20 tips for writing for the web
(Last updated 25 April 2012)
The truth is, most online readers don’t care much about how web writers tackle grammar, spelling, and punctuation as long as they get the information they need. That said, good grammar does build trust in your organization. Proper spelling does, too - so proofread your text and ask a professional copywriter to look it over if at all possible.
Here are some of the many tips I give our online clients during my popular “Writing for the web” workshop.
1. Kill your darlings
This is a quote from the American writer William Faulkner. Basically, it means you should take a critical look at what you’ve written. I often discover that if I cut out my first paragraph, I will improve the text 100%. On the web, visitors want you to get to the point. They’re not on your site to admire your fine writing.
2. Apply George Orwell’s rules
George Orwell, the English author of 1984
, Animal Farm
and other classics, has six rules of writing. Here they are – they’re all gems:
1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4) Never use the passive voice when you can use the active
5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous!
3: Build shared references
This is about getting your readers to understand what you already know. For example, if I mention “the soup Nazi”, you may or may not recognize this reference from the TV comedy, Seinfeld
. As writers, we cannot take any chances - our job is to make sure that people understand exactly what we mean and what we say on each web page.
Just for fun, read this description and create a vision in your mind:
“Ordinary 60 W lightbulb with standard screw-in base (E27)”
Pause a moment before you read on. Make sure you see the lightbulb in your mind's eye.
OK, continue reading.
Most people envision a typical frosted lightbulb. Yet, we lack a true share reference – after all, what does “ordinary” mean? For example, is this lightbulb 110V or 220V? Clear? Colored? Frosted? Does the lightbulb work or is it burned out? Do you know what an E27 base is? (probably not: it stands for Edison 27 millimeter, which is something of a defacto standard the world over).
This simple description of the lightbulb left a lot of questions unanswered. As web writers, our task is to leave nothing to chance. And it’s no surprise that marketingexperiments.com discovered long text outsells short text by 41%!
This point could be a whole lecture unto itself. But if you understand the generic principle, you’ll create much better web copy. Here are five tips for creating stronger shared references:
1) Don’t take anything for granted
2) Anticipate the questions people may have
3) Answer questions they didn’t think to ask
4) Examine your content in the context of what your site visitors probably want to do
5) The communication environment will affect the information needed at any given time
4. Write front-loaded paragraphs
Start with your conclusion. Here's an example:
“A special tax on automobiles will be used to finance road safety improvements.”
You can then continue with the rest of the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How questions that you’ll want to answer in your introduction:
“The Prime Minister announced this yesterday at a press conference in London in response to the drastic rise in road fatalities.”
Your site visitors want information fast. Don’t make them wade through a lot of text to get what they need. And from an accessibility viewpoint, putting the conclusion up front means that automatic screen-reading devices (such as JAWS), can “tell” sight-impaired folks what they need to know immediately – including that this might not be the page they want to be on.
5. Accept that people read differently on the web
Reading from a screen isn’t particularly relaxing. The mention of “website” doesn’t conjure up images of a comfy sofa, a crackling fireplace, and a warm cup of tea. Fact: people read differently on the web (and about 25% slower, too). This is what they do:
1) Scan to find areas of interest
2) Scan subheads to zero in on subjects
3) Skim copy for keywords and phrases
4) Read to get detail
5) Click to interact
So, don't get too wrapped up in creating atmosphere. Let your readers get on with the task at hand - whatever that may be.
6. Respect levels of detail
Web readers appreciate getting a basic idea of where they are when they dump onto a page from Google. Levels of detail help establish this understanding, even when other cognitive devices (breadcrumbs, for example) are not available.
In a newspaper, there will be three levels of detail:
- Full story
On a website, you’ll find:
- Label (often the same as the link)
- Short summary (executive summary)
- Detailed presentation (main subject page)
- Supporting evidence (data sheets, photos, and other contextual elements)
When writing web copy, it helps a lot to understand how your text will be used and where it is positioned in relation to other content elements. That means good writers will also understand the structure of the site on which they are working – the information architecture.
