Top 10 Tips for Writing for the Web
Readers expect a different experience when consuming information online. While some basic and foundational rules of journalism still apply, others do not. We must adjust our idea of what good writing means when working in digital formats. By following these 10 web writing tips, you’re likely to experience better engagement with users, an enhanced reputation, and greater trust as a resource:
- Be fair and accurate. In this regard, the rules for the Web are no less stringent than the rules for newspapers, magazines, journals, newsletters and other publications. Above all else, be sure the content on your site is always 100 percent accurate and provides a fair picture of your organization. You will lose all credibility with your users if you falsely embellish.
- Keep it short. Scrap the mood-setting, five-sentence introductory paragraph and thenensuing 1,000 words to tell the story. Stick to short paragraphs, two to three sentences—tops—and one idea in each if possible. Target no more than 500 words per page. When posting a long document, such as a magazine article or scientific research, write a 3-4 paragraph description and link to the full article.
- But not too short. Avoid pages with one paragraph and then three-fourths of a page that’s blank. If you don’t have more to say on the topic, consider moving some menu items from the side to below the text, add links to past resources on the same topic—or perhaps re-evaluate whether the page is still necessary.
- Have a conversation with your users, not a lecture. Use active tense, short sentences and contractions. Pretend you are verbally telling the story to someone. What would you start with? What words would you use? How long would the story take to tell?
- Use bullets and numbered lists to emphasize your point. Web readers tend to scan pages quickly and naturally rest on numbered lists or bullet points. Make sure these lists are short, simple and easy to read. One way to add bullets is to include a “tip sheet” with an article, such as “Ways to Donate” or “How to Register”.
- Write for the “middle” audience. Don’t make the content so remedial that longtime readers/members are offended, or too advanced that it alienates readers/members who are new to the profession or in a related field. Aim for the middle, and always provide links to more information if available and easy navigation to a “Contact Us” button if the user needs help.
- Consider all possible layers. Adding layers to an article is an excellent way to convey all desired information without overwhelming your reader. In addition to bullet points, considering offering a bio and photo of the author, links to more information about the topic, a Q&A with an expert in the field, and any multimedia content such as podcasts or videos. Enable readers to easily share content and contact authors or staff.
- Use links to PDFs very sparingly. A PDF is a reproduction of a page or pages in a publication. They are not written in Web style and are cumbersome to navigate. Use only when you must provide the user with a piece of printed material (such as a brochure or scholarly article) and be sure the link on your page has a good description of the PDF file before the user opens it.
- Find an editor. Even the most experienced writers need someone to look over their shoulder. Always ask someone to review your Web document before posting to make sure it is error-free and understandable for the target audience. This step is well worth the extra time – it could save you from an embarrassing mistake.
- Start the story with an effective headline. Web headlines are essential because they are tied directly to the search function. A few rules:
- Create title text of a single line, typically no more than 60 characters. Make sure the first 40 characters of the title describe the topic of the page; titles are often truncated in navigation menus and by search engines.
- Make the first word of the title the most important descriptor of the page: Users often scan down long lists of titles to choose pages. Don’t begin with a generic term such as “Welcome to” or an article (“The,” “A” or “An”).
- The title must make sense when viewed completely out of context. Users should know exactly what the item is about if only the title is returned by a search engine.
- Always write titles in mixed case.
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