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.
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.


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 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.

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.
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.


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?

9 Step Strategy for Writing Summaries That Intrigue Readers

This article is about writing headlines, summaries and abstracts. Before we start, what is an Abstract?
Philip Koopman, at Carnegie Mellon University, reminds us that, “Writing an efficient abstract is hard work, but will repay you with increased impact on the world by enticing people to read your publications. Make sure that all the components of a good abstract are included in the next one you write.”
This article is about writing headlines, summaries and abstracts. Before we start, what is an Abstract
Photo Credit Pjern

Why We read Abstracts and Summaries?

When you open your inbox every Monday morning and see a stream of emails crying for attention. Which do you choose? I’d guess it’s the ones with the snappiest headlines, like these:

  • Zen and the Art of Remarkable Blogging
  • A Simple Four-Step Strategy for Developing Content That Connects
  • The Benjamin Franklin Guide to Marketing Your Business Online
  • Five Common Headline Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
  • Become a Master of Metaphor and Multiply Your Blogging Effectiveness
  • Metaphor, Simile and Analogy: What’s the Difference?

These are from CopyBlogger .com and show how smart headlines can tickle your fancy. So, when you read, ‘Are You Leaving Your Readers Out of the Conversation?’ you can’t help but start to answer the question in your mind. And when you do that, you open the article and start to read.
So, good headlines act like hooks bringing you into the story.
Abstracts are also important. We have an ever-increasing need for quick access to information we rely on abstracts and summaries to provide a snapshot of what’s in the article.
If you visualize it as a pyramid, on the top is headlines, then summaries, and then the body of the article. You can see how one leads to the other.

How To Write An Abstract

You have two options. Write it before you start on the main document or after you’ve finished writing, take a break and explore:

  • What is the main subject in this article?
  • What conclusion has the writer made?
  • What message does the writer want to convey?
  • What do you want the reader to do after reading the document?

Analyze this and define it in one sentence – this is your ‘topic’ sentence.
Write one topic sentence that covers the entire document, regardless of whether the document is a five page letter or a hundred page annual report.
1. Getting Ideas
Then, look at the recommendations, conclusions, summaries, and results in the final document. When abstracting a technical manual, look at the tutorials and see if these help form the topic sentence.
2. Don’t Use the Document’s Title
Avoid using the formal name of the document as this can be misleading and may not help you write the topic sentence. Chances are the ‘working title’ will be too vague. Parts of the title might serve as modifiers in your topic sentence, but you’ll probably need to go beyond the title.
3. Be Specific
Make the topic sentence as specific as possible.
Avoid writing

“This report describes [document title].”

Instead, write something like

“The results of this [subject] study show that [result].”

4. Use Supporting Sentences
After you identify your topic sentence, write supporting sentences. Make each of these supply specific details about the ideas in the topic sentence. Think of what supports the topic sentence.

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How? and
  • How much?

Give statistics, results, conclusions, or recommendations that back up the topic sentence. Only use two or three major supporting ideas. Include the less important evidence as subordinate clauses and modifiers.
5. Use Transitions
Arrange the supporting sentences in a logical sequence after the topic sentence. Add whatever transition is needed to connect the supporting sentences to the topic sentence and to connect ideas within the sentences to each other.
Re-write the sentences to improve the connections.

10 Other Ways to Write a Better Abstract

  1. Write the abstract only when the document is finished. Abstracts written before then are just previews.
  2. If you are forced to write an abstract before the document is completed, think about its purpose and write a topic sentence. Keep in mind that you’ll need to rewrite the abstract when the document is finished because it will no longer accurately reflect the contents of the document.
  3. Before starting the abstract, list your thoughts on the document. Group related items together.
  4. Prioritize the list and put the most important group first. The first few groups form the core of the topic sentence. The rest lead to supporting sentences.
  5. If you can’t create a topic sentence, write the supporting sentences first. The topic sentence may then become obvious.
  6. Write for an audience not necessarily up to speed in your subject area. This is important because you never know who will read your abstract.
  7. Choose acronyms, abbreviations, and technical terms carefully as they may confuse many readers.
  8. Define the scope of the project in the abstract.
  9. Re-read your abstract after several days have passed and remove superfluous information and padding.

This technique works for documents of any length from a couple of pages to multi-volumes.

Using Keywords in Abstracts

I’ve added this in as many business documents are published directly to the web. This tip applies to writing abstracts, headlines and summaries.
Use keywords in your Titles, Abstracts, Headlines are documents are file electronically. As users search for documents by keywords, write the documents headings with these keywords in mind.
Likewise, your abstract must contain keywords that about the article, proposal, or report so readers can retrieve it quickly.
What other ways can we improve our business documents?

