Wording it well: a guide to writing for the web
There’s a lot of bad writing on the web. This always surprises me, because the reality is that writing online is not particularly difficult once you know what you’re doing. The problem is that, if you don’t know what you’re doing, bad writing can destroy any chance your site has of attracting repeat visitors.
In simple terms, there are two types of web writing: page content and articles. Both have their merits and their limitations, but many of the rules for one apply to the other. Keep reading for my ten top tips on how to make your online writing sparkle.
Less is more
Internet users have very short attention spans. Long paragraphs, which might work brilliantly in print, are very difficult to read, and if a user can’t find what they’re looking for very quickly they will very likely go elsewhere. Write succinctly, keep your sentences short and to the point, and make sure to edit your work down so that your point isn’t lost in the middle.
Break it down
Long articles can be broken down into short sections, making them easier to absorb for online readers. Make use of subheadings to divide the article into its component sections.
Watch your mouth
Tone is important online. Too formal and content becomes difficult to read; too colloquial and you might not be taken seriously. Figure out your audience and who might be interested in what you have to say: those are the people you should be writing for. I wrote an article for Content Formula a while back that looks at tone in more depth.
Tell them what to do!
Calls to action are opportunities for the user to do something. This might be a link to email you, a button to buy your product or even just a bit of text that tells the user what happens next; whatever it is, make sure it’s visible and in the right place on the page. Often, this means at the top where it can be seen immediately, but if you’re writing an article (such as a blog post), don’t forget that people will scroll down the page as they read it.
- Bullet points are great for getting your point across. They:
- Force you to make your argument concise
- Break down an argument into its fundamental parts
- Keep key phrases within the eye lines of your readers
- Look professional and – above all – are easy to read
Some people think that SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is a dirty word, but knowing how Google and other search engines root through websites is vital for making sure people see your site. I’ll revisit SEO another time, but in short: figure out what words people might use to find your site and use them in your content; in particular in your headlines, subheadings and link text.
Learn the F pattern
Eye-tracking studies have shown that people pay more attention to the top left of a body of text, and then will often skim down the left-hand edge, paying more attention to headings they see along the way. This is called an ‘F pattern’, and it should affect how you structure your writing. Start your paragraphs and sections with key phrases and attention-grabbers to keep them reading.
Learn to write
If you can’t spell or punctuate properly, no one will take you seriously, especially if you’re asking for money. If you really have trouble writing, or you aren’t sure whether or not your grammar is correct, find someone to check it for you – either a friend or a professional editor.
Nothing stops people returning to your site more than old or out-of-date content. Keep your site relevant by updating it regularly. Not only will this keep people reading, but it will ensure that search engines pay more attention to your site as well. Blogs in particular tend to do well on search engines, because the content is regularly changing.
We don’t always get it right first time, so keep trying. Malcolm Gladwell noted that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in anything and that most of us will never hit that target, but even so: the more you write, the better you’ll get. Make sure you keep an eye on your site stats and you’ll be able to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Did I miss anything?! If you want help with the content on your site – whether that is a critical eye, an editorial hand or the full services of a writer – then feel free to drop me a line.
Geoff Scaplehorn is a blogger, freelance editor and writer, with particular expertise in producing online content and search engine marketing.
12th May 2010