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 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?