If you’re already good with words, writing for the web isn’t rocket science. But there’s a certain art and science to crafting copy for the web, which is distinct from what’s required for print.
So, what exactly is writing “for the web”? Here’s my definition…
Writing for the web is good writing… that adapts and reacts to how people behave online.
Specifically, how we consume information. And if writing is adapted for how people read on the web, it’s also far more likely to be optimised for discovery by search engines and other referral sources.
Let’s break that down
Writing for the web is an approach to crafting copy that serves two distinct and important needs…
#1 How people read and consume information online (compared to offline)
How do people read on the web? They don’t. Pretty much. Yep, studies have shown that online, reading in-depth prose word-for-word, isn’t going to happen. The very nature of the web — an infinite loop of hyper-linked information — means that for most of the time we spend on it, our instinct is to:
- Pick out keywords
- Juggle multiple pieces of content (consider: when was the last time you spent more than a few minutes in a web browser with just one tab open, that being the subject of your absolute undivided attention?)
In other words: we extract, we summarise, we move on. The way we communicate on the web, needs to suit.
#2 How valuable traffic referral sources (most obviously, search engines) judge content to be relevant and useful
If it seems like real-life people are a tough crowd, just you wait until you meet search engines. They don’t miss a beat.
However, a fussy algorithmic customer (you know the type) doesn’t have to be a difficult customer to please, as long as you know the specific things they want and need, and deliver those things.
Though Google keeps content creators on their toes with constant roll-outs of mysterious “game-changing” algorithm changes, actually, Google has always been pretty open and consistent in its advice on how to craft content to optimise it for discovery. These include things like:
- Researching and identifying the most relevant topic keywords, which reflect the authentic interests and needs of your target users
- Implementing those keywords appropriately as part of your content authoring approach: from making sure it’s front and centre of the all-important page title, to being present in the page meta-description — and, of course, making sure it’s peppered (though too much seasoning spoils the broth) throughout your body copy
- Including a reasonable number of internal and external links to wider related information relevant to that content
It’s all common sense stuff, really.
That said, it can be useful to package all this stuff up into an easy to remember process. Let’s do that.
The web writer’s checklist: 3 steps for creating user-led, search engine friendly web copy
1. Planning: have you understood the audience need that this copy needs to serve?
Before you begin writing it’s important to establish who exactly this content is for and what it is attempting to achieve with that person. Quality user research is key to creating relevant and valuable copy. The following sources and tactics should really come into play, here:
If you or your organisation doesn’t do or have the above things, now might be a good time to champion their use.
All of the above can be the difference between having a really clear and detailed picture of who you are writing for (and crucially, why), or shooting in the dark with copy that’s unlikely to resonate with the people you’re trying to connect with.
2. Authoring: has this copy been structured and formatted appropriately for the web?
Web copy needs to be:
- Concise (not elaborate)
- Straightforward (not complicated)
- Logical (not confusing)
- Attention-grabbing (not nondescript)
- Well-structured (not amorphous)
- Memorable (not forgettable)
To achieve that, we need to make sure to use:
- A keyword-rich and compelling title to direct the reader’s attention
- Descriptive, compelling sub-headings to “chunk up” dense information
- Short sentences that get to the point, quickly
- Short, concise paragraphs (2-3 sentences) that contain only one idea or point
- Bullet-point lists to break down complex data or concepts
- Bolded keywords to make the most important ideas stand out
- Hyperlinks to signpost people to other relevant pieces of content
One common response to these pointers, goes something along the lines of: so, is writing for the web, basically dumbing things down?
The answer: no. An emphatic no.
To quote William Strunk Jr., in the Elements of Style (essential reading for anyone who writes, in whatever capacity):
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Writing for the web is not dumbing things down — it’s about making every word tell. There’s a huge difference. Speaking of which…
3. Editing: have you made every word tell?
Great writing for the web — copy that makes every word tell — is all in the editing, not the writing itself. Once our words have been laid down, it’s time to bash them into shape and make them sing.
Here are a few common techniques for reviewing and editing writing for the web:
The inverted pyramid
The inverted pyramid is a tried and trusted technique from the world of journalism to illustrate how information should be prioritised and structured for quick and easy comprehension by readers.
This means opening with your most important need-to-know details — your who, what, when, where, why and how — before, gradually expanding out into more granular detail as the piece of content progresses. An excellent framework for all web writers to adhere to.
Storytelling (or: show, don’t tell)
We human beings are driven by irrational emotions, rather than rational logic. Seriously. It’s what makes life fun and interesting. It’s what distinguishes us from computers, robots and brick walls.
That’s why stories are more powerful than facts. As Maya Angelou put it:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Basically, stories speak uniquely to the emotional part of ourselves like no other form of communication can. A story is a pathway to a deepened understanding, empathy for and connection with the world around us.
Storytelling doesn’t necessarily mean a “once upon a time”-type tale, or fictional plot-driven narrative. No, if you write copy that includes any of these three things:
- Emotionally appealing communication that makes content more compelling
- The inclusion of real human experiences that users can relate to
- The application of metaphor, images, numbers and visualisations to make concepts more vivid
then you are using storytelling in your copy.
A case study? A statistic or piece of data in support of a fact? A metaphor? All storytelling devices. All things that will make your copy more story-driven.
“Never use a long word when a short one will do”, advised George Orwell. Today, more than ever, we have a really (really) hard time being brave enough to communicate using easily understood language.
Jargon, it seems, is irresistible to many businesses, whose desire to sound impressive outweighs the need to communicate clearly. One of the chief roles of any decent web writer or editor then, is to make sure that this habitual urge to obfuscate meaning is called out and flushed out of copy.
Not convinced? Here are six quotes from some of the brightest minds in history, in support of Plain English:
“Use familiar words—words that your readers will understand, and not words they will have to look up. No advice is more elementary, and no advice is more difficult to accept. When we feel an impulse to use a marvellously exotic word, let us lie down until the impulse goes away.”
James J. Kilpatrick
“Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”
“Vague forms of speech have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard words mistaken for deep learning, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but a hindrance to true knowledge.”
“The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.”
“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
Active voice sentences ares ones in which the subject is doing the action.
For example, “I love you”. I (the subject) love (the action) you (the object of my love).
The passive voice, flips things around — promoting the receiver of the action to subject status.
For example: “You are loved by me. You (the subject) are loved (the action) by me (object).
A general rule of thumb (but all rules are made to be broken on rare occasion) is this:
Passive voice sentences make your communication unnecessarily long-winded, complicated, and weak. Active voice sentences sound stronger.
A couple more examples to drive this one home:
Passive voice: The ball was passed to John, by Jim.
Active voice: Jim passed the ball to John.
Passive voice: I was informed by my boss that the job I had completed was rather well done.
Active: My boss told me, “Well done!”.
If you want to make your writing for the web as strong and succinct as it can be, opt for active voice sentences.
Good web writer’s create user-centric, SEO-friendly web copy by asking themselves the following questions:
- Before I begin, have I established and understood who this copy is for, and why?
- As I draft this content, am I structuring and formatting it in support of scannable, accessible writing for the web?
- As I edit this content, have I made every word tell:
- are the most important details covered right at the beginning?
- have I included elements of storytelling to make the content more compelling?
- have I used plain English throughout to make this copy as easily understood by as many people as possible?
- have I mostly used active voice sentences to make this content strong and purposeful?