12 little known web writing tips

Want to improve your web writing skills? This short tutorial will 1) help you break old writing habits that don’t work on the web and 2) show you how to develop a writing style that’s more ‘natural’ for blogging.

Breaking bad writing habits

Ok, this is a bit harsh but what I want to do is get you away from how you were taught in school.
Academic writing doesn’t work on the web. Neither does formal business writing.
To write for the web, examine how others use it to search, digest, and share information.
Here’s how to get started:

  • Go to the newsagent
  • Buy a local newspaper, national paper and business magazine
  • Get a yellow marker
  • Start reading

Underline every piece of text you read. Ignore the rest. Do this for five minutes, then stop.

How we scan text offline

What do you notice?
The page will be streaked with yellow lines here and there. There will no logical order.
But lots of underlines where your eye fell on text, read a little, and then moved on.
Why is this important?
Because this is how most of us read. We don’t actually read.

  • We search for text
  • Find what we like
  • Dig deeper for a few minutes (at most) and then
  • Search for the next piece

Of course, you do slow down when you’re reading certain pieces. But, when reading, say the sports section, you skip and bounce over the words looking for scores, quotes and other snippets.
You don’t ‘read’ read if that makes sense.

How we scan text online

Let’s move over to the web.
When you’re reading text on the web, your eye roves over the screen. It doesn’t start at the top and read each and every word.
Why?
You’re in a hurry. Pushed for time, seeking information, scanning blocks of text looking for clues.
So, how can we use this when writing blogs and developing web content.
When I work with clients, I usually start by showing them Before and After writing samples.
This shows them a few things:

  • How difficult it was to read their materials
  • How ineffective it was in getting engagement
  • How it demotivated readers from continuing
  • How it made the sales process almost impossible and
  • How it persuaded customers to leave the site

No sane person wants this.
We all want customers to stay on site, engage, and buy our stuff. Otherwise, what are we doing online?

How to write for the web

While I can’t teach you to be professional web writer in one tutorial, you can use these tips to get started.

  1. Get to the point. Immediately.
  2. Identify the main topic. “What you’re going to learn here is…”
  3. Use short headlines. Include one feature and one benefit.
  4. Keep paragraphs under three sentences.
  5. Break up text fast. See how daily newspapers do it. There’s no waffle.
  6. Use short, not long words. Buy instead of procure. Get instead of acquire. Fast instead of rapid.
  7. Use bullet lists to callout takeaways.
  8. If you’re going to use images, add a caption.
  9. Use ragged text. Don’t force the text to align with the right margin.
  10. Use white space to help the page breath.
  11. Use short hyperlinks. Don’t under-link entire sentences.
  12. Use the word ‘you’ everywhere. I’m writing this post for YOU.

Summary

It takes practice to ‘re-learn’ how to write for the web; after all, you’ve spent years writing in a different style, so it’s going to take time to change.
Look at how others do it. See how John structures this post, how Eamonn uses a natural writing style, Gene uses lists to break up text,  and Ryan provides lots of white space to improve readability.
The end result is a confident writing style that draws you in and makes you want to continue. And it’s not difficult to acquire. But you have to decide you want to make it happen.
Over to you.
What blogger has the best writing style? What have you learned from the way they write?
Image Credit

6 Differences Between Web Writing and Blogging

She said she was a web writer and not a blogger. What’s the difference, I asked.
Way to ZigZag Path

  1. Web writing is structured. Has a start, middle, and end. Blogging is often snippets, fragments, and less formal.
  2. Web writing is part of a larger process. For example, she writes a series of online articles that will feed into a hardback publication that appears later in the year.
  3. Web writing has long-term goals. I think she meant evergreen type content, ie materials that will be of use in five, ten, or fifteen years. Blogging is of the moment, ie more reactive.
  4. Web writing is stricter, ie web writers know the rules of grammar and when to apply them. Many bloggers are more relaxed in their spelling, verb constructions, and knowledge of split infinitives 🙂
  5. Web writing has greater depth. Blogging is slightly superficial. There is less analysis, research, and statistics.
  6. Web writing is created by professionals. Bloggers are (mostly) amateurs. And those who succeed soon morph into mainstream publishers, eg writing books that sell in the high street.

