Writing for the Web

By Mark Nichol

People read online for the same reasons that they read print documents: to obtain information or knowledge, to complete forms and applications, or to be entertained. The key difference, however, between habits of print readers and online readers is that online readers are more likely than print readers to be researching, not reading. Here are some recommendations for producing successful websites.

Consider these study results:

  • Four out of five people scan online content rather than read word by word.
  • On a typical Web page, readers read only about one-fifth of the content.
  • The more words on a Web page, the lower the percentage of words readers are likely to read.
  • Readers tend to read closer to one-half of online content when a Web page’s text is limited to about one hundred words.

Most of these figures date back to the late 1990s, when fewer people went online, Web design and architecture was less sophisticated, and much of the content was functional (now, many websites, like this one, are equivalent to periodicals or books), but the findings are still essentially valid.

For that reason, clarity and conciseness — advisable in any form of communication — is even more important in online content. In many circumstances, readers will be drawn to easily accessed information. Rather than presenting paragraph after paragraph of content in blocks of text, as is routine in print publication, give readers multiple reference points:

  • Use headlines that are informative first, and clever second, if at all.
  • Break content up into small blocks of text separated by subheadings.
  • Organize brief items into numbered or bullet lists.
  • Provide information in captions for photographs and graphics.
  • Place the most important information at the top of a page or at the beginning of a piece of content.

The primary goal for the owner of a website, whether it’s a commercial site or one whose primary purpose is to provide information or impart knowledge, should be to increase the number of readers and retain those readers. To that end, websites should be designed and organized to help visitors

  • locate what they need or want
  • understand what they locate
  • apply what they locate to satisfy their needs or wants

How do you know what readers want from your website? Try these strategies:

  • Analyze reader communication — comments, emails, and other contact.
  • Engage with readers by asking them directly by email or through the site itself.
  • Note, in your site analytics, the most popular pages and the top word searches.
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16 Responses to “Writing for the Web”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I think that all of the above about writing merely condones people who are simple-minded and who have short attention spans. Don’t do that. Leave them behind in the dust – and let them work at McDonald’s and the Wal-Mart.

    I write on the Web just like I write anywhere else, and the reader should be challenged to learn something. No matter where you are writing, emulate Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Watson & Crick, Arthur C. Clarke, Sir Winston Churchill, Woodward & Bernstein, Martin Gardner, Michael Shermer, and Bertrand Russell.

    Write like you are trying to win the Pulitzer Prize and not the Big Mac Prize.

    Dale A. Wood

  • Kathryn

    Excellent tips on writing for the web. I’m bookmarking this so I can refer to it when I begin my next project.

    I agree with commenter Dale A. Wood that the writing of Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, et al., is far more interesting and entertaining than most web writing. I have been snared many times by a lengthy, superbly written web page that drew me in and kept me there.

    Still, most of my web browsing involves, just as you say, research of one kind or another. I want to find what I need, find it fast, and get on with the rest of my life.

    The one thing I would add to this: Verifiable sources. So often people make claims on the web without providing corroborating sources. Say you’re writing about reusable coffee mugs. Where did you get that statistic on the number of disposable coffee cups heading to our landfills every day? That number is only as good as the source.

    Thanks for a sweet piece, informative and exemplary.

  • Lucinda Plaisance

    People using the web to gather information or complete tasks in short order are not simple-minded, they’re busy. And they don’t need to be “challenged” by a self-important snob who can’t be bothered to consider his (supposed) audience’s needs and preferences.

  • luke

    @Dale
    It depends on what the primary goal of the owner of a website is, of course. Moreover, I don’t understand why simple-minded people and all of those that work at McDonald’s and the Wal-Mart must be left behind in the dust.
    Luke.

  • John

    Mark ~ I’m with Mr. Wood on this point. Unless you are writing instructions on how to assemble a lawn sprinkler, write with gusto. Write with soul. “Write like you are trying to win the Pulitzer Prize . . .”

    And as a side note, quoting statistics from the 1990s doesn’t add steel to your argument.

    John

  • David L Rattigan

    “Most of these figures date back to the late 1990s, when fewer people went online, Web design and architecture was less sophisticated, and much of the content was functional (now, many websites, like this one, are equivalent to periodicals or books), but the findings are still essentially valid.”

    At that point I switched off. You basically list all the reasons why that information may not be reliable now, before declaring it all “essentially valid” with no justification.

