Web copy 101: what is writing for the web?

BY Joseph Phillips
Writing for the web describes writing that’s adapted to the reading habits of people when they’re online: to scan, to pick out keywords, and not read everything word-for-word.
Typewriter on a desk

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

So people don’t read on the web…?


No. Well… sometimes.

It’s just that when they do read on the web, it’s unlikely to be your website. Sorry. But if it’s any consolation, it’s unlikely to be anyone’s website either.

You see, people read read—as in, for pleasure—things that are deemed to be interesting or important (or both).

But that that mostly doesn’t include corporate websites.

Great books, journalism, and high-quality learning materials? Interesting and important (or both).

Corporate websites? Not so much.

But that’s ok.

People don’t read websites—they use them.

So when we realise that our website exists more as a utility than as a piece of literature, we can adapt your style of communication to suit.

From this perspective, writing for the web can be more specifically be thought of as:

Writing for content that no one in their right mind is going to want to read for pleasure.

But in the interests of diplomacy, I won’t blame you for sticking to the first definition for explaining all this to your boss (who just finished writing the copy for your website).

What good web copy looks like

Good writing for the web is:

  • Concise, not long-winded
  • Well-structured, not amorphous
  • Simple, not complex
  • Focussed, not meandering
  • Purposeful, not decorative
  • Straightforward, not jargonistic


Good web copy is difficult—because most of us were taught to write bad web copy


For many of us, the elements of good writing for the web run counter-intuitive to everything we were taught about good writing.

In school, we were taught a style of academic writing in which long, drawn-out ideas that purposefully take a while to get to the point, using complex, dressed-up language was rewarded over short and direct communication.

However, in the real world, that doesn’t work out too well.

It turns out that the long-winded stuff that scored an A on the exam, is actually considered by the real world, to be… fluff. Gibberish. Kind of, bullshit. Sorry (again).

Yep, good web copy is the opposite of that: writing with the bullshit removed, so that only clean and direct meaning remains.

In the real world, making yourself understood is more important than sounding intelligent.

Which is a real headache for most brands, because (paradoxically), writing to sound intelligent is so much easier. And vice versa, writing to communicate meaning as directly as possible, is difficult.

Which is why there’s a definite art and science to writing for the web that has to be learned through practice.


The 4 elements of good web copy


Writing good web copy—for websites, for apps and the like—means getting four things right…


1. Relevance

Understanding what the purpose of the writing is, who it’s for, and what needs it’s fulfilling. Or: avoid talking shit about stuff that no one cares about.


2. Structure

Shaping your content into a logical, user-centred flow, optimised for scanning, understanding, and taking action. Or: saying the right things, in the right order.


3. Clarity

Using simple language, sentence and paragraph constructions that result in clean communication. Or: getting to the point, making yourself understood.


4. Style

Adopting the right tone, voice, messaging to align with your brand and reflect reader preferences. Or: mood lighting for your words.



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