Is this fair?
I know what she’s getting at. This is a woman who’s very educated, qualified, and dedicated her career to journalism. Blogging seems (or feels) to be undermining the publishing industry she’s grown up in.

Web Writing v Blogging

In some ways, she’s right.
Blogging is meant to be less formal, more in the moment, and social. You can’t have a blog post go through editorial reviews and get it online within minutes. It’s one or the other. Or is that an excuse?
The Daily Mail online is a good example of less format web publishing, generating oodles of content every day. Not all of it gets proofed or sanity checked. But the model seems to be working.
Do you see a difference in blogging and web writing or have the boundaries merged?
What would you suggest to someone who has ‘traditional’ writing skills (ie degree in English) and is now possibly under threat from waves of bloggers?
Should they stick or twist?

How can I improve my grammar… without hardly trying?

Like to improve your grammar? Who wouldn’t.
We’ve all been caught out by the grammar police. That terrible smile when they remind you of your mixed tenses, clumsy constructions, and split infinitives. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a real understanding of grammar?

How to improve your grammar

As someone who’s struggled with dyslexia through school (when the condition wasn’t even known) and my professional career, grammar proved to be a minefield.
The paradox at school was that while I loved language, I was often felt let down by the clumsy way I’d apply the rules of grammar to essays, short stories and (later on) novels.
Something I sidestepped for many years was getting to grips with the basics of grammar. In my heart, I felt it would be too difficult. Try as I might, I knew I’d defeat myself if I tried.
In reality, I was probably a bit scared of failure and… lazy.
Finally, I got tired of my own excuses and tackled it.
So, here’s how to get started:

  1. Admit to yourself that your grammar isn’t the best, and that you’d like to improve it. That’s enough to get started. Once you recognize it’s a problem, you can look for a solution.
  2. Sign up for a few newsletters about writing, grammar and words. Anything that stretches you a little. Surround yourself with new sources of information that develop your skills in a nice, steady way.
  3. Keep a dictionary next to your desk. Go sell yourself short. Buy a nice book that you’ll keep for years. Even better – buy an antique dictionary. It’s hard not to leaf through a lovely old book and learn new words… without really trying.
  4. Learn a new language. The enthusiasm of learning new words will carry into other areas and improve your grammar skills in the process. Again, keep it light. Enjoy the process.
  5. Focus on one topic every week. For example, learn the difference between a colon and a semicolon. Really nail it so you never have to think twice about this again. Then move onto another area, for example, adjectives. Jump in deep (just for one week) and learn everything you can about this one area.
  6. Read a newspaper with a highlighter in hand. Circle every word you don’t understand. Look up those that catch your attention. The more you do this, the faster you’ll zip through the dictionary.
  7. Identify errors in newspapers. Or what you think are errors. Look them up and work out for yourself if they’re correct.

Don’t:

  • Try to do too much too soon.
  • Expect overnight result.
  • Let it slide after the first week.

Finally, reward yourself when you see little victories.
Here’s three books that might help:

PS: be your own best friend when you try to go this. Surround yourself with quality materials, and enjoy the process of learning. And before you know it, what seemed impenetrable will suddenly become clear 🙂

How to Write Microcontent

What’s the difference between writing for the web and writing for a magazine? There’s at least five main differences. Two of the most critical relate to scanning and heatmaps.
Eye Tracking - Develop web content based on how readers scan pages

Why readers scan (not read) webpages?

On the web, we scan pages, posts, and tweets.
We don’t read every line word by word, unless the writer is clever and breaks up the text fast – like I’m going to do:)
We scan text for three reasons:

  • Find what’s we’re after
  • See if it’s interesting
  • Decide where to go next

Let’s take a second look at this, because it’s worth examining.
When people come to your webpage, what do they want to do?
I’d say they want to:

  • Scan the main sections, (e.g. hierarchy, menus, images etc) and determine what it’s about
  • Research shows they stay for as little as three seconds before deciding where to go next. In other words, you have less than a heartbeat to persuade them to stay and continue browing.
  • If they decide to stay, it’s the content on the top (usually left) part of the screen they read first.

