Web Writing for Beginners
Want more satisfied readers? Make reading worth their while.
Adapted from Web Writing for Beginners: Simone’s Top Ten Tips (personal blog post, July 1, 2016)
Earlier this summer, a question came across the Global Health Knowledge Collaborative’s email list. Conversation on the GHKC list tends to focus around knowledge management tools and approaches, and how to apply them in public health contexts. But the question wasn’t about mobile phones for community health workers, or online repositories for curating documents, or how to organize a knowledge café or share fair. It was this:
“Could you please point me to any short resources (1–2 pages) on how to write effective blog posts?”
Writing effectively for an online audience is a fundamental knowledge-sharing skill — the kind that often gets overlooked when people start talking about knowledge management solutions. These tips aren’t new: I have been writing and editing professionally for nearly 25 years, and I began building and maintaining websites and databases in knowledge management contexts in 1999. I have shared the tips below in various forms with coworkers and colleagues along the way. But that GHKC email question was the prompt I needed to gather and articulate the tips clearly, add some useful links, and share my knowledge about this essential aspect of knowledge-sharing.
Consider Your Audience
1. Think about your readers.
Before you begin writing, put yourself in a reader’s shoes. People read (online, as on paper) to find solutions to problems, get information, be entertained, or be moved or supported emotionally. What are you trying to convey? Is it useful, interesting, motivating, or energizing? Make reading worth their time.
2. Be careful with jargon.
Jargon and abbreviations can be useful shortcuts with the right audience. With the wrong audience, they are actively alienating. (They can also be hard to translate, if translation is a concern.) Use plain language, and spell out your abbreviations.
Jargon can be sneaky: The more you hear it, the more normal it sounds. For example, the expression “thought leadership” is in common use at my workplace. A few months ago I asked my Facebook friends about it — most of them don’t work in public health or knowledge management. Nearly 80 people responded to my post. About 10% felt neutral or grudgingly positive about the phrase. The other 90% felt negative: They found it pretentious, confusing, or Orwellian.
This is not to say “avoid all jargon” — but try to stay aware of words and phrases that could make your audience feel like outsiders.
“Writing clearly” is a huge undertaking, far beyond the scope of this post. Many of my colleagues have advanced degrees in public health; they are used to writing in an academic style, intended for readers with similar expertise. Writing for a general online audience — especially one that includes people who speak English as a second language — means simplifying style without diluting the core meaning.
3. Find your own voice, and use it.
In academic or scientific writing, it can be important to maintain objectivity — to erase the author, leaving the ideas to speak for themselves. But in a blog post or a story, a personal voice creates connection. Imagine reading your piece out loud: Does it sound like you? If you read it aloud, would people listen? Readers recognize authenticity when they see it.
4. Condense your sentences.
Check your writing with a readability tool (like this one). Keep the average sentence length down (15–20 words is a reasonable range, depending on your target audience). A person with the patience to read a 40-word sentence on paper may give up after 20 words on their smartphone. Break up strings of long sentences with shorter ones. (Write music.) Try using dashes and parentheses, too — they help create rhythm and visual space, dividing a long sentence into manageable chunks.
5. Watch the details.
This includes using proper grammar and punctuation. Small mistakes will distract some readers from your ideas. Also, double-check sources and quotations. Illustrating a point with a supporting aphorism from a famous person or a quote from a colleague can make that point memorable — but make sure they really said it. A misattributed or inaccurate quotation can be a big embarrassment.
These are aspects of writing online that even strong, experienced writers don’t learn in other contexts.
6. Don’t paste from Word.
Word is full of background formatting code that does not play well with most websites. If you wrote your piece in Word, copy and paste it into a plain-text editor (like Notepad or TextEdit) before putting it into a website content management system. Yes, you’ll have to re-do links — but that’s less work than cleaning out incompatible code. If you’ll be sending your work to a content manager for publishing, it’s polite to include the URLs of any embedded links, so the content manager can reconstruct the links after stripping out the formatting code.
7. Be aware of length.
This tip used to be “Keep it brief”: When website load times were minutes long and “above the fold” screen space was king, experts recommended 300 to 700 words as a guideline for blog posts. Over the past ten years, with the rise of Twitter and mobile, very short-form writing became popular — but then there was a backlash in favor of more in-depth writing. Now, the “infinite scroll” of reading on a smartphone has become a norm, and it’s not uncommon to see posts of 3,000–5,000 words. (This post is just over 1,400 words.) Choose the length that suits your topic and your readers’ likely attention span — and put an estimated read time and/or a summary of the key message of your post right up front. (Some people call this the “TL;DR” — “too long, didn’t read.”) Here’s a tool that calculates read time.
8. Make your piece scannable.
Most people don’t actually read on the Web. They skim through a page, looking for headings, keywords, and bullets that interest them. Would a reader still learn something from your piece if they read only the first few words, and skimmed through the highlights?
9. Make links meaningful.
Links stand out — so make them mean something. Compare these links:
Which are you most likely to click? All three go to the same item, but the first one is meaningful. Meaningful links also make your piece more accessible to people with disabilities, who may be using a device called a “screen reader.” A screen reader literally reads text aloud. In some modes, it only reads menu items, headers, and link text; it skips all the paragraph text until the user asks for a paragraph. Imagine the difference between hearing “a recent study about the Zika virus…today’s statement by the World Health Organization,” versus hearing “click here … here … click here.”
10. Write a good title.
I’m not talking about “clickbait” (“Top Ten Writing Tips — You Won’t Believe #9!”) — I’m talking about search engines, and what’s useful to humans. If someone were to try to find your piece with a search engine, what would they search for? What problem are they trying to solve, or what gap in knowledge are they trying to fill, that your piece will help them with? Are those words in your title? Are they in your piece? Search engines tend to give higher rank to a post if the words in the title are also in the text. (Read my colleague Liz Futrell’s “To Click or Not to Click: The Art of a Good Title.”)
Managing knowledge effectively includes putting knowledge and experience into forms that other people can find, absorb, and apply in their own work. A clearly written, scannable, low-jargon post will be more engaging and easily absorbed by the people who read it — no matter what technology platforms or knowledge management approaches you use.
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The Exchange is a K4Health publication. The Knowledge for Health (K4Health) Project is supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Population and Reproductive Health, Bureau for Global Health, under Cooperative Agreement #AID-OAA-A-13–00068 with the Johns Hopkins University.
The contents are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the U.S. Government.