Web writing for Communicators

Writing for the web is different than for other media. You need to understand why people browse, have a strategy for your content, and write in a way that supports skimming. In this post, I'll explain how you can improve your content to attract and keep an audience.

Your Visitors Have Goals

Unless your site is entertainment or the wikipedia, your visitors are not dropping by to kill time. People visit websites to solve problems: they want to learn something new, check a fact, purchase a product, or accomplish some other goal. Visitors do not come to hear your point of view for its own sake (usually), enjoy the brilliance of your branding, or learn about your mission (unless they're preparing for an interview or to donate to you). For example, you're at this post to learn a bit more about web writing, not to learn more about what a knowledgeable web guy I am (though I wouldn't mind coming off that way).

Visitors forage around the web for information. They look for patches of useful information, surveying the land via search. Once they've found a promising looking patch, they dive in and jump from link to link, looking for information that helps them solve their problem. If they find it, they leave happy to solve another problem, and hopefully return again if they need you. If they don't, they leave frustrated and turn to your competition.

Your writing needs to support problem solving. And it needs to recognize that people are solving problems under time constraints and with little hope for the value of your content. People will arrive at your site via search or a recommendation (which is like search, only more social). They need to (quickly)

  • navigate to the useful content on your site
  • ascertain whether a page is valuable
  • read the parts of your site that help them
  • ascertain if there's additional, more helpful content on your site
  • get on with their lives

Your Content Must Support Your Visitor's Goals

You probably do not have unlimited time or money to put your site together. Worse, developing good content takes a lot of time and talent. So, if you want success, you need to think about a content strategy that takes into consideration

  • who do you want visiting your site?
  • how can you help your visitors succeed at something?
  • why should someone risk your wasting their time and visit your site?
  • what content resources do you have available already?
  • are the content resources you have really web-ready (more on this below)?
  • how can you ensure that people can find the resources you have?

Just converting lots of existing materials into PDFs or copying text from old documents and marking it up is not a content strategy. Your visitors have goals. They do not have a lot of time to sort through your materials. If they get frustrated, your visitors will leave; they will return to the search engine from whence they came and visit someone else's site.

Find content that supports the people you want visiting your site and that helps them solve their problems. This means you need a clear idea of who you really want visiting your site (because that's how you know which problems you should solve) and what content you actually have to offer them. Where you lack that content, develop it. When you have that content, be sure it's fit for web consumption.

There are Two Types of Content to Consider in your Strategy

Different problems demand different types of content. In general, there are copy pages, which solve specific, well defined problems, and there are articles, which teach a visitor something complicated. Copy pages provide

  • landing pages, which take visitors from a search engine link to your useful content
  • product descriptions, which help visitors decide whether to buy a product
  • instructions, which help a visitor complete a defined process
  • overviews of unambiguous information, like press releases or your company's mission or history

Copy should get out of the way. It does not need to be written in prose. It should be kept as short as possible. It does not need to be beautiful; it just needs to be clear.

Articles, in contrast, explain about something less clearly defined, such as web writing, a solution to the sub-prime crisis, or your well reasoned views on China's economic growth. They can be short overviews or long, in-depth analysis, depending on your audience. Articles are your opportunity to convey your perspective, and as long as they are written with the reality of how your visitors will read in mind (more below), they should have tone, voice, and style.

All Content Must Support Skimming

Web visitors do not read carefully. They skim. They will read somewhere between 20 to 80 percent of your page's words, according to Jakob Nielsen and the Poynter group. They will spend between roughly 25 to 35 seconds on your home page and read only 10 to 30 words there (Nielsen 2006). They will also bail if they see an interesting looking link (Pirolli 2007).

With this in mind, we do know that visitors pay attention to

  • the beginning of a page
  • bullets, or the first few words of them
  • links
  • bold text
  • images that don't look like ads
  • interactive elements that don't look like ads

You can use what you know about skimming to your advantage. Web writing is extremely demanding. Your sentences must be direct and easy to understand. Your paragraphs must flow well and highlight key information with text formatting. Keep your sentences reasonably short, and if your style allows it and your audience will accept it, write conversationally. Keep your paragraphs tightly focused and well organized. When possible, use the active voice (it's easier on the brain) and use your visitors' language.