Why?
Because westerners (people, not the movies) are trained to read from…

  • …left to right and
  • top to bottom

Designing content to be scanned and read

So, how can you encourage readers to stay on your site that little bit longer?
Here’s a tactic that works:

  • Write headlines that combines a benefit with an emotional response. Don’t focus on either heart or heart. Try to appeal to both.
  • Keep the headline under six words.
  • Add a summary under the headline. This helps the reader understand the context of the article, i.e. where am i?, and hopefully to read onwards.
  • Use transitions to carry the reader from the summary into the body of the article. How? Ask questions, make a statement, suggest what’s next or create a little controversy.

Developing Content based on Heatmaps

This brings us to ‘heatmaps’. In simple english, this refers to a ‘map’ which shows where readers look most on pages.
The areas they read most appear in Red.
For you, when developing web content, this means placing the most critical pieces of content…

  • Call to Actions
  • Primary Links
  • Adverts

…in the red zones of the heat map.
Why?
If 90% of your readers are focussed here, why place these links elsewhere? You’ll get no clicks anyway.
Content placed…

  • In sidebars, e.g. banner ads
  • In large blocks of text and
  • Below the fold, i.e. you have to scroll down to see it

…are rarely examined.

The Two Second Eye Tracking Test

The good news is that you don’t need expensive software to test your site’s content. Here’s a low tech way to see your content the way new visitors to your site do:

  • Open your website on a laptop, not a large monitor.
  • Sit back (don’t lean in, they don’t).
  • Squint your eyes and look at the page.

What do you see?
If you’re honest, you’ll see a banner, your logo, and maybe the title of today’s article.
Now, keep squinting… and find the most important call to acton on the page.

  • Can you see it?
  • Does it stand out?
  • Do you feel like clicking on it?

How to write content reader want to click

That’s the bottom line, right?
Ok, here’s how to do it.

  • Write short headlines.
  • Use plain english. Avoid puns.
  • Lead with a benefit, such as How To Reduce…
  • Include a short summary.
  • Use bullet lists to break up the text.
  • Use sub heads, e.g. H2, to format the page.
  • Use images sparingly. If so, add a caption.
  • White space helps text breath.
  • Avoid cool fonts – use industry standard fonts
  • Use slightly larger than normal font sizes.
  • Use a limited color palate.

Conclusion

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Developing web content looks easy until you test its performance. Try and optimize it by 1%. Tricky, isn’t it.
The key to developing clickable web content is to 1) first understand how people read on the web and 2) develop scannable content based on these behaviors.
What have you found?
Have you noticed that readers scan pages faster than they used to? What type of content gets the most clicks? Where do you position images?

Double Your Words. Double Your Salary

Do you make money from writing? I mean any type of writing? Business writing, proposal writing, technical writing? If you do, you probably get paid by output. The more you produce, the more you earn, right? If you do, here are some ways I write more words per day. My aim isn’t to win the Nobel prize for literature. I make money writing words. That’s it. I type all day long. The more I type, the more money I make. Real simple.

Do you make money from writing?
I mean any type of writing? Business writing, proposal writing, technical writing? If you do, you probably get paid by output. The more you produce, the more you earn, right? If you do, here are some ways I write more words per day. My aim isn’t to win the Nobel prize for literature. That’s it. I type all day long. The more I type, the more money I make.
USA Peace Dollar 1921
1. Keep it short
Train yourself to write short, punchy sentences. Put your text on a diet. You’re not at university now. In the real world, you’re rewarded for brevity. A 300 page thesis is fine for your professor.
Instead of writing:

Refer to the following documents for Process Improvement instructions relating to the Credit Card process narration and process flow diagrams.

Use the active voice and write

This document outline the Credit Card process with supporting process flow diagrams.

 
Instead of using seventeen words

The screenshots outline the steps required to execute the request for printing the invoice copy from Oracle.

Reduce it to eleven. The meaning is the same and the content is easier to understand.

The screenshots show how to print the invoice copy in Oracle.

 
Instead of taking two lines…

The user can choose to email the invoice to the Customer. Alternatively the invoice can be faxed using Webex within Lotus notes to send the copy invoice to the Customer.

Get to the point faster and write

You can email the invoice to the Customer or fax it by using Webex option in Lotus Notes.

2. Be consistent
Don’t chop and change. Choose one term and stick with it throughout your document.
I’ve seen these three words used in the same document.

