckles with a dictionary!

Further information

Tim runs Words That Change The World, helping changemakers to get their messages across. There are resources on the site that can help with the topics in this how-to. See also the book, The Radio-Controlled Message Bottle.

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Page last edited Jun 23, 2017 History

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