How to write for the web

How to write for the web

By Mark McGrath, July 2016.

People read website content differently from print. They scan instead of read. So you need to write for the web in a way that supports this behaviour.

If you are in charge of content and have hardly ever written or rewritten content for the web, then you need to read this article (or at least scan it).

Why you need to write differently for the web

We know from eye-tracking research that users do not read web pages from start to finish. They scan instead, picking out a bit that interests them, reading some of that content, then scanning the content for more bits that may interest them.

We also know users don't read as much online compared to offline because the lower resolution of online text makes reading harder work, plus the web offers continual options to exit pages.

Knowing this behaviour then, it makes sense to write your text so it's easy to scan and easy to read. This means creating the textual hooks in your content that makes it easy for readers to scan and writing in a succinct, plain-English style to minimise the work your readers have to do.

Make your text scannable

Cut your print content by 25-50%

It's best if we start with this guideline because you will need to adopt a miserly approach to your word output if you are going to be successful in writing for the web.

If you are copying and pasting content from printed material into a website (which I find most time-challenged clients do), then you should aim to cut the word count by 25-50%. A 25% cut is a pass mark, but a 50% cut should be the goal.

I know this sounds hard, but the reality is, if you don't reduce your word count by somewhere near this amount, then the costs of lost readership will far outweigh any potential gains you thought you would make through retaining more detail with less content being cut.

Use the inverted pyramid technique

In short, this means summary at the top, supporting detail below.The inverted pyramid technique for web writing

The inverted pyramid writing technique is to first write a small amount of text that summarises a larger amount of detail below. You should apply this technique on a page, section, subsection and paragraph basis wherever possible.

For a page basis, this means a short summary at the top of the page that captures the essence of what the page content is about. For a section or subsection basis, this means a short paragraph summarising what the section is about.For a paragraph basis, this means a short sentence summarising what the paragraph is about. 

One idea per paragraph

Avoid long paragraphs by sticking to one idea per paragraph.

When you are on a roll writing content it's easy to keep typing as the ideas flow. So before you start writing a paragraph, decide what the idea of the paragraph is about first. Then if you find yourself starting to write about the next idea that follows, stop, hit the return key and start a new paragraph.

Break up your content with whitespace

If you use all of the techniques being recommended here, this will naturally occur. But you need to adopt this mindset to take every opportunity to create plenty of whitespace around your content as this makes it easier for your users to read.

This means inserting line breaks between headings, paragraphs and lists to make sure your content does not look too crowded.

Use headings as summaries

Use headings as short summaries of the content that follows. When writing these headings, imagine that your user is not going to read the paragraphs they cover and will only read the headings instead. Then, from this perspective, write your headings to give the essential meaning of the content that they cover, rather than as a lead-in or content preview.

For example, if you were writing content about the benefits of switching to solar power, a useful heading to use here would be:

Going solar saves you money and helps the environment

The low-value option here would be an introductory style heading such as:

The benefits of going solar

That heading doesn't help you scan content as it doesn't tell you what the benefits are and forces you to read the detail.

Publish lists to break up long content

Enumerating many items in a sentence makes for long sentences and paragraphs, which is something you should be trying to avoid. If you find yourself writing a sentence with numerous colons and commas, then that's an indicator that the sentence needs to use a list instead.

You can turn the following example sentence into a list:

The orchard produces oranges, apples, pears, cherries and bananas.

The list version:

The orchard produces:

  • oranges
  • apples
  • pears
  • cherries
  • bananas

If the order of the items in your list is important and adds extra meaning, then use numbered lists. An example of this would be step by step instructions.

Insert pull quotes

If you are writing long articles, then consider using pull quotes to emphasise essential text.

A pull quote is a featured, styled quote like this:

Pullquotes effectively highlight essential text.

But use this technique sparingly as it's a case of less is more and more is less. The less you use pull quotes, the more impact they will have and the more you use them the less impact they will have.

Highlight keywords

I'll be honest, this technique clashes with my personal preferences on writing style. I think bolded text scattered throughout an article doesn't look that elegant. But you can't argue with the research that shows that when done properly, highlighting keywords provides another way for users to scan content.

The key here is to use this technique very sparingly. Only highlight the most important keywords and phrases and try to limit your highlighting to one keyword or phrase per paragraph. If you think there is no essential keyword or phrase in a paragraph worth highlighting then don't do it.

Publish images

Be visual wherever you can to explain concepts and ideas with images and diagrams. I know this means more work because it's only worth doing with quality images and diagrams, but if you do make the effort to produce good, meaningful images and diagrams, then you will be rewarded for your effort with increased user satisfaction.

Write succinctly with a natural, active voice

Write succinctly

We already recommended reducing your print copy by 25-50% for the web. But whenever you are writing for the web, you should always strive to write succinctly as possible.

Say one thing briefly as you can and don't repeat yourself.

