Skip to content.
Personal tools

How to Write for the Web

Document Actions

"Different strokes for different folks."  This adage is no less true for how your site visitors will read your content.  In fact, different media is typically formatted based on how the reader reads.  When analyzing reader behavior, it might look something like this:

  • Books.  While you may plow sequentially through your latest novel, over several hundred pages, coming back to it over time until it’s finished.
  • Newspapers.  Newspaper readers scan headlines, reading first paragraphs and highlighted text.
  • Magazines.  readers skim for interesting pictures, captions, and blurbs, often before they go into the articles.

The Web experience is quite different.  A web page visitor may have several browser windows open at the same time.  Usually, they scan through text for important points, and may skip around headings and links to answer a particular question.

But that only looks at a narrow slice of both online and offline activity.   Some web users look for long documents, which they then download and print out.

There are a certain number of well-accepted principles for web writing.  However, even these have to be modified with an understanding of your user-base as well as a little common sense.

Generally accepted guidelines/principles for producing great Web content for your Web visitors:

  • Web users scan more than they read.
  • The preferred method of presenting information is in chunks.
  • Users are more likely to follow multiple paths to what they seek.
  • Users who don’t find what they want quickly, within three clicks of entering the site, will leave.
  • Keep language tight and succint, since users read 25% slower online.
  • Web users are warier of sales hype and any attempt to pitch a service.  They have actively come for information and will leave if they think they are being sold to.
  • Web users prefer an informal tone, it is expected as part of the internet experience. 

All of these things are true, in the way generalities are often true.  Use them as guidelines, and you’ll improve your web content.  Use them as rules and you may find yourself not reaching your particular audience.

The first key to writing for the Web is to understand your audience.  Why did they come to your web site?  How much commitment do they have to finding the information?  If your visitor is a member of your trade organization, and they are using your site as a research place, they won’t mind looking at long documents.  They would rather have completeness then quick hits.  On the other hand, if your visitor came from a search engine looking for the answer to one particular question, they’ll probably leave if they don’t see it right away.

How much do they trust your Web site?  If you are a recognized source for information on a topic, you probably don’t have to explain who you are.  If you are offering information on something you are also promoting your services to solve, you want to delineate when you are offering helpful advice and when you are pushing someone to buy your service.

It’s true, to a certain extent, that people look for less formality on the Web.  However, this has changed over time.  Where once we expected to find web sites showing us the backstage of an enterprise, now we expect to be shown in through the front door.  A web site for a law firm had better be every bit as professional as that firm presents itself in person.

Finally, though, remember that you want to get something across to the reader.  You are not putting up content just to keep people occupied.  Your web site has a goal, and everything on it should support that goal.  Don’t get so caught up in trying to satisfy ever stated preference of your user that you forget to tell them why they are visiting your site.  If you have products, they need to be able to purchase them.  If you have beliefs, they need to see what they are.  If you want them to join a campaign, sign a petition, register as part of a movement, the visitor needs to know that’s what you want, and needs to be able to do it or not do it right away.