Writing for the Web

Over the weekend, I talked to a friend who was stressed out about some web content she was writing. Since most of the writing I do for a “real audience” these days is web writing, I thought I might pass on some of what I’ve learned to her–and to you.

  1. Think short. This is probably the most important thing to remember when writing web copy. Most people don’t have the time or the inclination to scroll down a LONG document or to page through many screens to read. They’re reading quickly before they go to work, or between projects at their desks, or on a cell phone screen in the airport. If you can’t keep what you’ve written below 600 words–and even if you can–consider breaking your piece up into subheads, with each section reading about 150 words apiece.
  2. Web users don’t read; they scan. Understanding how readers use the web is crucial to web writing. Most folks online have found your writing by entering keywords into a search engine; they’re looking for that one bit of information that applies to them. If it’s buried in a treatise, they’re likely to get frustrated and go someplace else.
  3. Search is key. I’m not yet the expert on SEO (search engine optimization) that I’d like to be, but I do know that a lot rides on whether your writing contains words or phrases people are searching. As such, you can throw out that old “print” rule of varying things up by using synonyms, unique phrasing, and SAT-words. Instead, use the words people are likely to be searching–and sneak them in more than once.
  4. Be conversational and clear. Folks aren’t looking for the latest literary masterpiece when they’re reading online. They’re looking for interesting, quick information. They’re also coming from diverse educational and occupational backgrounds. That old rule about writing to a “sixth-grade reading level,” definitely applies to the web.
  5. Be direct. In other words, avoid passive sentence construction. Passive sentences generally add length to your work, and they make the writing lethargic. The New Moon editors’ manual said passive sentences were like, “sentences that lay around in their pajamas and refuse to do any actual work.” You can think of your readers in the same way; while you don’t want lazy sentences, accept that you’ll have lazy readers. Make your writing do all the work so they don’t have to.