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Quick Guide to Writing for the Web

Quick Guide to Writing for the Web

Last night I did a quick experiment. Our teenage cousin who’d come over for dinner, got bored of the adult’s less-than-riveting conversation, and headed off to the computer. Nothing unusual there! After a while, I followed him over and asked if he could show me ‘what he considered’ to be really cool sites.

I wanted to see how he ‘read’ websites. In other words, what value did words have on his online experience? Do words help him navigate? Does he prefer graphics instead?

For someone who spends their working hours building websites, writing articles, and designing user interfaces, it proved to be very interesting.

Contrary to expectations, it was words (including text links, headings and sentences) and not the glitzy graphic design that held the most interest for my friend.

Granted, the design had its place but the majority of his time was spent typing in keywords, reading ‘snippets’ of articles, scanning pages, and jumping from one site to another in search of the next killer link.

From what I could see, the sites he preferred the most used:

  • Short,sharp sentences with clear instructions.
  • Tightly-edited paragraphs that were quick to scan.
  • Meaningful headlines, headings and sub-headings.

Now that we know this, let’s see how you can apply these to your website.

Short, sharp sentences with clear instructions

Today’s web surfers are in a hurry. They juggle many tasks at the same time; several web browser windows are usually open, MP3s are being downloaded; and Jack Bauer is on TV in the corner.

The web surfer (aka your potential customer) faces many distractions. In the midst of all these activities, you need to provide very clear instructions to get this person from point A to B on your site – and without getting lost.

Long, bloated, self-indulgent web writing gets ignored.

Remember: users don’t read on the web. According to research by Sun Microsystems, only 16% read word-by-word, while 79% always scan. [See]

When you’re writing web content, keep sentences short and to the point. Remove anything that holds up the flow of words. Good web copy is like TV advertising. It grabs your attention, tells you what to do and then moves on. It’s written in a conversational manner. No ‘airs and graces’.

Tightly-edited paragraphs help users scan

As well as keeping your sentences nice and crisp, ensure that paragraphs are easy on the eye. As mentioned above, web readers scan paragraphs; in general, they don’t read word-by-word and line-by-line.

They’re looking for keywords that will tell them—in an instant—if they’re on the right page. If they can’t find it, they’re gone!

The challenge for you (as a web writer) is to embed meaningful keywords in your text so both the reader and the search engines will find them.

You can strengthen your paragraphs by following these guidelines:

  • Put the subject in the first line.
  • Use one subject per paragraph.
  • Keep paragraphs under 70 words; there are exceptions, but in general, keep it snappy.
  • Use clear English and avoid hype, acronyms, and terminology.

Jacob Nielsen’s research highlighted that: “Users detested "marketese"; the promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims ("hottest ever").”

Meaningful headlines, headings and sub-headings

Websites are action-orientated. My young cousin wanted ‘to do’ things online. Book tickets, find sports stats, chat, and download files.

Experienced web writers know that every link, image, page heading, paragraph heading, sub-heading, alt text, microcontent, navigation device, sidebar should  encourage the user into ‘doing’ something.

Before you start

Before you write for your readers, you first need to know what they are. To do this, you need to clarify:

  • Who are your typical users? Are they young, wealthy, Asian, homemakers, dyslexic?
    Create a pen-portrait of your typical visitor — and write for that person.
  • What do they want to achieve, for example, buying season tickets for AC Milan. If you know this, then all links, content, special offers etc should dovetail towards them making this purchase.

    Ask yourself: which content is superfluous. Delete all material that detracts from your site’s main objectives. Cut out the waffle!

  • Where to place links, guides, and instructions that will prompt the visitor to explore the site. Not every link needs to say “Click here for more”.

    Hold the user’s hand and take him or her around your site. Show them what’s on offer. Highlight areas they may not be aware of. When they get lost, offer ways back to the start.

Practise Makes Perfect

Effective web writing takes practise. Writing your first essay in high-school took several attempts, and so will sharp, magnetic web words. But it can be done!

Remember: people visit your site for a reason. By writing every sentence with their interests in mind, they will learn ‘how to use’ your site and know where to go next.

Article reprinted with kind permission of Ivan Walsh,a Sales and Marketing writer based in Dublin, Ireland. Learn about Klariti Writing Services at:

09 dec 2003 - 2627


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