  • Linda Austin

    I think a lot of this does still stand. People are short for time, it’s not that they are simple-minded. There’s too much out there to read, so you’d better know your audience and the type of posts they like and don’t make them wade through an ocean of words to find the point of your article or blogpost.

  • Warsaw Will

    @D.A.W and John – that’s fine if you’re going to print it off, or if you’re reading it on a tablet. But looking at a standard upright computer monitor is very different from looking at paper, and you need to make allowances for this – form follows the medium, so to speak.

    I think it’s as much about this physical aspect as people having short attention spans: let’s face it, computer screens are not the greatest of reading mediums.

    One thing I’ve noticed, even in informal comments on websites such as this, is that they are much easier to read when the paragraphs are kept really short and spaces are left between them.

    I probably wouldn’t break for a new paragraph here in conventional writing, but I do here (and similarly on my own blog), for ease of reading.

  • John

    Warsaw Will ~ thoughtful point that I hadn’t considered.

    I have recently been wrestling with a corollary of this in the sense of whether to take the plunge and do my reading on a tablet. Maybe it’s too many decades of holding a physical book but I’m having a hard time envisioning reading a novel from a computer screen.

    Thanks,
    John

  • Henk

    This article is a good example how to break your rules. The article has 411 words. Has no subheadings. Has no photographs and graphics. Has no summary (most important information at the top)

  • David Gillaspie

    Writing for the web this way has similarities to screenwriting. The idea being to engage non-readers with your content and make them readers.

    While some complain about writers using lists and bullet points to show the 7 Best Way or 11 Perfect Paintings, the idea is still the same: Help readers get over their inherent resistance to read online.

    Think of the phone text. When that started, did you think a text message was as important as a call? That if it was important, they would call, not text.

    However you get your content up, use it to reach outside the base audience. If it takes a different format, use it. Then get back to winning that Pulitzer. Mix it up. Every fastball pitcher in baseball also has a nice change up and slider.

  • Sherlock Holmes

    People really do have a short attention span, as said. Not many actually set out to find and read quality things on the internet. The just want to be updated about their favorite celebrities and all that.

    As for the medium, it is quite difficult to keep on reading for more than five minutes on a computer monitor or tablet, made all the more challenging and exasperating by long paragraphs.

    And we can all agree on one thing: the quality of english used by many is quite poor because of their ignorance; condensing phrases and clause to acronyms. Now, I use them myself but after a certain point of time they begin to take a toll on your language.

    And one more thing- most blogs are just pure scum; completely oblivious of grammar though the articles of the blog may be actually interesting.

    Put your heart and soul into writing- however minute and insignificant it may be.

  • Tony Ram

    The way people read online articles has changed, Dramatically! We as writers, journalists, whatever position you may hold have to keep up to date with technology. The main reason why people read online is because it is more “convenient” and “practical”. We know the “man” of the 21st century is short on time, you have to tell your story in a way that you can manage to capture your reader’s attention and still be as informative as you can. It is because of this that articles have become just a tad shorter, this does not mean the value will be diminished in the process. The point I’m trying to make is that time is now a key factor in attention spans. We have to be very aware of that. Cheers!

  • Scott Mellon

    I’ve been reading similar advice to that above for at least fifteen years, and I have never been comfortable with it. If you look at what is actually written for the web — Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Salon and this site itself! — they follow none of these rules. Nor should they. These sites consist of articles and essays that follow the traditional norms, and they seem to work just fine.

  • Mark Nichol

    Several visitors have commented about the fact that many people read rich content on the Internet in the same way that they read similar print materials. I agree — I know I do. Others mentioned that this post contradicts its message.

    I’m sorry that I didn’t distinguish between commercial content (websites offering products and services, for example) and practical, how-to-type sites, on the one hand, which this advice largely applies to, and more journalistic and literary content, on the other hand, which can be more substantial without discouraging thorough engagement by readers.

    But webmasters and developers of any online content need to consider that for every site visitor comfortable with dense content, there may be another out there who wishes to be treated more gently and will go elsewhere if not accommodated.

  • Scott Mellon

    And as for the ergonomic arguments against reading dense content on a screen, I have two words: ebook reader (that was one), and tablets. I prefer to read novels on a Kindle than pulp and paper. Reading content such as this site would need a tablet, which I don’t have but should. My bottom line is that writing style should not be dictated by the ergonomics of the desktop, which is a temporary and solvable problem.

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