Writing for the Web (How to Write Effectively for the Internet)

By Stacey Seymour, Peer Writing Assistant

Writing for the web is very different from any other form of writing. Research shows that it takes about 3 seconds for people to decide if a page is worth reading or not. If you’re working with websites at school, for your summer job, or just for pleasure, then you need to know how to tailor your webpage for your readers, so that they stay and read your amazing content.

Why is writing for the web different?

People scan the web – they don’t read it. Jakob Neilson, a web usability consultant, has done lots of research that shows that web users scan webpages for information, rather than reading word by word like they would in a book.

People also tend to read in an F pattern on the web. They start at the top, read the heading across the top of the page, and maybe a few other eye-catching things up there (like lists, numbers, subheadings). Then, they scan down the page from top to bottom.

You can use this research to help structure your pages effectively when you’re writing content.

Practical Tips for Writing for the Web

  • Figure out what your users want: This is the most important element of writing for the web. People are visiting your website for a specific purpose, and if you can figure out what that is, then you can give them exactly what they’re looking for (which is really the goal of any website)
  • Keep it short: No one wants to fight through tons of text to get to the information they’re looking for. Try and keep any content as concise as possible.
  • Use plain language: The language you use when writing for the web should be simple, everyday language. Avoid difficult or overly-decorative vocabulary, but don’t dumb-down your content either. You want to use the same kind of words you use in everyday speech.
  • Put the important information at the top: Make sure that the most essential information can be seen on the screen without having to scroll down.
  • Make the key message of your page clear immediately: The headline you choose for your page should immediately explain what information readers will find on this page. A brief page summary at the beginning of your page can also help with this.
  • Use strong verbs: Since your sentences should be short, use verbs that pack a punch in order to make the action happen quickly. For example: instead of saying “we will articulate and elaborate on our goals”, say “we will explain our goals”.
  • Use the active voice: The active voice usually produces simpler, more straightforward sentences.
  • Use “You” and “We”: Writing for the web is like a conversation, so your tone should be conversational. This means using pronous like “you” when referring to the reader, and “we” when referring to your organization.
  • Use a “top down” approach to paragraphs: Always put the most important information at the beginning of your paragraph, and add less important details toward the end.
  • Chunk your content: Readers online don’t always read from beginning to end. If you can, chunk your content into manageable bite-sized portions of information so that your reader can jump around on your page while still getting the information.
  • Use headings to guide your readers: Headings break up the text and help to chunk your information. Keep your headings informative, and (even though it’s less fun) avoid jokes or puns in your headings, as headings should be as clear as possible, and wordplay can be confusing.
  • Give just enough information: You need to give your readers enough information that they find what they were looking for, but don’t overwhelm them with details.

Remember that your page is there for the reader, not for your organization: Your page needs to give readers the information they’re looking for, not the information that your organization deems is important. Consider the fact that your organization is not who will be using your website. This may be difficult to explain to supervisors and clients who have a very specific image they want to present to the public, so try and work with those people to make your webpage useful for your readers, but also pleasing for your organization.

Photo courtesy of Christian Schnettelker under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.