Writing for the Web

I never thought I would feel passe by writing a post about how to write for the internet, but in 2013 I do. The tech world’s attention has drifted to social, to mobile, to the next frontier, and the Web page feels about as fresh as a tower desktop (you know you’re behind the curve when the federal government beat you to the punch). Yet despite this shift in content trends, writing for the Web is still an important skill — one that’s often overlooked.

One reason is that students still learn how to write in the book report or research paper format, with its arbitrary word requirements that encourage droning on for 30 words when 6 would have sufficed.

That said, I’ve written often for the internet throughout my young career and have found a few guidelines helpful.

Writing for The Internet, a primer:

Titles:

  • A page’s titles should be 5 words or less. Avoid jargon.
  • The purpose of a title is to draw a reader in and give a clue to the page’s content. An overly long or complex title will turn away readers.
  • Shoot for the moon: The better the title, the higher it appears in search results.

Tone and voice:

Read the first 20 pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Think about how it’s written. Then do the exact opposite.

  • A clear, straightforward voice works best on the internet. Your content should be approachable to a wide audience.
  • Simple sentence structures rule.
  • Get the point — quickly! Make it easy for readers to pick out key information.
  • Consider readability and grade level. Aim for a high school reading level. These things can help improve reading ease: avoiding jargon; taking a conversational and friendly tone; using short sentences and paragraphs.

Content and layout:

If she can’t read it, try again.

Does your page look appealing to you? What about to your little brother? Your grandmother?

  • Content should be user-oriented and written with a lay audience in mind.
  • Your content should be scannable, shareable and readable. Chunk your texts into several paragraphs rather than clumping together.
  • Because computer monitors are back-lit, reading content on the Web is harder than in print. Thus, shorter text is more reader-friendly. Less than 500 words per page is optimal.
  • When in doubt about content and structure, place priority on being brief and well-organized over everything else.
  • Keep it simple and consistent. Too much variety in spacing and layout kills a page’s effectiveness.
  • Hyperlinks: Longer hyperlinks of 2-3 word phrases are easier to read than one word hyperlinks.
  • White space matters! It’s difficult to read a page with no white space, so paragraph breaks, titles and subtitles are helpful. When in doubt, start a new paragraph.
  • An uncluttered page lets visitors quickly scan for information and plan their next click. You can keep your page clean by allowing for spacing, headers, bullets and lists.
  • Keep images to a minimum: While pictures and graphics do a great job of breaking up text and making a page interesting to look at, more than two per page tends to jumble up the content and make it harder to follow the narrative.
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