10 Principles of Writing for the Web
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.