Writing for the Web

Connect with your audience and engage them from your first line to your last.


Writing for the Web

How people read the Web is different than how they read books or magazines or anything else. To effectively connect with your audience on the Web and keep them engaged, you need to understand how reading on the Web is different from other kinds of reading. The biggest difference is that people don’t read webpages, they scan them. As if that weren't enough people give a webpage about three seconds to convince them to keep reading.

When a near-limitless number of alternatives is a click away, going back to a list of search results, your opportunity to engage your reader is very small. Writing for the web needs to match how people read the web.

But don’t worry, you’re going to learn how to write for the web, to connect with your audience and keep them engaged from your first line to your last.

A website is only as good as its content

I have spent a lot of time helping people get their message online by building them a website. It’s fun and rewarding and I still get excited helping others move their conversations online. When I’m finished my work, and they have a new website, the real work of the website is just beginning. A website is only as good as its content and no matter how great the site is, it still needs to be filled with awesome content.

Here are four key things to keep in mind when writing for the web:

  1. Make Your Content Scannable
  2. Keep It Short and Simple
  3. Quality Counts
  4. Have a Great Call To Action

When you finish this article, download my Writing For The Web Checklist to follow these steps every time you write for the web.

Make Your Content Scannable

People don’t read webpages, they scan them. Research shows us that most people don’t read from left-to-right, top-to-bottom when reading a webpage. They read in an “F” shape, like this:

A “heat map” showing where reader’s eyes spend the most time reading content on the web.

This means we need to shape our web content to fit this pattern. This of course is for English readers, which are left-to-right, top-to-bottom readers. If you’re working in a different language that is right-to-left, like Arabic or top-to-bottom, such as Chinese, you’ll need to match those reading patterns.

Here are some things we can do to match the F Pattern:

  • Highlight important words and phrases
  • Use links, bold, typeface and consistent colours to highlight
  • Bullet lists help make content easy to scan
  • Keep each paragraph to only one idea
  • If you put more ideas in, they will get lost when readers skip over them
  • Put your conclusion first and then explain it
  • Use half the words as conventional writing

Links To More Info

Get more information about making your content scannable:

Keep it Short and Simple

People read the web to solve a problem and they are looking for the best answer. Part of they measure “best” is how easy it is to read your content. Unlike a book or magazine, where the reader has committed to reading with time, space and maybe even money, webpages don’t require the same commitment. They are fast and easy to switch and are most likely free.

Lead with your conclusion and then explain it

Lead with your conclusion and then explain it. This is often referred to as the inverted pyramid pattern. This will place your most important content at the top-left of the page, where the most time is spent by F Pattern readers.

Links To More Info

Get more information about keeping your content short and simple:

Quality Counts

Taking the time to proofread isn't some sort of secret sauce for writing for the web. It’s just part of good writing. Don’t think you can skip it when writing for the web. Email and status updates might be less strict on the need for proofreading, but if you’re trying to engage your reader, look your best and make sure your content is well written and error-free.

Writing for the Web is still writing.
Good writing needs to be proofread

I think two great books on this topic are the classic Elements of Style and On Writing Well. Every writer should read these books at least once and preferably once a year.

In particular, a key writing strategy to focus on quality is to write in the active voice. The opposite of the active voice, is the passive voice. Passive voice writing is longer, more complicated and less engaging. Active voice writing is shorter, simpler and engaging. Here’s an example:

Active Voice: You wrote the web page.

Passive Voice: The web page was written by you.

The exception to this rule is when using the passive voice helps deliver great titles, headings and summaries by making the first two words highly relevant. As reported by the Neilsen/Norman Group:

“recent findings from our eye tracking research emphasized the overwhelming importance of getting the first 2 words right , since that’s often all users see when they scan Web pages. Given this, we have to bend the writing guidelines a bit, especially for elements that users fixate on when they scan — that is, headlines, subheads, summaries, captions, hypertext links, and bulleted lists .

Links To More Info

Get more information on :

Have a Great Call To Action

Readers on the web aren't just reading your content. What they are reading is part of a flow of information. They will be quickly shifting to the next piece of content that is part of their flow.

To increase engagement, it is important to provide a clear call to action for your reader. Traditionally thought of as a marketing or sales strategy, where the call to action is to buy — it has become clear that an effective call to action is very useful for all web content.

Help your reader by showing them what to do next

Ask yourself “What is the next thing I want my reader to do after reading my content?” It could be buying something, it could be signing up for a newsletter, following you on twitter or even just inviting them to comment on your article. Whatever that action is, you need to provide the call to action in a clear and compelling fashion.

How can we make our call to action compelling? Here are 5 things you can do to have a great call to action

  1. Use clear, active language like: Call, Buy, Register, Subscribe and Donate
  2. Keep it short and simple
  3. Avoid adverbs
  4. Have a call to action on every page
  5. Make it stand out: position, colour and size

Links

What to learn more? Check out these links:

Write The Way People Read

A website is only as good as its content and most web content is written. To understand what “good” means on the Web, we need to start with thinking how people read the Web.

People don’t read webpages — They scan them

People use an F-Shaped pattern when they scan web pages. They are usually looking for an answer to a question and hunt for that information on the page using headings as key landmarks.

Here are four key things to keep in mind when writing for the web:

  1. Make Your Content Scannable
  2. Keep It Short and Simple
  3. Quality Counts
  4. Have a Great Call To Action

Download The Checklist

Now that you have the tools, you’re ready to write awesome content for the web. To help you when you write for the web, download my Writing For The Web Checklist.

What’s Your Story?

What are your favourite ways to write for the Web? What have you tried that didn’t work? Let me know! Share a comment, write a response or connect on Twitter. I really want to hear from you.