Write in an inverted pyramid style, like a journalist. Provide a summary of the page at the beginning. If a visitor believes there's valuable content on a page, s/he will scroll down the page to skim it (Pirolli 2007), and a summary lets a visitor know there's valuable content.

Use headings (which are big and bold). Use the text formatting that's available to you, such as bold and italic. And of course, use bullets to break up your text; it is easier to skim a bulleted list than an inline one.

Make sure your links are long (seven to twelve words [Pirolli 2007]) and descriptive. Links are fundamental to how the web works. Search engines use links to understand what pages are about and how they relate to one another. Visitors use links to find the information they're looking for, since search engines don't always turn up the most relevant results. People forage using links; support them by making your links clear, honest, and descriptive. Don't use "click here"; it tells people nothing as they scan. And for yourself, make sure your link between content on your site to expose it to your visitors; you have an idea of the problem they're trying to solve, so offer them to everything you have to help them solve that problem.

Be concise and avoid made-up words. Your visitors are potentially reading only 20 percent of your text; you need to make sure that every word matters. And can you imagine how they feel if they're skimming and they come to some nonsense jargon word that your company coined? Sit in your visitor's seat: "I'm trying to understand something and they want to expand my vocabulary with words that only they use. I'll go elsewhere." Even better than avoiding made-up words is using the words your visitors would use, which you can learn by visiting them (both in real life and in their online communities) and looking for proxies, such as search keyword analysis tools and search logs.

Give visitors multiple ways to access your information by using images and interactive content. People learn and remember things better when they get both text and an image. This doesn't mean that you should just decorate your page with stock art; you need to illustrate your points, not decorate them. If you're not particularly visual, you can learn to be, and enlist the help of a professional (a graphic designer!) when you can. I'm not very visual myself, so I'm embedding mind maps in my posts and using simple comic characters to illustrate points. And if you have the resources, go beyond an image with a video or an interactive illustration of your point, such as a game.

Exceptions and Examples

For every rule above, there's some good reason to break it. Ironically, we can find some of the best examples of web writing in places where you'd expect the rules to be broken, though.

  • If you're writing for a highly motivated audience of specialists, and your content is excellent and valuable, you can expect people to really read your content. Look at the writing articles on A List Apart; they are not particularly easy to skim. Jakob Nielsen's writing on useit.com, however, is long but immanently web-ready (see, for example, his article on his research into how visitors actually read).
  • If you're writing a blog, people expect more quirks, more personality and style, and less polish. However, blogs like Jared Goralnick's Technotheory are insightful, appropriately personal, and written with a web audience in mind (see his post on packing for a long trip for an example).
  • Sometimes, your copy is going to be long; you may be writing instructions for something that is clear but complicated. However, check out the instructions for building a heavy-duty six-legged robot on instructables. The prose may not be inspired, but
    • they motivate you to want to understand with good previews of your finished product in pictures and videos
    • they break the long document into shorter, coherent chunks
    • they use subheads to get across the thrust of each step, so you know what you'll need to do before committing to the whole instructions
    • they offer a print-friendly version of the instructions because it's easier to read long documents in print than on your computer
  • Sometimes the point of your content is to introduce a new word that will make communicating a complicated concept easier. If you're writing for a motivated group of experts who will understand why the new word is necessary, some jargon is OK. It speeds things up. Look at the instruction above: "machine the motor linkages" isn't exactly clear to any random visitor; but for someone who might actually build that robot, it'd better be clear, or maybe that someone should consider a simpler project.

Moving Forward with Additional Resources

If you're looking for a coherent dive into some of this content, there are several books I can recommend to get a more in-depth look at web writing than could be offered in this blog post. If you

Additionally, there are plenty of websites that have articles that can help you.

And many more articles; just look at the results on delicious if you query "web writing," and you'll find thousands of articles.