7. Don’t make things too granular
“Granularity” means the extent to which information is spread across multiple web pages. Well, sometimes a cracker is better than a handful of crumbs. So make sure that information that is needed simultaneously appears on the same page. This is a particular problem when plucking interesting features from a data sheet available elsewhere on a site. Again, this is directly related to the work you should be doing to create shared references.
8. Define your goal
Before you write anything, ask yourself:
WHY am I writing this
WHAT is my main message
WHO am I talking to?
HOW do I want them to respond.
Hey, no kidding. How DO you want them to respond? This is how you increase conversion rates! When people have made it to the bottom of the wonderful page you created, give them someplace relevant to go! Don’t make them scroll back to the top.
9. Minimize instructions
Here’s a fabulous example from Steve Krug’s outstanding book, Don’t Make Me Think
“The following questionnaire is designed to provide us with information that will help us improve the site and make it more relevant to your needs. Please select your answers from the drop-down menus and radio buttons below. The questionnaire should only take you 2-3 minutes to complete.”
OK. Either folks know what a drop-down and radio button is or they don’t. Is there really a reason to tell people which techniques you've built into your survey? There’s also too much reference to “us” and “we”. You're asking the reader to do you a favor. Act appreciative. ´
Here’s how Steve edited out the instructions and turned the message into something that was useful and potentially valuable to readers:
“Please help us provide better on-line service by answering these questions. It should only take you 2-3 minutes to complete this survey.”
Looks easy, but it requires thought. And you have to be aware of the problem, which you now are.
10. Eliminate “happy talk”
Any page that starts with the word “welcome” needs serious rethinking. Get rid of this kind of crap. As I suggested earlier, Kill your darlings – and cut out the first paragraph. This often helps.
Happy talk is often the result of a copywriter not knowing what to say. Go back to No. 8 and revisit your goals. You should have no problem - unless the page is really unnecessary (in which case it should be dropped).
11. Be objective
Drop the hype. People come to your site voluntarily. You don’t need to make a verbal fuss in the same way you would if you were trying to get a magazine reader to stop and read an advertisement. On the web, you want to get to the point and give people valuable information.
In traditional advertising, we use the AIDA model:
But we're not talking about traditional media, are we? By the time folks have landed on your site, they’ve passed beyond the “interest” stage. It’s your job to create “desire” and encourage “action”.
12. Be personal
Lighten up. Try and use more “you” than “we”. Although your users may be guests in your house, as a good host you’ll want them to feel welcome. Make them feel as though it is THEIR house.
13. Be concise
Get to the point (I know I’ve said it before). Let folks grab-and-go. They’re not here to savour your fine language.
14. Avoid secret language
Acronyms are dangerous. So is industry slang. In the interest of creating shared references, make sure you don’t use words, expressions, or abbreviations that folks don’t understand (“E27” for example). Again, this is about creating shared references. Spell things out as often as you need to – and don’t worry about repetition.
15. Make stuff scanable, skimable, usable
Start by identifying trigger words and keywords make them easy to spot (keyword: “shirt” trigger-word: “non-iron”).
Consider bulleted lists as these are easier to skim than sentences. They improve overview and give you a navigational option (hyperlinked lists) General rule of thumb: use bullets for:
Use numbered bullets for:
- sequential tasks
- lists where the total number is somehow relevant (20 tips, for example)
16. Write communicative subheads
Subheads make text easy to scan, even while scrolling (or perhaps particularly
while scolling). In general, you’ll want a subhead to be visible at all times on your screen.
You might want to consider writing your subheads as questions (as long as you don’t turn your text into a FAQ). In most cases, you should use more subheads online than you would in print.
