Writing for the web is sometimes billed as some kind of niche activity that requires specialist knowledge. I disagree. Sure, there are some technical tips and techniques that are helpful for making sure search engines like your content and you appear high up in search results (this is called search engine optimisation, or SEO). But on the whole, the principles of good writing for print apply just as much to the web – and then some.
Remember that people don’t read web pages like they do printed pages. Instead, they scan, picking out individual words and, particularly, links. Research on how people read websites has found that four out of five users always scan any new page they came across. It has also shown that reading 100 words from a web page takes, on average, 25 per cent longer than the same amount of text in print.
So what does that mean for anyone writing web or intranet content?
Make an impact, make it clear, make it brief
Because people scan web pages, your headings and subheadings are even more important. They help readers easily identify content they might be interested in. Make headings clear and informative and avoid clever puns (especially when catering for international users).
A visit to the BBC website, one of the world’s best news websites, reveals a list of headlines like these:
- Italy buries first quake victims
- Romania blamed over Moldova riots
- Ten arrested in UK anti-terrorism raids
- Villagers hurt in West Bank clash Mass
- Thai protest over leadership
Across these examples, the average headline consumes a mere five words and 34 characters.
As well as spending time honing your headlines, other tips for writing for scanners include:
- cover one idea per paragraph. Users often only read the first sentence or even just the first few words of a paragraph.
- avoid long, uniform blocks of text; users will be discouraged from scanning when faced with such density. Break up your text into shorter paragraphs than you normally would.
- write even shorter sentences than you ordinarily would.
- write half the amount (or less) than you would with conventional writing. move detailed information to secondary pages.
- use bulleted lists to relieve the user’s eye. Bullet points also have the advantage of bringing important points to a scanner’s attention.
- if you’re writing a long piece of content (whether a web page or a document for on-screen reading), start with a contents list that allows people to jump to the content they’re interested in.
- include a prominent call to action, such as a link or an invitation to contact someone by phone or email.