How to write Link Bait for Digg, Reddit or StumbleUpon

Want to be on the very first page of Digg.com? You’d be famous, right? Here’s how to do it.
Link Bait has one specific aim — get me to the top of Digg.com. The idea is that once you get there, others will click through to your site and you can reap the rewards once they arrive. Of  course, it’s not that simple but if understand the mechanics of how Digg works —and what interests Diggers—then you’re one step closer.
So, pull up a chair, grab your coffee and sit back.
1. Study Digg – this is the number 1 mistake people make. They don’t hang out on Digg, get a feel for what’s happening and learn to judge what will work or not. So, sign up, log in and engage.
Why bother?
Well, it’s like writing a travel guide on Italy without ever having pizza on the Step of Rome. Once you’re there, everything makes more sense. Digg, Delicious and the rest are all the same.
Tip — if you want to succeed with link bait, focus on one site. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
Ok, you’ve signed up. Use a real name if possible, not greenpig715.
People relate to real names; they are more likely to dig you if you sound human than use an avatar. But there are exceptions, I know.
2. Create a Swap File.
A what?
This is a file where you will keep links, snippets of text and other link bait that impresses you.
Told you it would take some time!
Now, this isn’t hard. You just need a text file and then copy/paste in whatever stands out.
Why is this so important?
Ans: headlines.
3. Headlines
Look at the DIGG homepage. What do you see?
Headlines. Lots of them.
Copy and paste the top 10 headlines into your swap file. Do this as often as you can.
Notice anything?
Most of them are lists.

  • 5 ways to sleep while working
  • 7 ways to wash your iPod
  • 10 ways to alienate your children

People like lists. And what else do they like?
4. Benefits
Give your heading an extra boost by adding a nice, juicy benefit.
For example,

  • 5 beers that get you drunk faster & make you smarter
  • 7 ways to break your iPod & get an instant refund
  • 10 ways to alienate your children & win an award

You get the idea.
All of these are slightly idiotic but—here’s the thing—you’re tempted to see what’s on the other side of the link.
5. Write to be scanned
No-one reads on the web, they all scan.
So, write to be scanned.
Write your article or blog post so that readers will scan down through the article — like you’re doing now — go, “yeah, I like this” and then, fingers crossed, hit the DIGG IT button and do us all a good deed.
Sounds to easy. It is. You need to also…
6. Add ‘off-beat’ images
Avoid PC junk. Add an image that captures the mood and will appeal to the reader. Something with an edge but not too risky.
Humor also works. Get it wrong and you look lame.
7. Credibility
It takes time but if you join other networks and comment on others post, guess what?
They’ll hang out with you and give you a few digs. This does work but it’s a really slow way to generate link bait. It does work, but, well, it’s not for me.
8 & 9  Test & Re-Test

Here’s something I do and it works.
Write a 300 word article. About anything. Doesn’t matter.
Spend 20 min and come up with 20 variation on the same headline. Have fun. Shuffle the words upside down, inside out and back to front.
It’s yours to play with. Enjoy it.

  • Mon – submit the 1st headline. On Wed, record the Diggs.
  • Thurs – change the headline and submit it. Record the Diggs.
  • Sat — change again and submit it. Record the Diggs.

And so on…
Then what happens?
Patterns begin to emerge. Some headings bomb.
No-one clicks on them.
Not even your Mom, kids or pet Labrador, Caesar.
Others take off!
Paste these into your swap file (remember him) and use this as a starting point.
Twitter is also another way to test headlines.
Remember – No-one bookmarks tweets.
It you know how to write, people will click thru.
And finally…
10. Practice
Like all things, the more you practice, the better you get.
Focus on writing amazing headlines, develop super-sharp content, and you’ll get the Diggs.
Want to know more?
Top Diggs of the year
7 Days – http://digg.com/all/popular/7days
365 Days – http://digg.com/all/popular/365days
Check these out and you can see what people are interested in. These are the big hitters.
Avoid news of the day type material. The web is saturated before you even get there.
Write, submit, Digg.
What do you think?
What’s the best example you’ve seen of link bait? Was it the words or the images?

How The Huffington Post uses Real-time Testing to Write Better Headlines

Zachary M. Seward niemanlab.org writes that The Huffington Post applies A/B testing to some of its headlines. Readers are randomly shown one of two headlines for the same story. After five minutes, which is enough time for such a high-traffic site, the version with the most clicks becomes the wood that everyone sees.

Put the Author’s name above a headline to get more clicks

Paul Berry, Chief Technology Officer at The Huffington Post, said Huffington Post editors have found that “placing the author’s name above a headline almost always leads to more clicks than omitting it.”
Also, The Huffington Post’s new social media editor, Josh Young, has also been soliciting better headlines from readers on Twitter. Interesting use of Crowd-sourcing?


The Huffington Post is considering separate East Coast and West Coast editions.
Take the Oscars, It’s old news to East Coast readers by noon, but fresh for the West Coasters logging on.
Read more here: www.niemanlab.org
Will real-time rating lead to “better” headlines or more popular ones?

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