A few important guidelines are all you need to transition from writing for print to writing for the web. This collection of tips will enhance your web writing skills, attract a larger audience, and keep readers on your site longer.
Write Catchy Titles
A catchy title is a sure way to attract an audience. Without a good title, potential readers will never click on the link to your article in the first place.
Ensure that the title is:
- Clearly states its purpose
- Creates curiosity in the reader
- Properly capitalized (this is partially a style choice)
Brainstorming titles until you find a title that sounds perfect is a great technique. Don’t overlook this step.
Get Your Reader’s Attention
You won’t win with a title alone. It is important to arouse your reader’s curiosity within the first few sentences. You want them to need to click ‘read more,’ as if it were a shiny, red button labeled ‘do not push.’
The opening sentence of a how-to article could be: ‘Do you want to become better at hackysack in only five minutes?’ A narrative post could begin with: ‘Who was that man following me, and why was he wearing a dress?’
Readers Scan For Information
A paper by Jakob Nielson and John Morkes confirmed through studies that readers on the web scan information for the content they are seeking. The article doubly demonstrated its own point by using a literary, academic style rather than a web writing style:
In this empirical study, 51 Web users tested 5 variations of a Web site. Each version had a distinct writing style, though all contained essentially the same information. The control version was written in a promotional style (i.e., “marketese”); one version was written to encourage scanning; one was concise; one had an “objective,” or non-promotional, writing style; and one combined concise, scannable, and objective language into a single site.
Write Concisely, But Clearly
Writing concisely, and with purpose, are of utmost importance. Write short sentences, but remember to provide sentence variety.
Cut words at every opportunity. One way to accomplish this is to use strong nouns for emphasis, rather than adjectives and modifiers such as ‘very’, and ‘extremely’. If something is extremely large, say that it is enormous. ‘Very important’ pales in comparison to ‘crucial’, which uses fewer words.
Another method of eliminating words is to write positive sentences. It takes fewer words to tell someone to do something than it does to tell them not to do it.
Active words give your writing more urgency. Tell the reader who did the action, rather than what was acted on by whom. Are you writing the article, or is the article being written by you?
All of this being said, it is important not to cut words at the expense of clarity. For example, don’t hesitate to use proper nouns more often than you normally would. Frequent use of pronouns may confuse a reader who has skipped ahead to a particular section of your content.
Make your most important points at the beginning of your article, and clearly state the subject. Then move on to supporting or anecdotal information. Be sure to end with a conclusion which summarizes the main point of your writing.
What I just described is a style of writing known as the inverted pyramid. It applies both to your paragraphs, and to your article as a whole.
A useful technique for combating the tendency of readers to scan text, rather than reading it completely, is to use headers and titles to organize content. Ensure that your content is organized into logical sections, and arrange content hierarchy by order of importance.
Additionally, paragraphs should be written in small blocks of information. Break complex ideas into multiple paragraphs. Readers will likely give up on a long paragraph, missing important information, or even leaving your site entirely.
This article can serve as a demonstration of the idea: each block of text is only a handful of sentences.
Make sure to include links to supporting information in your article. It’s not an exact science, but don’t use too many links, or too few. Keep the link text short, but descriptive ideally two to six words. Above all, never use the word ‘click’ in your link. Web readers already know how links work.
Know Your Audience
Your content will never be interesting to everyone. You must decide to whom you are writing. Who do you want to read your work?
When imagining your audience, try writing personas. A persona is a profile of a fictional person, complete with a names, a job, and a personality. Use these personas to envision the readers of your site, instead of imagining them as a sea of blank faces. Give it a try. Let your imagination explore. Not only will it help you envision your audience, it is fun to do, and helps build your writing skills.
It can also help to imagine yourself writing to a close friend or family member. How easily might your words flow? Doing this can loosen up your writing ‘muscles’, free you from writers block, and give your writing more direction.
Write Conversationally and Confidently
Try to write the way you would talk if you were able to edit your speech. One of the best ways to attract an audience is to allow your personality to echo in your writing.
Use of the second person (the word ‘you’) is crucial for instructional material. The reader will feel that they are being talked to directly. Frequent use of the first-person (the word ‘I’) will lend subjectivity to your writing and detract from your credibility.
Except for rare cases, never be ambivalent or sound unsure of what you are saying. Readers want to know that you are an authority who is to be trusted. Otherwise, why not read another article by a more confident author? You must write with conviction, and trust yourself to know what you are talking about.
Don’t build up a product or service more than it deserves. If you are speaking about something that is exciting enough for the reader to care, telling them about it honestly will be all that is required to persuade them. Readers will run screaming if they suspect that you are advertising to them, but they will respect you if you give them the simple facts.
Is Profanity Acceptable?
You have likely been chastised before for swearing. Is it appropriate on the web? It depends. If it violates a sites contributor guidelines (as it would here), then don’t do it. Otherwise, know your audience.
If it is appropriate for your voice, and for the audience you mean to attract, then by all means, swear. It can even promote a sense of community within a group. Some writing guides advocate the use of grawlixes—the use of symbols to represent profanity. Presumably, they are not fans of comedian George Carlin, famous for his “seven dirty words”, which were not (at the time) allowed on television or radio in the United states.
Proofread and Revise
You must attentively proofread to ensure credibility with your readers. It’s easy to lose your authority with small spelling or grammar errors. Get another person’s eyes on your writing. Often you will be too close to your own writing to spot simple mistakes.
After finishing a draft, step away from your work for a short time. Return to it with a fresh mind. This will help you spot structure problems, needless words, passive voice, overuse of pronouns, and other common mistakes.
Step away again. Revise again. Cut even more words, but don’t lose your voice.
Is the Beauty of Writing Being Lost?
Some of these tips may seem wrong, and go against your instincts about writing. The evidence is clear. You can fight against these rules, and be left aside, or follow proven web writing strategies and see your writing flourish.*
*Checks will not be honored
My name is Jesse Byars, and I am currently a student at Clark College studying web development. Although writing can be painful (especially personal biographies), I find it to be rewarding more often than not, so I am glad for the opportunity to contribute to this magazine.