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.