Writing for the Web

Posted by Tim

For those of you new to web writing and wondering what makes it different, here are some basic strategies to help guide you. There have been plenty of books written on the subject that go into much greater detail than what will be discussed here, but this post should give you a solid foundation for bringing your writing to the web.

What Makes Web Writing Different?

Web writing differs from all other forms of writing in three key ways: audience, voice, and organization. You’re not writing to receive a grade, or for the purpose of creating art. You are writing for millions of people that you’ll likely never meet or talk to outside of a comment box.

The purpose of web writing is typically to inform, entertain, provoke conversation, or sell. The good news is that if you’re a good writer, accomplishing any one of these shouldn’t be very difficult. The beauty of web writing is that it’s relatively easy once you’ve done it enough.

Audience

For your writing to be effective, you have to know the kinds of people that will be reading it. If you’re writing content for a website geared towards children and families, such as a daycare, you’re not going to use highbrow vernacular. You’re going to write about the facility and its services in a friendly and easily understood way.

In contrast, if you’re writing for a popular science website, you are of course going to talk about scientific discoveries, requiring you to use more complex language. You’re going to have to inform people who may or may not have some sort of background knowledge on the topic of discussion. This puts you in an intellectual middle ground.

You don’t want to give too much background information and run the risk of dragging out the post and boring your readers, or give too little and have them be confused and loose interest. If you find yourself in this kind of situation, I say it’s better to give too much than not enough. As long as it’s easy to follow along and perks their interest, people will read. This brings me to my next point.

Keeping Your Reader’s Attention

When it comes to the web, people are generally less patient. But if a person sees value in what you’re talking about, they’ll stick around to hear you out. Many of the books I’ve read touch on this, and the commonly proposed solutions are to keep sentences short, simple diction, and paragraphs small. As I just talked about, the sort of diction you use will depend on your audience.

If using a higher level of vocabulary brightens or brings a certain depth to your writing, by all means use it. Don’t dumb it down because you’re afraid some readers won’t be able to understand you. You have to write to your audience, and that may not necessarily be everyone on the web.

As for keeping to short sentences, I’m inclined to tell you not to worry too much about it. Of course you’ll want to avoid unnecessary run-ons and excessive punctuation. The only thing that really matters is making your writing flow. If you only write in short sentences, you run the risk of sounding choppy and distracting your readers from your point.

Read your sentences aloud to yourself. If you notice yourself stumbling over a sentence, or having a difficult time jumping from one sentence to another, address the syntactical errors with some rephrasing or punctuation until you can read it seamlessly.

With paragraphing, the books will tell you to keep it to 3-5 lines of text, and generally I agree with this. Big blocks of text look very unfriendly and it can be difficult to keep your place when reading on a screen. However, for long-form blogging I would say it’s okay to let your paragraphs go a little longer, but still probably no longer than 10 lines.

I make this exception because you’re writing with the intent of keeping your readers around for a while, and are talking about something that is more engrossing than a product review or an About Us webpage. Short paragraphs are for skimming, long paragraphs are for reading.

Voice

The ordinary grammar rules don’t weigh as heavily on the web as they do in print. Feel free to start a sentence with “And” and “But.” A fragment here or there is okay. Forget a comma, add a comma, it doesn’t really matter (most of the time). Whatever makes the writing flow the best is what’s right.

You’re grammar and voice will greatly depend on how you want to show yourself to the world. If you want to give off an air of professionalism, strict grammar rules should be enforced and your voice should be prim and proper. If you want to seem more laid back, take on a more conversational tone and write in the vernacular your audience speaks.

Bolding (in HTML <b></b>) and italicizing (in HTML <em></em>) can be used to emphasize key points, or to draw attention. These are good tools, but don’t over due them. If your readers see it used excessively, it’ll become a distraction and loose its impact.

Organization

Keeping your pages well organized is a crucial part of web writing. If readers have a hard time following what you’re saying, they’ll leave you for someone else who can explain it to them better. This is why it’s good to get in the habit of constantly previewing what your writing will look like on the web before publishing. The way your writing looks is just as important as how it reads.

Headers

Using headers to section off different ideas is the most important part of creating an organized page of text. <H1> and <H2> tags that match user queries will also help with your rankings on search engine sites. Headers let the reader know what each portion of text is talking about, making it easier to follow along or jump around. You want your headers to act as either concise markers or punchy provocateurs. See HTML and on-page example below.

HTML Example

HTML-Example

On-page Example

On-page-Example

Titles

The titles to a blog post could be the answer to a question, actually be a question, or an eye-catching phrase indicating what the post is about. If these are service page titles, keep to as few words as possible while still clearly stating what the page is about. If you plan on having people find you through Google, your page and blog titles should mimic or address their queries in some way.

One More Thing

There is a lot of web content out there: some of it good, most of it not so good. So don’t let the shear volume of webpages discourage you. Well-written content coupled with good marketing is rewarded with clicks, shares, and views.

So that’s the basics of web writing. The truth is that writing of any kind is like any other skill. Some people are naturally gifted, while others will have to dedicate hours of practice. But with enough time, anyone can become good at it.

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