How to Write for the Web

A client asked me if I had any tips for writing online, and I salivated at the prospect. I’m just full of brilliant ideas. So I dove into my meticulously organized file of links and articles to find a collection of sources worthy of a college syllabus. Unfortunately I didn’t find much. Either there hasn’t been much written or I’m not as meticulous as people think I am.

So I figured I’d better write it myself. This isn’t anything new, simply tips and ideas I’ve picked up over the years. And much of it should be obvious–this isn’t rocket science. Unfortunately, it’s also not always followed (especially on this blog).

The key to writing for the web is readability. Anything you can do to increase readability is huge. That’s basically true for any type of writing, though certain elements become more important for the web.

Write Short
Brevity is still the soul of wit, even online. Attention spans are shorter than ever and the increased strain of reading a computer screen doesn’t help. So say it succinctly.

Be Scannable
Since time is short, make your writing scannable:

  • Use bulleted lists to highlight your main points (like I’m doing).
  • Use headers to separate each section.
  • Consider highlighting important points in bold text. But remember that the bold text has to be important since that may be all someone reads–“very” is not important. And don’t over do it–your entire sentence is not that important.

Write Helpful Titles
Titles and headlines should be helpful, not cute. A balance between creative and informative is always good, but err on the side of informative. Cute and cryptic will confuse readers and they’ll move on, their busyness overcoming any curiosity. But informative will tell them if what you’re offering is worth their time. Don’t try to cheat or trick your visitors.

As a bonus, informative headlines are often packed with keywords, which will help search engines correctly catalog your content, boosting traffic.

Links Are Your Friend
Use them, but use them wisely:

  • Linking to relevant content is a public service, so do it whenever it makes sense. Don’t be afraid that people will leave your site and not come back–you’re offering a service by linking, and visitors will appreciate that.
  • Just like bold text should be the important text, the linked text should also be important, both because it will stand out and be scannable, but also because the words you link often play into how a page is ranked for a search engine. Linking to your bio with your name will help a search engine know what that page is about. Linking to your bio with “click here” doesn’t help anyone (especially the blind).
  • Links should be descriptive words whenever possible–the name of the site or what a visitor can expect to find there. Avoid “click here” or “web site” or something vague.

Make Life Easy on the Web User
One of the best things you can do is make life easy on your visitors. This might not involve any writing, but simply offering helpful, organized information in a consistent manner:

  • If you link to something non-standard, make it clear what you’re linking to (i.e., a PDF file, an audio or video file, etc.). It’s incredibly annoying to click on something and slow your system down while it downloads a bloated PDF file you didn’t want in the first place.
  • Give people basic information about what to expect (How long is the video/PDF/audio file? Should I be worried about profanity [i.e., will I get fired if my boss sees this link]? Is the source biased or questionable?).
  • Offer the right mix of meta-data–the information that accompanies an article, like the date, byline, categories, keywords, permalinks, comments, summary, trackbacks, tags, related articles, tools (e-mail this, print this, bookmark this, etc.). Obviously the meta-data can quickly get out of hand and overwhelm the user. Offer the most important stuff (and now I’m veering off-topic into page layout, sorry).

Writing is Writing
Writing for the web is just like writing anywhere else. All the same rules still apply: Professionalism is still a must (proof you work, cite your sources and for the love of all things holy don’t ever use ALL CAPS) and personality is still important–nobody wants to read fluffy marketing speak or dour techno babble.

I don’t have specific sources in mind, but usability guru Jakob Nielsen offers some great tips (though he’s often maligned among designers and techies). A recent article on his research includes a lot of the typical tips for web writing.

2 thoughts on “How to Write for the Web”

  1. Excellent tips! (Not that I’m surprised.)

    Steve Krug (pronounced “kroog”) also has a lot of important things to say about usability and writing on the web. I like his stuff a lot.

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