7 Tips for Writing for Online Readers

By Mark Nichol

For some people, if a topic interests them, they are quite content to immerse themselves in extensive online articles that are otherwise indistinguishable from print content. Most Web site visitors, however, have a different set of expectations when they read on a computer screen.

Nearly every medium has its own rules; here are seven tips to help you write for an online audience, whether you have your own site or blog or whether you submit content to other people’s sites.

1. Write for scanners, not for readers.

Before you buy a book, you probably read the jacket copy — synopsis, testimonials, the author’s biography. When you pick up a magazine or a newspaper, you quickly peruse the headlines.

The same principle applies online: Provide points of entry for scanners — headlines, subheadings, bullet lists, captions. Write clear, concise sentences. Keep paragraphs and other blocks of copy short and tight.

Most important, keep in mind that visitors may never click over from scanning to reading, so pack as much information as you can into the points of entry.

2. Know your audience.
Do you want your readers to geek out about some high tech topic? Do you hope they’ll come back to your site because you rate products effectively and they know they can count on you? Should they leave your site knowing what’s happening in the world today? Is your goal to get them to bookmark your site because you busted their guts with your witty prose? Shape your content accordingly — not just how it reads but also how it appears.

3. Design your content.
Provide visual clues about organization, intent, and content: Make subheadings smaller than headlines. In a heading for a pros-and-cons list, color “Pros” green and “Cons” red. On a site about target shooting, replace the dots in a bullet list with images of real bullets, or, on a gardening site, swap little flowers in place of the dots. But don’t push it — your subliminal messaging should be “See how useful/entertaining this site is?” not “See how clever I am?”

4. Think like a journalist.
One of the principles of journalistic writing is presenting information in an inverted pyramid of vital to trivial, with who, what, when, where, and why (otherwise known as the 5 Ws) right up top. Tell readers what you want them to know, now, and save the background information and the additional details for later.

5. Translate print content.
When you upload copy already published on paper, repurpose it for the Internet: Offer points of entry, tighten and divide complex sentences, break up long paragraphs, and cut extraneous content.

6. Be witty sparingly.
As much as it hurts a fan of punning and alliteration to write this, leave your sense of humor at the door (then sneak it in later). Straightforward headlines make it onto search engines’ search returns and draw readers in; chucklesome wordplay doesn’t. Save the wacky stuff for after they’ve committed to remaining on your site.

7. Link. Link. Link.
When building an argument or providing an example, instead of extensively repeating what has already been published online, insert a link to the source. Don’t fear losing visitors; you’ve followed the rest of my advice, so they’ll come back.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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18 Responses to “7 Tips for Writing for Online Readers”

  • ApK

    These all sound like good tips.
    I’d add your should be a aware that just because you are a good writer or journalist does NOT automatically mean you are a good layout artist or web site designer. If you have both these skill sets, great! Otherwise, try to be objective and be willing to get help in the design and appearance of your online content.

    Mark said:
    >>But don’t push it — your subliminal messaging should be “See how useful/entertaining this site is?” not “See how clever I am?”

    The result of ‘pushing it’ in such matters is almost NEVER “See how clever I am?” It’s almost always “See if you can find anything useful through this mess of distracting noise and clutter!”

    ApK

  • Maeve

    Mark,
    Excellent post that shows as well as tells.

  • Rebecca

    Great tips! Thinking like a journalist is an excellent point. Thank you for the reminder.

  • Terry A McNeil

    Here’s a topic for a post “paraprosdokians” with inherent amusement. To me, they are a great reminder of the richness and diversity of language. Plus, the great fun you can have when creating them.

    Used a lot in comedy, but I am not clear if it is well defined.The word itself is fun too. Imagine how many of your friends associate with these characters. Belong to their clubs? Sit on their boards? Scary stuff.

    Indeed it is a well known that this secret society is more dangerous to our existence than any organized force. So, please be very careful when you are dealing with them.

    Sorry to say I had never even heard of them until yesterday.

    E.g.

    Nostalgia isn’t what it use to be.

    I used to be indecisive. Now I am not sure.

    I didn’t say it was your fault, I am just blaming it on you

    Silly, but profound at times

    TM

    W. Churchill once said

    ” a joke is a serious matter”

  • Lorraine Kennedy

    I’m not sure if this is a “writing” tip or merely a design tip,
    but the width of the lines (used to be) limited to 400-500
    pixels to prevent “getting lost,” between the end of one
    line and the beginning of the next one, when the lines are
    so wide that they require side-to-side scrolling?

    ⇐ ⇐ ⇐ ⇐ ⇐ see how clever I am? ⇒ ⇒ ⇒ ⇒ ⇒ ⇒ ⇒ ⇒ ⇒

  • Tiffany Madison on behalf of Fictionista Workshop

    This article was geared more toward assisting bloggers, but there is also the new phenomenon of the versatile online novelist and reader. Further, many online writers have readers and critics that follow their work and some of these tips also apply, too. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ll be linking this article to some of our instructional manuals for a new writing collective program we launch this month, which is aimed at assisting both online writers and readers in sharpening their skills and honing their talents not only for creating quality web fiction, but also for maintaining a thoughtful, critique culture. A+

  • Cliff

    Point 1, first paragraph: peruse is misused. A common error that has been pointed out in Daily Writing Tips.

  • Leanna

    Terry A Mc.Neil

    thank you for teaching me something. “Paraprosdokians.” What a long word for such a frequently used comedic device.

  • Terry McNeil

    Leanna

    My pleasure

    Now if I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.

    Be wise,

    TM

  • ApK

    “Paraprosdokians.” Fascinating. A writer friend once described that as “the curly-cue principal of humor” because it is paradoxical self-reference–it flips back on itself.

    Another example would be wearing a button that says “Ban Buttons!”

  • ApK

    Would Groucho’s famous “I’d never belong to club that would have me as a member” be a ‘paraprosdokians’ as well?

  • ApK

    …okay, after reading the actual definition of paraprosdokian, I don’t think Groucho’s line qualifies. And the button thing would be a non-verbal equivalent.

    This would qualify, I think:

    “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.”

    p.s. I missed something…is this connected with the blog post topic?”

  • Terry McNeil

    ApK

    Not sure, because i always have a problem remembering the things I forgot.

    Say, you are never too old to learn something stupid

    TM

    p.s. not.. was floating an idea!…this is a word with the personality of an elephant

  • Mark Nichol

    Cliff:

    (blush)

    You’re right. I just read this point elsewhere, too — after I wrote the post, of course.

  • Mark Nichol

    Tiffany:

    As I said, link, link, link. Thanks for spreading the word!

  • Jon

    Great article! I especially liked and agree with this one:

    1. Write for scanners, not for readers.

    I am a big scanner when it comes to blogs, so this one resonated a lot with me.

  • neysa ordaz

    For a beginner to blogging, like me this is exactly what i was looking for. How to jump start my blog and have people want to read my blog and the tools to keep it up and running. i look forward to using your advice to jumpstart my blog.

  • Wendy Housholder

    peruse = 1. Read thoroughly or carefully.
    2. Examine carefully or at length.

    If they would do that, it would be easier for us all =]

    Thanks for a great article!!!

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