Words are just words right? If you can write for the printed page, surely you can write for the web. Well perhaps not. Writing for the web is a different game. Some of the differences are obvious and some are subtle.
Consider this long paragraph, taken from the home page of a Wellington based website design company (if you get lost in it just scroll down past it):
“We operate our business differently to many NZ Web Design companies out there. Firstly, unlike some other companies, we don’t have free seminars and pushy sales people, trying to hard sell a range of standard website packages. We know that Kiwis hate pushy salespeople. Instead our clients contact us with their requirements, and we put together an individual solution tailored to their needs. Secondly, we don’t have any long term service contracts for our custom website designs. This means that apart from the initial design and setup costs, you only pay for the other services you need, on a month by month term, which you can cancel at any time. No matter what your budget is (as long as it is realistic of course) we have NZ Web Design options to suit most budgets. For budget conscious small NZ business we do also have our Business Starter Website Packages, which are perfect for most small NZ businesses. Please note that these website packages do have a minimum hosting term.”
It tells a good story with a friendly and conversational tone. But after I read it the first time, I was left thinking I needed to read it again, and then again, to try to get my head around all the details. Sadly it’s all in vain. There’s too much packed into one long paragraph and I can’t absorb it.
Make your message easy to digest
When writing for the web short attention span and low reader comprehension is your first challenge. True you have the same challenge with print, but online it’s double or more.
Why? Well, I struggled to comprehend that paragraph when reading it on my widescreen monitor. Now think about trying to comprehend it on the small screen of a phone! (Maybe you just have.) My eyes hurt already.
Here are some ways to stop the pain.
1. Keep it short
Less than 20 words long is best. That means breaking big chunks of text and ideas up into small morsels so they’re easy to digest. You can get away with a long sentence occasionally, but if it explains something complicated it will be confusing. Break it down and your potential customers will thank you. Here’s an example:
Only use commas and dashes where you really need them, and if in doubt use a full stop because you can always join small sentences back together later.
Only use commas and dashes where you really need them. If in doubt use a full stop. You can always join small sentences back together later.
Both versions work but the second is easier to comprehend at speed.
2. Keep it simple
When writing for the general public you actually need to write for the reading comprehension of a 12 year old.
It’s not that people are stupid. But they are busy, and often stressed or distracted. So make it easy for them to get the information they need at a glance.
3. Write for your audience’s understanding of your subject, not yours
You’re the expert on your subject, that’s why you’re writing. Now consider what your audience knows about your subject. And now wind back to the ‘lowest common denominator’ of what they know. If you pitch your message at this level of understanding everyone will be able to follow you.
You’ll lose trainee engineers if you use heaps of technical terms you only understand because you had to invent them when you wrote your PhD. And you’ll frustrate potential buyers of your innovative new product if you assume they know anything at all about how it can work for them.
Any part of your message which is above the baseline knowledge of your audience needs to be clearly explained. This doesn’t mean you have to include a full definition for each instance of an industry specific term. But I do recommend you link any specialist words or phrases to a definition or explanation, so the information is available for those need it. Wikipedia demonstrates this well.
4. Avoid ‘the missing link’
If you’re telling a story make sure the whole story is there. Have you really explained everything from A to Z, or did you accidentally miss out PQRS and T?
If you’re explaining a process take the time to physically do the process and write each part of it down as you do it. When you describe a process from memory it is truly astonishing how many steps can get missed out.
Write a strong Call To Action
The most beautiful web content in the world is useless if it doesn’t help you get customers. So tell your story and then call your readers to take action. Consider:
Click here to talk to our team about a website
Talk to us about your dream website
“Click here to talk to our team about a website“ has some problems.
- It’s all about ‘us’, the business. It’s not customer-centric. It doesn’t even include the word ‘you’. Why would I take action when this CTA doesn’t even include me?
- The language is distancing, standoffish and almost passive. Click here, as if you’re pointing at that part of the screen with your finger. It’s barely an action at all.
- ‘Click here’ went out of date at least a decade ago. People know to ‘click here’. We don’t need to tell them. Rather you need to say exactly what you want them to do.
“Talk to us about your dream website” is better for two reasons.
- It is an action statement. It clearly describes the action you want your customer to take. ‘Talk to us’ is the most active part. That’s what you want them to do so it goes first.
