How to Write Better for the Web

In 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act. Laws require that the federal government must communicate clearly and effectively with the public. And those laws include recommendations on how to write better. 

The Plain Writing Act’s website says that people read online to get answers. The online reader needs info. She has questions. “They want to know how to do something or what happens if they don't do something and they want to gain this knowledge quickly,” according the website. “Think through the questions your audience is likely to ask and then organize your material in the order they'd ask them.”

All of the advice on how to write for the web comes from understanding how people read online.

How do you read online? Most often, you are looking for specific information, right? You skim text to find the information you need. If it is too long, you click something else. If it is hard to understand, you click something else.

The websites that you go back to are the ones that best anticipate your needs and the ones that clearly answer your questions, quickly and without too much scrolling.

Focus on the Needs of the Reader

What’s the guiding principle of writing for the web? The needs of the reader. Everyone seems to agree: “When writing for the web, using plain language allows users to find what they need, understand what they have found, and then use it to meet their needs. It should also be actionable, findable, and shareable,” according to the Plain Writing Act.

Others put it differently, but mean the same thing: “Focus on the user, not on yourself. Users are self-absorbed and task-focused. Make sure they can complete their task, quickly and easily,” according to a Canadian web style guide.

Keep It Short…

People don’t read online. They scan. In a study of online reading behavior, Jakob Nielsen found that “on the average webpage, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.”

How short is short enough? “If you have a print document that you want to bring to the web remember this very simple rule: a page on the web should be half the length of a similar print document. 300-700 words is a reasonable average length for any online content,” according to guidelines from NYU.

The Plain Writing Act website suggestions that the ideal sentence should have no more than 20 words. And each paragraph should only have about five sentences. “Use dashes instead of semi-colons or, better yet, break the sentence into two. It is ok to start a sentence with ‘and,’ ‘but,’ or ‘or’ if it makes things clear and brief,” the website says.

… and to the Point

What is the main point you are trying to make? Put it first. And state it as clearly as you can. Then show why it matters.

“It’s a lot easier to write social media content when you know exactly what you’re trying to talk about,” writes Kelly Vo. “Get the BIG picture down on paper and it will be a lot easier for you to figure out how to write something that people want to read.”

“When you read a newspaper, news articles put the most important information first. The answer to the question, ‘What happened’ is always up top,” writes Sarah Snow on Social Media Today. “The details come later. Newspaper writers don’t assume that their readers will make it to the end of their articles, so they front load the most important information: Who, what, where, when, and why.”

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Make it clear early on that you have something of substance to offer your reader.

What information is your writing based on? Do you have some new facts to share? Interesting statistics? Images that no one has seen before? Or are you sharing ideas that you’ve gathered from experts?

“Finding sources for information is usually the most time-consuming part of the writing process. But it separates the gold from the garbage, especially online,” writes Snow.

Get Rid of Extra Words

If you can cut a word and the meaning of the sentence stays the same, then that word is extraneous. Cut it. 

Be Correct

Spelling and grammar exist for a reason, as do punctuation rules. They make your meaning clear. If you want your audience to respect you and what you have to say, you’ll need to use these tools correctly.

Two mistakes that are very common on the web are misusing quotation marks and using two spaces after periods.

Grammar Girl says: “The most common question people ask about quotation marks is whether periods and commas go inside or outside … in American English we always put periods and commas inside quotation marks.”

On the topic of spaces after periods, Grammar Girl says: “If you learned to type on a typewriter, you’re going to hate what I say next: Do not put two spaces after a period. Don’t do it. Just use one.”

Many general good writing tips apply to writing for the web. “Write in active voice instead of passive voice. Example: ‘Tim taught the class’ instead of ‘the class was taught by Tim,’” according to guidelines from NYU. Use strong verbs. Avoid adjectives. Be specific.

Make Your Text Scannable

Chunking your content up into smaller sections and using headlines helps make it easier to scan.

There should be multiple entry points into your writing. If the first paragraph didn’t grab your reader, maybe the third headline will.

“Site viewers tend to move through a Web site in a non-linear, unpredictable manner, making web pages more like newspapers than books… When possible use lists rather than paragraphs to make your content easier to scan,” according to guidelines from NYU.

Use formatting like bolding and italics to draw the eye to important points.

Use images. If you have a photograph or an infographic that expresses some of what you need to say, use it. "A picture is worth a thousand words" is especially true online.

Use white space. White space reduces noise by visually separating information.

Write with the knowledge that readers will most likely see random pages on your site first, not the homepage. “If you don’t know where people arrive on your website, go to Google Analytics >> Site Content >> Landing Pages. You can see exactly how many web visitors arrived on each web page,” according to Henneke of Enchanting Marketing.

Use a Conversational Tone (usually)

“Online readers expect a personal, upbeat tone in web writing,” according to guidelines from NYU.

What does a conversational tone sound like? Try writing a bit more like the way you talk. Elmore Leonard wrote, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Use the words your users use. This will not only make sure that your writing is understandable, it will also help your readers find you. By using keywords that your users use will help optimize your text for search engines. (More on writing for SEO in future posts.)

Use pronouns such as "you." It makes for cleaner sentences and more approachable content.

Write for a low reading level. Indeed, the Plain Writing Act suggests: “Use Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics feature—part of the Spelling & Grammar check—to measure your progress as you write and edit copy. Try to make your reading ease number go up and your grade level go down. You can improve your readability by using active voice and short words, sentences, and paragraphs.”

Be Funny (sometimes)

Funny memes and witty hashtags are popular. Most viral content is funny. There is even a study that proves it. Its results state that “humor was employed at near unanimous levels for all viral advertisements. Consequently, this study identified humor as the universal appeal for making content viral.”

Not everyone can do funny. But if you can, do it.

Write for SEO

If you want your readers to find you, you will need to write for SEO. What does that mean? If your web page does not include the words a search engine is searching for, “it is unlikely that your page will rank well, if at all.”

You will need to think about keywords and links. You may need to look at what your competition is using as their keywords. All that nitty-gritty will be a future blog post here on the Ignite Digital blog.