Summary: Writing for the web is very different from what you learn in school. The rules about grammar, structure, format, and narrative often don’t apply. In this tutorial we identify best practices on how you can improve your web writing, especially if you write for a company, corporate, or government agency.
The University of Chicago “Most users visit a web page for 10-15 seconds. In that brief time, 80% will skim the page for keywords they already have in mind. Therefore, before you begin writing web content, it’s important to understand your audience and anticipate what content and keywords they’re trying to find.”
Why is writing for the web so hard?
It should be easy, shouldn’t it? After all, we read content day in, day out. You’d think we’d have an intuitive feel for what makes good writing. Maybe this is part of the problem. What we feel should be interesting to others, and what actually is are often far apart.
Maybe the problem is the following:
- Reference – as web writing is relatively new, we’re still figuring out the best practices, what works, and what techniques deliver measurable results. What’s gets measured is important, otherwise you can’t determine what makes a difference.
- Style Guides – while offline print has very stringent guidelines for writing, for example, The Chicago Manual of Style Guide, the web is still catching up. Many web style guides I feel are guides written for journalists which have been modified for the web. This makes sense as there are many parallels between effective reporting and web writing. Short, precise, non-flowery language.
How to start writing for the web?
There are two approaches:
- Modify your current writing style or
- Develop a new writing style specific for the web. (NPR Digital has an excellent video and slideshow on the web writing best practices here.)
The second works best.
Because to do so you have to be willing to let go of what you know, search for good teachers, and be willing to be a student again. Not everyone’s ready for that.
Examples of good web writers?
Yu can learn a lot on how to improve your writing from the following:
- John Jantsch – this editorial calendar outlines how to uses social media to workflow his writing.
- Oregon University makes the point that you need to be sensitive to where you place valuable content, for example, above or below the fold.
- Aaron Lee – look at how to builds community using Twitter
- New York University offers excellent tips on how to make your content scannable.
- Usability.Gov has a very detailed set of tutorials on all aspects of developing web content. Scroll down and read Chapter 14 for specifics on web writing.
- Wylie Communications suggest: ‘Get to the point faster. Don’t expect readers to read even the first paragraph to figure out where you’re going.’
- Everyday Hospitals recommend: ‘Use the active voice. Not only is writing in the active voice the most engaging, it’s usually the quickest way to get your point across.’
- The Government Statistical Service remind us that ‘if you have 200 words on a web page, only 30% will read half.’ Their site also offers guidelines on voice, tone, structure, and reviewing.
What are some guidelines for web writing, just to get me started?
- Learn how write interesting headlines. Headlines are the ad for your article. If it’s not interesting enough to get a reader to click on it, what you’ve written doesn’t get read.
- Open with an interesting question, fact, opinion that draws the reader in. Make them want to read on.
- Understand how links should work. Be selective in where and how you add links to your article. You don’t want reader leaving your site too early. But, remember, at some point they will leave. With this in mind, add links that direct them to the sites YOU indirectly benefit if they visit.
- Write short sentences. Read Hemingway to get a feel for concise prose.
- Understand the pyramid writing technique. Journalists will explain this to you. Most magazine articles, especially on newspapers use this structure.
- Create a hierarchy. Build from the top and expand your article as you go down. Neil Patel suggests that you finish with a Summary paragraph. This works very well for longer articles.
- Trigger Emotions. Write to evokes fear, inspiration, or jealousy. Sharing secrets is another way to draw readers in.
- Use statistics, facts, research findings to give your articles more depth. Good examples of this are on the sites.
- Make is scannable.
- Create an editorial calendar. Without this your content will have no structure, no consistency, no unique voice. You’ll look back at it after a year and wonder, ‘what was that about?’ Tip: use Google Calendar to share your calendar across teams.
- Give readers a reason to come back again. Remember, there are millions of sites out there, so what you write really has to stand out. Write content that is so impressive/interesting/unique that they feel that HAVE TO share it.
- Examine Google Analytics to identify the types of posts that get the most traffic, shares, and comments. This helps you examine your materials objectively and avoid gut feelings about what’s working. Facts don’t lie!
- Solve problems. Barry Feldman suggests that you should, “Zero in our goal. The discipline of writing content may resemble journalism more so than advertising, but you need to remind yourself what you’re doing is marketing. You want the reader to respond.”
- Give hope. Trust me on this.
- Forget there is a Back button. If your content dips, they’ll hit Back. That’s what you do, right? They’re the same.
- Try to impress. Let the article do that.
- Write blocks of text. It’s impossible to read.
- Write content that hard to understand at first glance. In other words, develop your content with your readers’ level of expertise, reading levels, and vocabulary.
- Use flowery words to impress your readers or… click Back.
- Forget to close the article with an interesting point, takeaway, or some nugget of information that makes them feel, ‘oh yeah, now that’s something I didn’t know before.’
What else would you add?
PS – The Australian Government’s Dept of Finance offers an excellent 26 point checklist for web writing.