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

Why negative online reviews get more traffic than positive ones?

Screaming for helpWhy do we relish bad reviews? Oliver James warns, “We want to hear about bad things happening to other people, because it makes us feel better about ourselves.”
If you believed the experts, you’d think that the only way to succeed online was to be nice, fair, and generous.
The reality is different. I’ve been writing online since Netscape launched it’s first browser. So, I’ve seen a lot. Just by observing things online you can learn tactics that – if you want – you can apply to your own business. If you want.

Bad v Good Reviews

One of things I’ve noticed is that, negative reviews provoke people into a response. It seems that if something is framed in the right way, you can tempt people to get off the fence and

Don’t believe me?
How much time do you spend reading reviews of the best restaurants in town? Very little, I’d say. But, when you see someone lay into some celebrity chef, it’s hard not to lean forward and read with glee why the gold star eatery is really an over-priced dive.
Jay Rayner makes this point on The Guardian, saying that, “Nobody would want to read a bunch of my positive appraisals. But give them write-ups which compare the food to faecal matter, the decor to an S&M chamber and the service to something the staff of a Russian gulag would reject for being too severe, and then readers are interested”

How to write bad reviews

Let’s say you want to run an experiment and see if bad reviews do get more traffic. Here’s a suggested approach, and some warnings.

  • Choose a topic you are familiar with. Don’t rant about something about which you have no knowledge. Readers will pick up on this very quickly.
  • Find other articles that have covered this topic from a POSITIVE angle.
  • Write the article and pepper it with inflammatory phrases, slightly outlandish claims, and extreme conclusions. Looking for inspiration? Listen to Rush Limbaugh or others like him.
  • Make sweeping statements. Use phrases such as ‘as everybody knows’, ‘only a fool would disagree with..’, ‘it’s obvious to an intelligent person that’ and so on. Use these constructions to provoke the reader into contradicting your claims.
  • Support your arguments with quotes, stats, and other evidence that proves your assertion.
  • Close the article by defying the reader to oppose your view. Or to step forward and agree with what you said.

Risks with bad reviews

While this does work, you can’t write endless posts dissing others. It gets tedious after a while. You’ll develop a reputation as a ranter. Instead,  balance the negativity with more reflective posts. This gives the readers a chance to pause and get their breath back. Then, when the moment is right, launch another scathing attack on the next hapless victim
Is this approach justified? Is it a dignified way to make a living? Should you do it?
It depends.
Like many things in life, it’s critical to know what motivates others. What makes them take action online? What tactics can you use to persuade (read: Influence) readers online.
Maybe I’m wrong. What do you think?

PG Wodehouse Tips on (Web) Writing

PGWodehouse-writing-tipsWhat’s great about this gem from P.G. Wodehouse is that it applies to all types of writing: business, fiction, and web.
“Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.”

Web Writing: Unlearning Bad Habits

One of the difficulties I had when I started to write for the web was that the style I had been taught in school didn’t work online. Maybe you’ve experienced the same thing.
Writing long, flowery prose is fine for essays but, on the web, it’s brevity that wins.
Because on the web:

  1. We scan for information.
  2. We’re in a hurry.
  3. We’re searching for signposts (keywords) and
  4. We want an ANSWER to a specific problem.

Think about it.
You visit a site with some problem, query, or interest in mind. Then you go searching. Scanning over pages for the words that provide the answer.
This is so different than padding out a 3,000 word essay on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Web Writing Formula

One way I’ve managed to make this transition from academic writing to web writing is to use the following formula:

  1. Give yourself fifteen minutes to write a post. No more.
  2. Use short words only. For example, write get instead of procure.
  3. Remove adjectives unless than are critical. Streamline the waffle.
  4. Use bullets and headings to structure the post.
  5. Read it out loud. Sound pretentious, timid, boring? Go back and revise the text until it rings true.

And that’s really it.
That doesn’t mean everything you write has to be simplistic and shallow. Far from it. Instead, it means you get to the point faster, help the reader identify what they need to understand, and guide them to the next page, post, or site you recommend.
What’s the hardest thing about writing for the web?

The Best of Plum Wodehouse…

  • Sell your work, try to sell your work, don’t hide behind a mask of “individuality” or “creativity”. Good stuff always sells in the end, but you have to keep going until then. The notebooks are full of instructions to himself. They were going to be re-read. “Try this..” crops up time and time again. mtmg.wordpress.com
  • Advice to writers who want to do humorous fiction. I don’t think a man can deliberately sit down to write a funny story unless he has got a sort of slant on life that leads to funny stories. If you take life fairly easily, then you take a humorous view of things. kirstenmortensen.com
  • In his last decade, Wodehouse could still average 1,000 words a day where, as a younger man, he had often written 2,500 words and more. dailyroutines.typepad.com
  • The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play – See more at: scribblepreach.com
  • Keep professional notebooks. The entries in Wodehouse’s notebooks and commonplace books are numbered for future reference. garreteer.co.uk
  • “I should think it extremely improbable that anyone ever wrote simply for money. What makes a writer is that he likes writing. Naturally, when he has written something, he wants to get as much for it as he can, but that is a very different thing from writing for money.”laneymcmann.com
  • Are you bored? Snap out of it! Never blog when you’re feeling bored, it comes across in your words. Arouse your enthusiasm. When I feel bored, and know I need to write anyway. angelabooth.com
  • “It is never very difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” www.badlanguage.net

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?

