10 Principles of Writing for the Web

By Mark Nichol

Writing for online reading is basically the same as writing for print publications. “Writing for the Web” is more about the presentation than the content itself, but it does require a shift in thinking and some mechanical changes to prose. Here are some tips:

1. Introductory Text

Site visitors rarely read introductory paragraphs on their first visit. Why? Most people arrive at a site via a search engine, so they often bypass the home page. Others, of course, follow a link to a home page, or click on a Home link inside the site to see what else it has to offer, so an introduction isn’t useless, but make it short and sweet, answering the what and the why in as few words as possible. The same goes for introductory text on interior pages.

2. Points of Entry

Most people scan, rather than read, Web pages, at least initially. Many, of course, read entire articles and essays, but home pages and other top-level pages should catch visitors’ attention with scannable text like linked or unlinked keywords, practical (not clever) display copy (otherwise known as headings, subheads, and the like), and bullet lists.

3. Pare Paragraphs

Brief paragraphs that contain just one idea are ideal for online readers. (See?)

4. Key Facts First

Employ the inverted-pyramid model of writing, based on journalistic style, in which the most important information is featured first, followed by decreasingly significant information.

One advantage of this strategy is the same one that made it integral in newspaperese: If content is too long, it’s easier just to cut from the bottom rather than try to delete passages throughout. (You can always repurpose the deleted content for another article, or, like many online newspapers, have visitors click to a new page to finish reading.)

5. Link In and Out

Provide links to related material on your Web site and on others. Don’t be concerned that visitors won’t come back to your site once they leave; if you routinely send them to good material, and you have good material waiting when they return, they’ll return.

6. Say It Straight

Chant your new mantra: SWYM, MWYS. (Say what you mean, mean what you say.) Objectivity equals authority; avoid marketese, promotional excess, hyperbole — whatever you want to call it. If people trust you to be evenhanded in your writing style, they will trust you.

Also, be literal, not figurative: If, in a heading for a sports story, you use metaphorical language like curse instead of something more concrete like “losing streak,” you lose the opportunity for search optimization.

7. 1st Words Count

Many site visitors scan in a rough F pattern, keeping their eyes on your page’s left-hand margin as they dart slightly along each line before dropping to the beginning of the next. Make the first dozen or so characters in your display type count. Avoid bland and coined terms, and start with keywords.

8. Be Passive

Don’t go out of your way to avoid passive sentence construction, at least in initial sentences. Why? “Mark Nichol recommends that online writers embrace the passive voice so that key information appears up-front in sentences” breaks the rule recommended in the previous paragraph.

Who cares about Mark Nichol? Start with the point of the sentence: “Passive voice is recommended by Mark Nichol to help online writers place key information up-front in sentences.” Of course, you can also place important words at the head of an active sentence: “Passive voice is useful for placing key information up-front in online writing.” (And leave me out of it.)

Note, of course, that not every first sentence in a paragraph or even a section needs to be headed by keywords, but don’t pass up an opportunity to do so.

9. Write Well

The best way to attract visitors to your site is to provide them with high-quality content. It may not get them there, but it will keep them coming back.

10. Break Rules

Disregard any and all of these rules as you see fit, but know them and apply them often.

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10 Responses to “10 Principles of Writing for the Web”

  • Jeff Goins

    #3 is so simple, so true, and so good.

  • L Beauchamp

    First, thanks for your daily writing tips – your enthusiasm for the English language is contagious.

    Second, #9 is a joke, right? Or has a word missing? Write good content, is that what you meant to say? Or did you mean to say “write well”? Or did “good” become an acceptable adverb and I just missed the news?

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Beauchamp, fixed it.

  • Mark Nichol

    L Beauchamp:

    It was a joke, but, like many jokes, it was one that did not fly, but fell flat.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Mark, ops, if you want I can revert the fix 🙂 .

  • Daquan Wright

    I’m starting a blog once my website gets going, thanks for the tips.

  • Leah McClellan

    Hi Mark,

    Just wondering–what do you mean by “introductory text?” Do you mean an “about page?”

    About #3: I’ve been seeing a trend of entire, fairly lengthy posts written with one-sentence “paragraphs.” When the content area is very narrow and the post/article is short, it’s not so bad, since many of them wrap around and create several lines. But when the content area is wide, it’s very hard on the eyes as well as the brain. I feel like I’m on a really bumpy road with my eyes and brain jumping all over the place and it’s just about unreadable. I agree about keeping paragraphs short and using one-line paragraphs here and then, but I think there should be a variety of lengths and all on topic, of course, which is what you’re doing here. Just my two cents–I think sometimes it gets taken to an extreme.

    And I did suspect the “write good” thing was a joke 🙂

  • Alexandra Wales

    I agree with #6 and #7. They are right. I really like all the points that you made. You really do need to say everything straight, and be forward about stuff. It’s the only way to get someones attention.

  • MT Nickerson

    I constantly have to remind myself to include more links- writing is only part of a successful blog and I need to remember not to neglect the total picture.

  • Precise Edit

    Regarding #3

    Any well-written paragraph only discusses one idea. The paragraph is the vehicle for communicating a single idea-whether on the Web or in printed copy. The length of the paragraph is determined by the depth of the idea.

    This is not a strategy for writing on the Web. It is a strategy for good writing.

    Perhaps what you meant is that the writer should focus on a narrow, discrete idea, not a broad, general idea. Thus, if the writer employs the “one paragraph = one idea” principle, focusing on a narrow idea, the writer will create short paragraphs.

    Short paragraphs in Web text are important for 2 reasons.
    1. Readers have difficulty scanning lines when reading on-screen, particularly if the text is in a non-serif font.
    2. Large blocks of text simply don’t look engaging. They may, even, look rather intimidating, thus reducing reader interest and decreasing the ability of the writer to achieve his or her communication goals.

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