By: Jeff Nolan, July 4th, 2013
Several years ago I published a lengthy article called “The Subtle Effects of the Written Word, Why linguistic integrity in Web publications still matters”. The goal of the article was to convince website owners that good writing still mattered in the digital age. One section of the article contained a quick guide, for website owners, about writing copy for a web audience. The guide is intended for website owners with little to no copywriting experience. I’m republishing the guide below in its original form with just a few minor edits for the sake of brevity.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a grammarian to write well. All it takes is a little time and patience. If you have a website and feel it doesn’t quite convey your message as strongly as you’d like, try one or more of the following suggestions.
Write for a Web Audience
There’s a bit of a debate going on between traditional copywriters and those who write content specifically for the Web. Traditionalists prefer to stick with proper sentence structure, paragraph structure, and grammar, while those who write specifically “for a Web audience” advocate using a conversational style with plenty of subheadings and bullet points to break up the copy. When writing for a web audience a conversational style is not only recommended, it’s easier to write.
Changing one’s writing style to suit a medium is nothing new. (Journalists have done it for decades.) The issue lies in the fact that when browsing the Web, readers scan pages looking for quick, accessible information as opposed to reading entire pages from top to bottom.
The act of “browsing” the Web occurs at a faster rate than, say, reading a book or a newspaper, and the point is to absorb information quickly without having to dig through pages of text to do so.
Write The Way You Speak
If you can’t seem to put your thoughts into words, try speaking them out loud. State your topics in the simplest terms possible, then jot them down and form short, concise sentences from the most relevant parts.
When You Finish Writing Something, Put It Aside for a While & Return to It Later
Use this technique to freshen your perspective at any time, whether you’re stuck or not. You might be surprised at how useful a planned distraction can be when it comes to writing. The best part about this little trick is that it doesn’t take long to work – the key is simply remembering to do it.
Break Up Your Copy
Break up large “chunks” of text with subheadings, bulleted lists and smaller paragraphs. Doing so will make your page easier to read.
- Use subheadings generously
- Emphasize important points with bulleted lists
- Break up large paragraphs into several smaller ones
Use Spelling & Grammar-Checking Tools
This one’s a no-brainer. Spelling and grammar-checking tools found in most word processing Apps aren’t perfect, but they’re so easy to use that not using them borders on crazy.
Put Your Most Important Material At The Top Of The Page
Most people browsing the Web want information as quickly as possible, so make it easy for visitors by presenting your most important ideas and facts first, near the top of the page. Put topics of lesser importance further down the page.
Match Link Text To The Right Content
Make sure the text used to describe links within your Web page match the content they’re linked to. In other words, a link such as “our company offers various products for the paper industry” should actually link to a page about products for the paper industry and not to a general products page. Never assume that readers will just figure out how to find what they need from your website. You need to guide them every step of the way.
Avoid Using “Click Here”
Avoid using the phrase “click here” as link text for linking to other pages. It’s a common and natural tendency, but the problem with the phrase “click here” is that it doesn’t describe the content it links to. Readers look specifically for links, subheadings, bullets, and other tidbits of information when they scan Web pages, so it’s best to use descriptive link text when possible; for example, use “Read about our recent merger” instead of “Click here to read about our recent merger.”
A more descriptive link offers readers a reference for the next relevant piece of information. If you take away the descriptive text and replace it with “click here” you take away the point of reference making it more difficult to get information – and chances are your reader will just go back to the search results they came from and look for a website that’s easier to navigate.
Don’t expose your URLs
“URL” is an acronym for Universal Resource Locator. (A URL is more commonly called a link; most links look something like http://www.website.com/somepage.html.) When you give readers with a link to another site, avoid “exposing” the destination URL by making it the link text. Represent the link with descriptive text instead.
“For more information about our membership, go to http://www.website.com/info.html” instead should read, “Our 2004 membership information is now available.” There is one exception to this rule: it is acceptable to use a raw URL within your written content if the link points to a document on another website.
Proofread Your Content Two Or Three Times Carefully Before You Publish It
Besides typos and run-on sentences, check the overall ‘flow’ of your content. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees when you write, so read your material and ask yourself, would you understand the content if you were seeing it for the first time?
Get Help If You Need It
If all else fails and you’re still not satisfied with your writing, don’t feel silly about asking for help (or at least a second opinion). A fresh set of eyes on your work can produce ideas, constructive criticism, or guidance that you might never have thought of on your own.