Good subheads signal that the story is going to get even better. And truly great subheads tell site visitors a story even if they don’t read the details in the actual text:
“I used to be a poor ditchdigger”
“Then I discovered my writing ability”
“Now I am a top content strategist on the web”
17. Write accurate labels
Labels and link text will almost always be the same as the headline of the page on which folks arrive. You want to keep these short and direct. They are often the hyperlinks/buttons on which people are clicking.
Make the first word the most important word. When people scan a page, they rarely read the whole sentence/link, they look at the first word, so make it count!
Avoid “cute” headlines. You need to establish a shared reference. As opposed to the title of a magazine article (which is designed to entice and tease), a good label represents a promise to the web visitor: “If you click here, this is exactly what you are going to get.”
18. Go back and edit your work
Do this before you publish your stuff. Do it after you see it online. Do it again next week (this article will be different the next time you look).
Keep asking yourself:
“Is this clear?”
“Is there a simpler way to say this?”
“Is there a shorter way to say this?”
“Is this even necessary?”
19. Remember to write the “invisible” text
About 10% of all web text is only read by machines - metadata. But it is incredibly important in terms of search engine optimization. Here’s the stuff you’ll need to provide for every page:
Search engines see this first and the title functions as the link on which folks click in Google, MSN, etc. The meta title is primary text in the current search algorithms, so don’t dismiss it lightly! The first word should be the “killer term” but don’t start with the name of your company except on your home page. Most browsers cut the meta title off at about 65 characters, so be concise.
This is the text Google displays on the two lines just under the link, so use it to grab people’s attention and play off your page title. Remember to include keywords and triggers. But kept the description to about 140 characters with spaces or Google will cut it off.
Some experts say that the search engines don’t register the keywords. This isn’t true, so make sure you write them. Here’s how to do it:
- word or short phrase
- new word or short phrase
And remember to write alt attributes for images and graphics, particularly stuff that is hyperlinked. You may know these as "alt tags", which is the incorrect, but more popular term.
20. Don’t let anyone talk you into increasing keyword density for SEO
You cannot bore people into buying a product or exhibiting interest for a service. Keyword density, as a search-engine optimization (SEO) strategy is bullshit, plain and simple. Yes, it will get you a higher rank on Google, but it won't improve your conversion rate. The same is true for keyword frequency (closely related to keyword density even if the official definition is a little different) "Optimization" means getting customers, not getting hits. If you’re really interested in improving SEO, here’s how to do it:
- Write worthwhile content
Build shared references
- Write relevant metadata
Alt text for graphics
- Write clean code
<p>Call to action closing paragraphs</p>
Close “if” and “while” statements
- Get listed:
And in closing…
There’s a lot more to say about the subject, but this should kick-start your "writing for the web" process. Other sources include:
FatDUX bibliography and key links
Very good writing guide from MIT
Excellent links and initiatives from Yale University
Jakob Nielsen’s slightly outdated “Writing for the web”
Sun Microsystems web-writing guide
Books I like
Letting Go of the Words
(Morgan Kaufmann, 2007)
Web Word Wizardry
(Ten Speed Press, 2002)
Web Copy That Sells
Hot Text: web writing that works
Jonathan and Lisa Price
(New Riders, 2002)
Call to Action
Bryan & Jeffrey Eisenberg ( with Lisa T. Davis)
(Nelson Business, 2006)
The Internet Writer’s Handbook
(Allyn & Bacon, 1999)
On Writing Well
The Elements of Style
William Strunk & E.B. White
Content Strategy for the Web
(New Riders, 2009)
Don’t Make Me Think!
(New Riders, 2006)
Blatant commercial plug
I conduct “Writing for the Web” workshops for companies and organizations throughout Europe. These are custom-designed for your own in-house team and can be half- or full-day events, depending on your needs. These generally run from EUR 3,000 to EUR 6,000 plus travel and per diem. Although there are no limitations to the number of participants, 25 per session is a good maximum number. But three to four participants is also fine as there is more time for individual coaching. If you're interested, contact me directly at: er (at) fatdux.com.
In the meantime, I hope you'll follow my ramblings on Twitter: @elreiss.