  1. Key in the invoice numbers
  2. Enter in the invoice numbers
  3. Type in the invoice numbers

Choose the correct word and stick with it. Don’t change words to make your document more ‘interesting’. Readers will often dip into a document at different pages; very few read the entire document, report or proposal.
3. Do you really need to add a Screenshot?
Do your documents really need screenshots? If not, don’t add them. Don’t add screenshots to fatten up a thin document or just to increase the page count. If you do need to add screenshots, decide if you need to capture:

  1. The entire desktop/screen/web browser
  2. One part of the desktop/screen/web browser
  3. One part of the application, for example, a specific field, table, or button.

Tip: use ALT+PrntScrn to take the ‘floating’ screen only. Highlight the active field with a red box and label each screenshot.
4. Taking Web Screenshots
Turn off the Favorites menu. No one needs to see your favorite websites. Likewise, you may want to turn off or delete icons near the lower status bar. Remove the URL if the web address is private.
5. Write in the Present Tense
Instead of writing

The screen that you get would show the links to these invoices

Use the present tense

The results screen displays links to these invoices.

Likewise, avoid using the conditional (if) and other tenses. Remember, the reader is using the application right NOW!
6. Email v Mail
Choose one term and stick with it. Email or mail. To me, Mail implies ‘snail mail’ as in regular mail.

…files are sent by email. Log onto your Lotus Notes to access the mail
…files are sent by email. Log onto your Lotus Notes to access your email

7. In v Within
Within usually refers to a timeframe. The meeting will be held within the next three to five days.
In refers to a location. The folder is in Lotus Notes.
Don’t
Copy to a folder within Lotus Notes.
Do
Copy to a folder in Lotus Notes.
PS: notice the Lotus and Notes are both uppercase.
8. You v User
No-one wants to be called a user! So, where possible, write the text as though the reader is sitting next to you.
Instead of

The user can print the invoice…

 
Suggestion

You can print the invoice…

9. Click v Select
Again, these are often confused. Buttons get clicked whereas you select options from a list.

Click a button

Select from a list of options.

Don’t

Select the Display Document button

Do

Click the Display Document button

10. Active v Passive
We’ve all been guilty of this one. Active gives your writing more energy. It tells you, the reader, what’s going to happen next. Passive, in contrast, fudges the issue slightly.
Saying that, there are times when you should use the passive voice. Such as? When you want to avoid blaming the reader (for example, if the application creates an error when they enter data incorrectly) or if you want to tone down a sensitive issue.
Instead of

The invoice is printed by SAP

Be direct. Say who does what.

SAP prints the invoice.

Instead of

Select the transaction SAP Transaction code: XXX201

say

Select the XXX201 transaction code.

Instead of

Select the line items by double-clicking on the item which takes you into the screen shown below – Line Item 001

 
Write

Double-click on an item to open the Line Item 001 screen.

11. Lowercase is fine, sometimes!
Don’t user uppercase for emphasis. It’s a cliché that has crept into technical writing and needs to be monitored. Lowercase if fine and usually correct.
 
Instead of:

Line Item Drill down

Write

Line item drill-down

Note: drill-down is one word. Line item is not a noun.

Enter User ID and password

Enter the User and Password fields.

12. Hide the Header/Footer on the first page
I’ve added this, even though it’s not to do with writing per se. Most business and technical documents don’t require the page number on the first page. To hide the page number on the first page of your document:

  • Open Microsoft Word,
  • On the Insert menu, click Page Numbers.
  • Select or clear the Show number on first page check box.

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Those are some ways I control the style and format of my business documents.
How about you? What do you do to get documents out the door that bit faster?
 

Detox your Documents: Put Your Words on a Diet

Goethe once wrote to a friend, “If I had more time, I’d have sent you a shorter letter.” Here’s why.

Goethe once wrote to a friend, “If I had more time, I’d have sent you a shorter letter.” Here’s why.
We’re all guilty of using clichés and resorting to figures of speech, especially after a long day slaving over a PC. Nonetheless, we still need to streamline our material and make sure that readers get something worthy of their attention.
Here are seven ways to cut the fat from your documents and get them back to health.