- It is a customer-centric statement. It uses words that matter to the customer – ‘about your dream website’. That’s what they’re after. If they’re not after their dream website (or insert your product here) you don’t want to hear from them!
Help your readers find the information they want, easily
Website users often seek a specific piece of information. They probably won’t read your whole article (wonderful though it is) but they’ll love it if you point them straight to just the bit they really need. Here are some ways to help them find what they’re looking for.
1. Use plenty of titles and subtitles
This may seem too obvious and it may even feel wrong. Because you don’t need lots titles and subtitles in a paper book. There’s an index and that’s what you use to navigate.
On the web however, an abundance of titles and subtitles is essential. They break up long chunks of text into manageable pieces. They provide white space so the brain has time to process one piece of information before it starts on the next.
And you can quickly scan them to find the one piece of information you’re after. No hassle.
2. Use text anchors to support easy navigation on long pages
Titles and subtitles also act as insertion points for text anchors. A text anchor is the destination of a within-the-page link, which helps you jump easily from place to place within a single page.
At the top of a long page it’s useful to have an ‘On this page’ section, which contains a list of the titles of topics covered on the rest of the page.
Each item in the list is a clickable link which takes you straight down to the relevant section. Plus there’s a ‘Back to top’ link at the end of each section so you can easily go up again with minimal scrolling.
Now for an extension to this idea. Let’s say you’re promoting a particular service on your home page, and you want users to click through to get more information about it.
Problem – the information relevant to your promo isn’t at the top of your services page. Solution – insert a text anchor at the place where you want people to land, and link to that. Problem solved.
3. Ensure each section makes sense on its own
Out of your whole article readers may only want the two paragraphs which answer their question. So each chunk of information needs to stand well on its own.
Now obviously you can’t compress a book into a couple of paragraphs! However you do need to ensure important points are covered, and perhaps provide links to further information if required.
4. Remember mobile users
I know I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. Think of your words on a small screen! Make it easy for the mobile user and they’ll love you.
Get a sanity check before you publish
Finished writing? Well done, you’re not quite finished yet.
Now you need somebody to look at your article with a fresh pair of eyes. So yes, you need a proof reader, but it’s more than that. You need a sanity check. Your ideal sanity checker needs to be able to do two things.
1. Check the content
Does your article make sense, particularly if your sanity checker doesn’t have the specialist knowledge you do?
Are there places where the story jumps ahead and leaves them behind wondering what you’re talking about? Are there things you need to explain more clearly? Are there places where you get long-winded, or repeat yourself?
And is the tone of your writing consistent with the ‘voice’ of your business? I could go on but hopefully you get my drift.
2. Proof read
Ask them to look for details like double spaces between words, typos you haven’t corrected, and any inconsistent line spacing and text formatting.
When you receive your sanity checker’s invaluable feedback, say thank you! Now you can refine and improve. Rinse and repeat and see if it passes this time. And publish!
What does good web writing look like?
With all of this in mind, here’s just one way I could rewrite that long paragraph from the beginning of this post. I’d actually say the whole thing differently but let’s stick with it, for the sake of the example.
Note that I’ve removed as many of the negative statements from the text as possible.
Stay positive. Avoid talking about what you don’t like or don’t do. Talk about what you DO do. That’s what people want to know.
“We operate differently from many web design companies.
Unlike some we don’t sell a range of standard website packages and we’re not into hard sell. Instead our clients tell us what they want, and we put together an individual solution which is tailored to their needs.
If we build you a custom website we won’t lock you into a long term service contract. Apart from initial design and setup costs you’ll only pay for the services you need. And that’s on a month by month term, which you can cancel at any time.
We have web design options to suit most budgets, even if you’re a really small business. Just check out our Business Starter Website Package.”
Want help writing your web content? At Webstruxure we’re up to the task. Whether it’s a content review, content creation or outlining a strategy for your site, we can help. Give us a call today.
Webstruxure is here to make the web work smarter. Let us know how we can help you for user friendly, mobile friendly and search engine friendly websites. Our services include:
Maddy Schafer is a writer and web content alchemist who does magic with words and images. She writes clear and direct copy, instructions which include all the bits you’re ‘supposed’ to know but don’t, and has super powers to read between the lines and deliver what clients want (instead of what they ask for). Working for Webstruxure, she provides expert content support to a variety of clients and also contributes to the Webstruxure blog.
Also published on Medium.