Why Do Bad Things Always Happen To Me?

Why me? One of the kids shouted out while spawning on Minecraft. Why me and not someone else?
Mandala 002

Why Me in Kids

When we hear this in others, it strikes a chord but not the one (I expect) they’d hope in us. When the kids gets slaughtered on Minecraft or the Xbox, it’s not that serious. You’ll know they’ll be ok pretty soon, especially if they find some rare jewels. It’s a hunt, build, and destroy game.

Why Me in Adults

But it’s different when we hear it in adults.
Why me?

  • Why should I have to face this?
  • What did I do to deserve this?
  • Why shouldn’t it be someone else?

Why not you?
One of the harshest lessons I’ve learnt is that there if you’re expecting justice at home, work, or on this planet, you’ll be disappointed.
And become bitter in the process.
Accepting that injustice is part of life changes things.
For example, last night I had to stay at work until 9pm. You could – and I did – rationalize this and look and the pros and cons of having a job and so forth.
But that’s not the point. Sometimes it’s your turn. And that’s it.
Accepting it somehow lessens the blow.
How do you cope when you feel why me?

Why do middle-aged English women make the best murder mystery writers?

Isn’t it strange that women make the best murder mystery writers? Well, maybe it isn’t but there is something in me that wonders why women writers have this genre nailed.

Why women make the best murder writers?

This little story is true.
I was in the office many years ago and two of the girls started chatting about some murder show on TV.
They were both rabbitting on about how predictable it was and, if they were writing the story, they’d have changed the plot?
For example, I asked.
Well, the first one said, it was very naive to kill the person on a mountain top.
Because, the corpse would be preserved and leave evidence. Better to thrown the body into the river. The other nodded in agreement and then expanded on the point.
And on it went for ten minutes…
It struck me that the girls were looking at this in a very clinical way. And it was that distance that allowed them to cross-check the plot, see gaps, and close any loopholes. I’m not sure guys have the patience.
Maybe they like to get started and into the action, regardless of the consequence. I’m not sure.
In either case, I’m surrounded by wonderful books by female murder writers but not one by a man.
Here’s some I have:

What do you think? Who would you add to this list?

How to Improve StumbleUpon's 404 Page?

What’s wrong with this 404 page on StumbleUpon? Before we start, the cats are lovely and SU is a goldmine. Saying that, there’s always room for improvement.  Read how to improve error messages, help, forms, and other crisis points if this topic interests you.

What is a 404 Page?

First, what is a 404 page?
It’s the page you’re shown, when the site’s search engine (or index) can’t find what you’re looking for.
In other words, you search for some phrase, it searches the index, and if it’s not there, you get a 404 page.

How to write 404 Pages

I know it sounds simple but develop the page with the reader in mind. Instead of telling them that they made an error or, even worse, there is nothing you can do for them, look at the problem as an opportunity.
Here’s how:

  • What word, phrase or acronym did they use? Capture this in a log file. If it keeps coming up in searches, see if you need to add it to your index or list of keywords.
  • What were they trying to find? For example, if they typed in the name of the product incorrectly, be smart enough to give them the correct page?
  • What should they do next? Here’s where  StumbleUpon could improve the page very easily. If your site has a directory (or site map), add this to the 404 page. Instead of hitting Back, maybe they will use the site map instead.
  • Mind your Langauge. Don’t blame or suggest that the user got it wrong. Keep it light and find ways to help them get to their destination. For example, include a link to your tech support’s twitter account. That’s what it’s there for, right?

How to improve 404 Pages

There’s often something negative about 404 pages. I think this may be because they are often:

  • Written as an after-thought.
  • Often by the developers (not web writers).
  • Seen as low value.

Try to turn this around. Look for ways to help stranded readers find their way back to the page – or close to the page – they were looking for.
Give them at least two way to do this. For example, include a site map and a contact form on the 404 page.
You want them to contact you, right?
If not, then they’ll pick up on this and go elsewhere.
And this may be the real problem with 404 pages. When I land on one, I feel that it’s my fault. Words like ‘error’and ‘incorrect’ should be removed from these pages.
Instead, flip it around. Ask how you can help them find what they’re looking for?
StumbleUpon got it half right with the cute cats and the map… but they forgot to show us, the lost reader, the map.
How would you improve this 404 page?

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?

Why New Yorkers Make Great Web Links

Search Engine for Amazon made with Adobe Flash #3
Image by Ivan Walsh via Flickr

Gerry McGovern
A good link has no time for small talk or niceties. It acts like a signpost, like a promise. With a good link, what you see is what you get.
If most of today’s web links were married they’d be heading for divorce. Because they never keep their promises. “Darling, I’ll home at 10.” But the cad of a link doesn’t come home until 4 in the morning.
The link says, “Launch online application form.” What’s a reasonable expectation? That if you click on the link, an online application form will be launched. So I click. Nothing launches. I just get a page of useless text telling me stuff like: “This is a secure site designed to help customers correctly complete a passport application online.” Well, fancy that. Continue reading “Why New Yorkers Make Great Web Links”