Monday, May 6, 2013

5 Tips - How To Write for the Web

Posted by: Britt Ehrhardt, Technical Writer/Editor, May 6, 2013

Writing for publication on a website is quite different than writing for print. Avoid mistakes that chase away your readers--use these tips.

Evidence is accumulating that people don't read online. Instead, they scan, something halfway between watching television and reading a book.

Don't expect your visitors to change just for you and your content. They won't. Instead, meet them where they are.

Writing- Pen & Paper
Photo by Flickr user LMRitchie, CC BY 2.0

1. Short Paragraphs

Paragraphs of 5 or 6 sentences are too long. Write short, perhaps 2 sentences per paragraph.

If you can't identify your main points and pare down your material, find someone who can edit and ask them to do it for you.

Some recommend writing 25-50% less than you would for a hard-copy publication on the same topic.

2. Bullets

Why list items in prose when there is a better option? Advantages of bullets include:
  • more scannable
  • immediately apparent that items are a set
  • inserts helpful and attractive white space on page
But don't create a list with too many items. Cognitive psychology points us to a sweet spot, when it comes to lists of items: 3 to 5, or perhaps as many as 7. 9 is definitely too many.

3. Headers and Sub-Heads

Your headers and sub-heads should specifically describe the content they preface. For example, "Apply for Grant XYZ" is better than "Apply."

Search engines like Google scan the headers and sub-headers you include to help determine where your page should rank in search results. Be sure that your headers and sub-heads include the words and phrases you expect your visitors to search for. This is part of search engine optimization. If you're writing regularly for the web, you ought to read up on that as well.

Also be sure your headers and sub-heads are marked with the appropriate, behind-the-scenes html header tags--h1, h2, h3, etc--so that search engines can find them. A content management system should do this automatically.

Cat reading online news
Photo by Flickr user raoultrifan, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

4. Insert Links While You Write

While writing, not afterwards, you should be identifying opportunities to link related resources, finding the appropriate links, and inserting them. Don't save related items for an Additional Resources section of your content. Related resources are most useful at the moment you read the related content, not 5 minutes later.

Read some Wired articles and examine how often they link their prose. That amount of linking would be a good goal: not too much and not too little.

5. Identify Images and Multimedia While You Write

Examine the websites you visit most frequently. How much of the page is text? I bet it's not much.

It's not OK to write first, and plan to think about illustration somewhere down the road. Instead, write text that can be easily illustrated with a great photo, an embedded video, a chart, or something else visual. Or, start your project with a great illustration and write text for that illustration.

It goes without saying that you'll need to be compliant with all the usual accessibility rules.


What other rules do you write by, online? Share your tips in the Comments, below.

This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network.


1 comment:

  1. These are great tips. I would definitely add keeping your sentences short - try not to exceed about 15 words per sentence. Also, never use the construction "click here" to direct your readers to a link. Always embed the link into your text.

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