People read differently on the Web, so you need to write differently for the Web. Surprisingly, very few Web sites take the time to lay out their content in a way that will maximize its readability. An important point is that it is more difficult to read on screen than from paper. This means that if you want to be read on the Web, you must write and lay out your content in a more simple, straightforward manner than you would in print. If you want to ensure that your content has the best chance of being read, focus on:
- Shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs and shorter documents
- Plentiful use of short, punchy, and descriptive headings and summaries.
- Larger fonts sizes and sans serif fonts, because they are easier to read.
- Straightforward, factual prose
Frequently Asked Questions
In What Way Do People Read Differently on the Web?
They scan, moving quickly across text, always looking in a hurry for the content they need. They are very fact-oriented. People don’t read on the Web for pleasure-they read to do business, to be educated, to find out something-so they like to read content that gets to the point quickly.
People like reading short documents, with links to more detailed information as appropriate. If a document is long, and people really have no choice but to read it, significant number of them will print it out, In general, however, long documents tend to go unread.
Why do so many people regard Web content as Poor Quality?
People don’t trust the content they read on the Web because they come across so many Web sites with poor publishing standards. The Web gives everyone access to the tools of publishing, but giving someone a word processor does not make them a good writer,
Too many Web sites lack proper editing standards. They also translate documents that were prepared for print directly to the Web; this may save money in the short term, but if people don’t read the content, it is pointless. Some Web sites deliberately try to mislead people with their content. All this gives poor impression to people who use the Web.
Is writing for the Web a difficult skill to learn?
It is not easy to write well, no matter what the medium is. However, writing for the Web is about concentrating on the facts. You don’t need flowery prose; you must be able to communicate the really important stuff in as few words as possible. This is not an easy thing to do, but with practice, most people can master the basics.
Making it Happen
If You’re not Read, You’re Dead!
The connection between writing and reading is one that is not always considered a surprising number of organizations create vast quantities of content without asking some obvious questions:
- Is anyone interested in reading the content?
- Is it written in a way that accessible?
- How are we going to let people know that we have just published the content?
Less is More
Writing is rarely about quantity, but it should always be about quality. Less is more, particularly on the Web. It is easier to write 5,000 words of waffle than 500 words that are succinct, but 500 words is what is needed on the Web.
Editing is Essential
One of the primary functions of editing is to get a long draft into shape. As George Orwell put it: “If it is possible to cut a word, always cut it.” We all have pet phrases that we love to put into sentences whenever we can. They may sound good to the writer, but very often ass nothing to the meaning of what is being communicated. The Web is about functional writing. Get to the point, then stop.
Keep It Short
When writing for the Web:
- Documents should rarely be longer than 1000 words: 500 to 700 is a good length to aim for.
- Paragraphs should be between 40 to 50 words.
- Try not to let your sentences go over 20 words.
Write for the Reader, Not Ego
When writing, always keep in mind who it is you are writing for. Will they understand what you are writing about? Don’t write to lease yourself-write to please your reader. One mark of a poor writer is the use of big words and convoluted phrases. The good writer is clear and precise.
Focus on the Headings
Headings are important on the Web for two central reasons. First, people scan, so the first thing they often do is to look for headings; if the heading doesn’t attract their attention, then they probably won’t read any further. Second, people use search engines a lot, and the most prominent things in a page of search results are the headings. The heading really has to sell the Web page and convince the person to click for more information.
Writing headings well is an art, but there are a few rules that will help you get the basics right:
- Keep them short. Ideally, a heading should not be longer than 5 to 8 words;
- Make your point clear. For example, “Nasdaq crashes to record low” is more informative than “Apocalypse now for investors!” when talking about a severe stock market downturn;
- Use strong, direct language. Don’t be sensational, but at the same time don’t be vague, and don’t hedge;
- Don’t deceive the reader, for example by using “Microsoft” in a heading just because you think people will then be more likely to read it. The job of the heading is to tell the reader succinctly what is in the document.
In longer documents it is always a good idea to use subheadings, as they break up the text into the more readable chunks that readers like. Subheadings should be used every 5 to 7 paragraphs.
Summaries: The Who, What, Where and When
Next to the heading, the summary is the most important piece of text. It should be descriptive, not wandering or indirect. Tell the reader what the document is about, and who, where, and when the information relates to.
Common Mistakes in Writing for the Web
Not Focusing on the Needs of the Reader
A surprising number of Web sites fail to consider who their reader is, simply adding content for it’s own sake. If you ignore the needs of you reader, then your reader will ignore you.
Putting Non-Web Formats on the Web
Translating a 40-page Word document into HTML is a simple task.; persuading someone to read it is another job entirely. Have you ever tried reading an Adobe PDF file on a screen? It’s a painful experience. How many of your customers have read that PowerPoint presentation you translated into HTML?
Putting Every Piece of Content You Can Find On the Web
The Web is not a dumping ground for content. You might have 50,000 documents, with only 5,000 suitable for your Web site. Publishing the other 45,000 simply waste your reader’s time-not something you want to do.
It is almost impossible to create quality content without sending it through a professional editorial process. No matter how good the writer, their content will always benefit by having it checked over by an editor.
Long, Rambling Documents
If, after reading the heading and summary, the average Web reader hasn’t understood what exactly you are trying to communicate to them, then chances are they will click the Back button. Readers on the Web have become ruthless about their time.
For additional information, read the following articles:
- How to Write Good Web Content: The Bite, the Snack, and the Meal
- Web Content: 4 Fatal Errors of Writing on the Web
- Web Content and the Secret to a Sticky Website that Sells
Excerpted from the book Business: The Ultimate Resourceby Daniel Goleman (Publisher: Basic Books; 1st edition August 16, 2002)
Category: Website Operations