Writing for the Web

To write effective text for the web, it helps to think about how people read on the web. People on the web are busy trying to complete some task–they rarely stop to read unless they are looking for information and they believe they’ve found it.

So how do they read? In a nutshell: they don’t. They scan web pages, looking for something that resembles what they’re looking for.

As Steve Krug says in his book Don’t Make Me Think:

How do people use the web? We usually muddle through, looking feverishly for anything that resembles what we’re looking for that is clickable. If it doesn’t pan out, click the Back button and try again.

We don’t read pages; we scan them.

We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice. (We choose the first reasonable option.)

Good writing for the web should facilitate scanning (not hinder it). There are a few simple guidelines that help:

  1. Start with the conclusion. Use the inverted pyramid style of writing.
  2. Chunk your content into bite-size pieces and use headings to show what’s in each section. Use meaningful words for your headings.
  3. Use bulleted lists. They’re easier to scan than blocks of text.
  4. Talk in the user’s words. Often we get stuck in our own vocabulary and we forget that people outside of your organization/company/industry don’t talk like that. Remind yourself of that and write conversationally, as though you’re talking to the user.
  5. Highlight important information in a block of text. Bolded text works well (as long as you don’t overdo it!)
  6. Cut the fluff. People on the web are in a hurry searching for something. Fluff gets in the way. (BTW, There’s no need to welcome visitors to your site in your text. Your site should feel welcoming–not say it.)
  7. Don’t exaggerate–stick to the facts. Minimize the use of adjectives that hype your message. Just tell the story as it is. Use objective language.
  8. Be concise. Cut the number of words in half.

Follow those simple guidelines and your text will work much better in cyberspace.

Here are some good resources on writing for the web:

  1. Writing Well for the Web from internet.com. Talks about writing style, writing headlines people will read, avoiding common pitfalls, and provides online resources.
  2. Web Writing Basics by Daniel Will-Harris. Gives a nice bulleted list with tips on writing effectively for the web.
  3. Effective Web Writing from New Architect. An article that discusses the different types of web visitors and how to write effectively for them.
  4. Guide to Writing Effective “About Us” Pages from work.com. The About Us section of a site is the place where you have permission to talk about yourself, but you still want to do it in a way that answers customers’ questions. This article is focused on corporations, but still gives good guidelines on what to include.
  5. Writing for the Web from Jakob Nielsen. Several research-based articles on writing for the web: what works, what doesn’t, with tested examples.
  6. How to Write the Perfect About Page provides advice for bloggers on what your “About” page should contain. It made me take another look at my About page and see just how awful it is in a visitor’s eyes. (I’ve made a note to myself to rewrite it.)
  7. The We We Calculator from Future Now. Calculates how customer-focused your text is.  
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