The Non-Designer’s Design Book
Let’s start.
Get a recent sample of one of your documents writing, for example, a sales letter or proposal, and look for the following horrors.
1. There are…
Avoid using this as an opener; it sounds jaded. It gives the impression that you couldn’t think of anything more interesting.
The same goes for “It is.”
These empty subjects and weak verbs add no value to your work and dilute the power of your writing. Rearrange sentences to avoid these fillers.

Not: There are now thousands of websites on the Internet.

Use: Thousands of websites are now on the Internet.

2. Ditch clichés
Make a list of your most frequently used clichés.
Paste it next to your PC, or wherever you work.
Once you’re finished drafting a document, double-check that you have not let any of these creep in.
Watch out for clichés entering your copy when you are tired, in a hurry, or impatient.
I tend to resort to clichés when I’m low on energy or waste want to wrap things up. It’s a waste of time. In the morning, I have to re-write it anyway.
Some words and expressions are so overused that they’ve been reduced to meaningless phrases.
For example:

Pre-plan — plan is fine. Can you really pre-plan?
Solution — isn’t everything a solution these days? There must be an alternative.
Seamless — is it really?
Micro Manage — manage
Access — usage, allow,
Paradigm — business model
Radical — different
Broad Range — spectrum
Synergy — connection,
Enterprise — company
Virtually Unlimited — endless
Utilize — use
Proactive — active

3. Remove what’s redundant
Go through your writing and root out redundancies, such as:

Blue in color (what else could it be besides color)
Large in size (what other kind of large is there?)
New innovation (is there an old innovation?)
End result (and the beginning result was…)
Final outcome (… was just the outcome.)

4. Be selective with Passive verbs
Passive verb tend to offer a weak, roundabout way of saying something.
In general, you can replace a passive verb with an active verb and improve the clarity of the sentence.

Not: The computer was built by John.
But: John built the computer.

5. Evil adverbs.
“Rather,” “very,” “quite”: These adverbs dilute your writing.
Cut them out and the meaning of your sentence becomes sharper and will resonate with more conviction. Poor adverbs tend to convey vagueness and a lack of interest.

Not: I was rather worried that our computers were quite unsafe.
But: I was concerned that our computers were unsafe.

6. Get to the point
We use the verb “say” so much that we tend not even to read the phrase itself.
Hemingway could get away with it, but you’re not Hemingway. Well, I’m not anyway.
Even though it’s nice to use an alternative choice every now and then, avoid using different verbs simply to get around using “he said, she said”. Constantly using different verbs in place of “say” knocks the reader off balance; it sounds contrived.
7. Jargon
Just as rappers (and their fans) used their own private language to differentiate themselves from others, companies also fall into this trap.
One of my former managers always spoke about ‘low hanging fruit.
I bet that if you worked for the company I did, you’d have heard it.
Why?
Everyone used this on conf calls and in presentations. It was company lingo. They all used it to emphasize that there were ‘in’.
There was never a plan – we ‘transitioned’ instead.
Programmers were ‘technologists’.
It was our own private, internal language. When it crept into emails, memos, and circulars, then it could be understood. But when it appeared in customer facing reports and technical documents, then you have a problem.
3 Style Guides and Writing Books I Recommend

The Non-Designer’s Design Book

Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (3rd Edition)

Technical Editing (4th Edition)

What clichés do they use at your place?

How To Mind Your Grammar On The Web

Ben Parr (Mashable) asks: “Say your project manager comes to you with his proposal that will be going out to investors, business partners, and potential clients.
Then you find that your manager has used “4” instead of “four”, “r” instead of “are”, and abbreviations such as lol, atm, and idk.
How would you react? ” Continue reading “How To Mind Your Grammar On The Web”

Writing a Style Guide: What you need to know

In publishing and media companies, use of a style guide is the norm. However, style guides can also be useful for any organization that prepares documents for clients and the public. This article is for organizations outside of the publishing industry who can benefit from the introduction of a style guide.

style guides for technical writersIn publishing and media companies, use of a style guide is the norm. However, style guides can also be useful for any organization that prepares documents for clients and the public. This article is for organizations outside of the publishing industry who can benefit from the introduction of a style guide.
Continue reading “Writing a Style Guide: What you need to know”