This means deleting any words that don't add any extra value or meaning to your content. Unless you are an experienced, professional copywriter, you are unlikely to write the tightest text first go. Even good copywriters rarely achieve this. Therefore, you need to review your draft copy and look for opportunities to tighten the text.

Use your user's language

If write naturally in the style and expressions your users would tend to use, then you will maximise the comprehension of your content.

When writing content, ask yourself the question, "would this be the way my typical target audience member would say it?" Obviously, this means first identifying the demographics of your target audience before you can answer this question.

If your target audience is mostly not university degree qualified, then you should not be writing academic text. Instead, you should aim to write text that is similar in style to a tabloid newspaper. Conversely, if your target audience is mostly degree qualified, then you should avoid writing in a tabloid style and adopt a more academic tone.

The key here is to know your audience. If you know your audience, then you will know the style and expressions they would be familiar with.

Use plain English

Plain English is a writing style that uses easy to understand, everyday language with an emphasis on using clear, brief text and an avoidance of complex language.

Adopting a plain English style of writing will ensure your text is easy to understand.

If you do have to use jargon or complex expressions, try and include a plain English definition to accompany this text. If you have to use complex language throughout your site, then you should consider creating a glossary section with plain English definitions. 

There are content management system solutions for publishing glossary content and automatically linking listed words to the glossary. For example, Drupal CMS has a glossary module that can produce  and auto-link glossary content.

Use an active voice

Web users prefer to read text in an active voice. It tends to be shorter and easier to read. Text with an active voice means active readers, who are more likely to take the action you want in your website, like signing up to an e-newsletter or requesting a service.

An active voice is a sentence where the subject is doing the action, rather than being acted upon. For example:

Active voice: The XYZ organisation developed the submission.
Passive voice: The submission was developed by the XYZ organisation.

Most bureaucrats tend to write in a passive voice for their communications and writing in this voice becomes habit forming. So if this is you, then you need to use some techniques to break the habit.

Use the who does what approach to writing your sentences. For example:

Active voice: The administrator will review all content before it goes live.
Passive voice: All content is to be reviewed by the administrator before it goes live.

Avoid using terms such as to be or will be. For example:

Active voice: You should consider how you write web content.
Passive voice: How web content is to be written should be considered.

There will be times when using a passive voice is more desirable or necessary. But you should try to minimise your use of writing passive voice sentences.

Test, refine and refresh your text

Edit your text. Repeat.

Editing text is boring. For creative writers, moving onto the next new thing to write is far more appealing. But reviewing and editing your text can provide a great return on your investment. The work you do here removing redundant content and tightening your text will make reading easier for your users, which will ultimately mean more site traffic and more conversions to your website goals (eg enquiries, sign-ups, requests for service).

Test and refine your text

If you are serious about making your web content the best it can be, then you will test your test, either against a readability rating system or with your actual users.

Readability score

There are several readability rating systems for measuring how easy your text is to read. But the Flesch–Kincaid readability test is probably the best known and most widely used of these systems.

You should aim for a Flesch-Kincaid readability score between 60 and 70 for your text because that is what Plain English standard text is rated as under this system (this article has a readability score of 61.9).

If your score here is above that range, then try to reduce the length of your sentences and the amount of long, complex words you are using.

Flesch-Kincaid Readability Score Guidelines
Readability Score Education level Reading ease
90.0 - 100.00 Year 5 Very easy to read. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student.
80.0 - 90.0 Year 6 Easy to read. Conversational English for most web readers.
70.0 - 80.0 Year 7 Fairly easy to read.
60.0 - 70.0 Year 8-9 Plain English. Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.
50.0 - 60.0 Year 10-12 Fairly difficult to read.
40.0 - 50.0 University undergraduate Difficult to read.
0.0 - 30.0 University graduate Very difficult to read.

User tests

Testing your text with your users is an even better strategy than just testing it against a readability rating system. This is because a user test will not only test the readability, but also the comprehension of your text.

You can either run the test remotely online or face to face. You can recruit participants via:

  • a paid service, like User Input (relatively cheap but participants may not be truly representative of your target audience)
     
  • a dedicated recruitment agency (expensive but will deliver you a representative sample of your target audience)
     
  • your own networks (cheapest option but sample may be biased and not representative by recruiting "insiders" who know your organisation and your content too well).

Record each test and ask users to think aloud and identify any text they do not understand or are confused by when conducting users tests.

Refresh your text

It's good to review and refresh you text on a periodical basis. Your content will improve as well as your search engine ranking.

The search engine ranking of your content will be penalised if you do not update your content. With the benefit of time and hindsight, you can usually improve your content. So it makes sense to regularly review and refresh your text.

Setting yourself a timetable to review each page of your site within 12 months is a good strategy.

Conclusion

You will increase the usability of your website content if you write for scannability in an easy to read style. This will translate into greater user satisfaction and better website performance, in terms of SEO and converting website visits into your goals, such as sign-ups or service requests.

Mark McGrath is a Web Consultant and Director of Social Change Media.

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