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Writing for the Web

March 24, 2016

Users read differently on the Web, so we must write differently for them.

Research shows that people just scan on the Web, quickly looking for things to jump out at them. People are much more likely to actually read printed content.

On the Internet, whether your keep or lose a reader depends entirely on whether your content seems relevant to them in the first 2 seconds of their scan.

So, writing for the Web is different than traditional writing. Some tips:

  • Use highly scannable text. Highlight keywords by linking, boldfacing, italicizing, or putting into a heading.
    • Include just one idea per paragraph. Users will miss ideas if you don’t give each idea its own paragraph.
      • This means on the Web, your paragraphs will be shorter — sometimes only a single sentence. It’s okay. Really!
    • Use meaningful sub-headings and plenty of visuals to break up the text.
    • Use lists wherever the content calls for it, either bulleted or numbered.
    • Write numbers and statistics as digits so they stand out more: (so 47%, not forty-seven percent).
  • Repeat your keywords. It may seem a little awkward at first, but this is the Web, so people are scanning, not reading, and it helps users keep track of where they are.
    • Repeat the key takeaway(s) of the page in the title, headings, meta description, body text, image captions, image alt text, etc.
    • Bonus: This is basically search engine optimization, aka “SEO.”
  • Make sure your links don’t suck. This means:

    • Links shouldn’t say click here.
      • First, that may be an incorrect verb; your reader might on a touchscreen device, in which case “tap” would be more accurate than “click.”
      • Second, “click here” tells you nothing about where the destination of the hyperlink — and since links pop out visually when people are scanning, you want link text to describe what the destination actually is.
    • Links should be long enough for a fat finger to tap on a mobile phone.
      • That’s at least 44 characters.
      • A good guideline is to shoot for hyperlink text that’s 2-7 words long — long enough to truly convey the destination and to be easily tappable.
  • Use an informal tone. Forget what your English teacher told you! Those rules were for print.
    • There’s no need to avoid contractions. People use them all the time when speaking, and they give a natural, informal tone that’s appropriate on the Web. (See what I did there?)
    • And yes, you can start sentences with with and, but, or, and so. Yay!

Because the Web is a totally different medium than print. And on the Web, less is more.

A great resource for more info on writing for the Web — and in fact, what I have here is largely adapted from — Jakob Nielsen’s How Users Read on the Web.

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