Writing for the Web

Published on February 20, 2007

Writing for the web is different from traditional writing. For one, you must deal with different user behaviors. Another difference is the fact that you are writing for a worldwide medium.

Web users are impatient and want information quickly. Almost 80% don't read; they scan. And when they do read, they read up to 25% slower.

Also, your content may reach readers that are not fluent in the language you are writing in. Or it may reach readers with mental disabilities or low literacy. Plus, your readers may differ in age, sex, education, and so on.

Keeping these differences in mind means your content must be written for scannability and respect the uniqueness of readers. Doing so will improve the usability and accessibility of your content.

Here are 10 tips for writing effective web content:

  1. Start with the Summary

    A summary tells readers what the article is about. It lets them decide whether to continue reading or not. For returning readers, they can read the summary to remember the main points of the article.

  2. Use Inverted Pyramid Style

    Start with the conclusion, reveal supporting facts, and end with the background. This allows readers to stop at any time and still take away the most important points of the content.

  3. Use Effective Headings

    Headings improve scannability by breaking content into small, easy-to-read pieces. They organize and reveal the purpose of the content.

    Effective headings are concise (60 characters maximum), meaningful (even when read out of context), and do not attempt to be cute or clever.

  4. Use Lists

    Lists are more scannable than a block of text. They quickly tell the reader how much information to expect. Using lists can increase usability by up to 124%.

    • Use bulleted lists when order does not matter
    • Use numbered lists when order matters
    • Vertical lists preferred over inline lists
    • Don't overuse!
  5. Keep it Simple

    Using big words, complex sentences, and lengthy paragraphs won't impress your users. Most users prefer a conversational tone. Keeping it simple improves usability and accessibility, especially for those with low literacy.

    • Use simple words: ­ “causes cancer” is simpler than “carcinogenic
    • Use short words: ­ “also” is shorter than “additionally
    • Keep sentences brief
    • Stick to one idea per paragraph
  6. Frontload Everything

    Users scan web pages in an F-shaped pattern. First, they scan the top part of a web page horizontally. Then, they move down a bit and scan horizontally again. Finally, they scan the left side of web page vertically.

    Take advantage of this user behavior by frontloading your content. Besides using the Inverted Pyramid Style (tip #2), also start heading, list items, sentences, and paragraphs with information-carrying words.

  7. Emphasize Text

    Emphasize keywords and key phrases to improve scannability:

    • Make text bold
    • Increase text size
    • Use hyperlinks
    • Don't overuse!
  8. Know Your Readers

    Identify your target audience. This will help you write in a tone and style that communicates to them. Address their concerns and write at a level they can relate to.

    Avoid jargons, acronyms, sarcasms, idioms, clichés, and puns.

  9. Use Readability Tools

    Use the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test to measure your content's reading scores. Let your target audience determine what scores you should aim for. For general web users:

    • 65 reading ease or higher for most pages
    • 8th grade level or lower for most pages
    • 6th grade level for high-exposure pages, like the homepage
  10. Write To Be Found

    This is another difference of writing for the web. Users may use search engines to find the content they are looking for.

    Make sure to include words your readers may use for search. These would be familiar words commonly associated with the article's topic. Do not use made up or fancy words. The key is to use their words, not yours.

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