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Writing for the Web

© 2012 Elena Fawkner

When researching this week’s article, I went looking for
resources related to “writing for the web”.  I found a great
deal of useful information, which I’m going to share with you
in a minute.  But in my travels, I came across this little gem
from the website of a professional writer, no less, trying to
sell me on why I should use his services if I want to make a
good impression on my website visitors:

-----

“Today's readers and Web browsers demand frankness and
verisimilitude, so your written communications require exacting
professional integrity with accurate and adequate research.

"For concrete, colorful and dynamic written material that willfully
attracts customers, Bob Tony* will work with you to develop
unrivaled written communications for your marketing materials,
grants, newsletters, Web site, or other publications and articles.
To ensure your writing tasks with pacesetting presentation and
unparalleled, consistent editorial power, give your deadlines to
Bob Tony*.”

-----
* Name changed to protect the ostentatious and largiloquent.

Good grief.  “Verisimilitude”?  I had to look it up.  I’m sure you
all know what it means but in case there’s another ignoramus out
there besides me, it means “the quality of appearing to be true or
real”.  How ironic.  “Willfully” attracting customers?  And does
that last sentence even make sense?

Consider that a shining example of how it’s NOT done (writing for
the web, that is).

Before we get to *how* to write well for the web, a brief pause
to consider *why* it’s important to do so at all.  The reason is
that the Internet is an information medium.  As a general rule,
people are looking for information about something when they
come online.  You have to supply some of the information sought
by part of that market (i.e., your target market) if you want your
share of traffic to your website.  You do that by creating quality
content.  In order to create quality content, you need to be able
to write for the web.  Is writing for the web really all that
different from writing generally?  Yes.  And here’s why.

WHY WRITING FOR THE WEB IS DIFFERENT

The first thing you need to understand is how users read on the
web.  Unlike reading a book, online readers scan, or skim, the
page, looking for particular keywords relevant to the subject
about which they are interested.  They don’t start at the top of
the page and work their way down, reading every sentence. 

Some other things you need to know about your typical site
visitor (let’s just call him Sam to make it easier):  Sam detests
hyperbole.  Nothing turns him off faster.  So keep the marketing
hype to a minimum and instead make your content objective
and somewhat restrained. 

Sam is also an impatient sod.  He’s going to quickly scan the
page (as we've seen) and he’s going to rely on your headings
and subheadings to orient himself.  And he doesn’t want to have
to hunt for your point.  Give it to him upfront.  Also, because
Sam really hates this, avoid lengthy webpages that make him
have to scroll to keep reading.  And keep the whole thing short
and to the point besides.  If you don’t, he’s out of there in five
seconds flat.

So, now that we understand a little bit about Sam, what can
we do to capture his attention and keep it long enough to give
him what he wants?

SCANNABLE TEXT

To help Sam scan your text and find what he’s looking for quickly,
highlight keywords and phrases (either by bolding, using color, a
different font effect, whatever will catch his attention).  Make
sure you use meaningful subheadings, i.e. ensure your subheading
makes sense without having to read the text below to put it into
context. 

Avoid lengthy paragraphs and make sure each paragraph deals
with only one idea.  Instead of long paragraphs, use bulleted lists
containing short, high-impact sentences. 

Another crucial point is to use the “inverted pyramid” principle. 
This just means that you state your conclusion or most important
information up front, and then use the rest of the body of your
text to elaborate and explain.  Kind of like a newspaper story.

And because Sam hates to scroll, break your text into logical
stand-alone sub-parts of no longer than a single page (or
screen) and then link (with a meaningfully-worded link) to the
next section which starts on a new page.

FEWER WORDS THE BETTER

Make sure your writing is not woolly.  You need to write with the
precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel.  No superfluous words
allowed.  Write for effect, by all means, but get to the point and
fast!  In other words, be succinct.

CREDIBILITY

Nothing gets that mouse finger itchier than the perception that
the author of the work lacks credibility.  The top three culprits
are hyperbole (avoid marketing hype at all costs and go for
restrained objectivity instead), typos and grammatical errors. 

Sam likes to think you’ve done your homework too so make sure
you include links to reputable sources elsewhere on the web (but
not too many or you risk losing him for good). 

TONE

One of the major differences in writing for the web compared to
other forms of writing is the inherently impersonal nature of the
medium.  Instead of holding a comfortably reassuring book in
his hands, or getting black smudge on his fingers from the
newspaper, Sam’s only contact with you is your words on a
computer screen.  You need to overcome the impersonal nature
of the medium if you expect to reach Sam with your words.  It
is for this reason that “write as you speak” is so much the norm
on the Internet. 

Be informal and conversational in your writing (note, this is NOT
a license to churn out shoddy, unprofessional work- writing
conversationally and informally is every bit as demanding as
writing formally, if not more so) and be personal while you’re at
it (use “you” and “your” a lot).  Most importantly, allow your
personality to come through.  You need to connect with Sam
before he will invest in you so make sure you reach him with
your writing.

DESIGN AND LEGIBILITY

Finally, just because it’s less comfortable to read from a computer
screen than a book or newspaper doesn’t mean you can’t make it
less uncomfortable.  Choose the font you use with care.  Times is
a common default font for a lot of web pages but it doesn’t
“pixellate” well.  Better choices are Arial or Verdana.

Consider your choice of color and contrast carefully too.  A dark
font on a light background is best for lengthy reading sessions but
a light font on a dark background can be effective if used
sparingly.

So there you have it.  Some relatively quick and easy steps
you can take today to make it more likely Sam will get your
message.  And come back for more.

_________________________

Elena Fawkner is editor of A Home-Based Business Online ... practical ideas, resources and strategies for your home-based or online business. http://www.ahbbo.com

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