Learn10 Things to Consider when Writing for the Web

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writes on December 2, 2009

Writing for the web is a challenge. There are usually word length restrictions, the fact that users scan rather than read every word, and sometimes style guides to adhere to.

There are enough writing tips online to keep you reading for longer than you probably desire. Here are 1o tips that have been the most useful to me:

  1. Know your audience

    This sounds obvious but is often taken for granted. The only way you can write relevant copy that is targeted at the right audience in the right tone of voice, is to understand who that audience is. Depending on where your audience are located, you may have to include local expressions or if writing for a wide audience be specific with things such as dollars. If it is US dollars then say so. If it is Cardiff in Wales then say so as there is also a Cardiff in New Zealand and other countries.

  2. Decide why you are writing?

    Linked to the previous tip, as well as knowing who you are writing for you need to know why you are writing for them. Is it to get them to register, persuade them to buy something, deliver information to them or get them to subscribe to something?

    Your answer to this question should determine what you write.

  3. Headlines

    A well thought of and clear headline can generate four times the interest of a poor one. Headlines shouldn’t be longer than 7 words and should be written in the present tense.

  4. Upper case

    Avoid the use of ALL UPPER CASE in your copy as it takes 57% longer to read. Also avoid starting every word with a capital letter in your headings.

  5. Choose the right words

    Certain words can hold the reader’s attention whilst others can turn them off. Words that people like include thoughtful, imagination, progress, and ambition. Less popular words include dispute, failure, weak, and extravagant.

    Use contractions. That is, use ‘you’re’ instead of ‘you are’ and ‘doesn’t’ instead of ‘does not’. Whilst some are of the opinion that the contractions are bad English, they do make the copy less formal and more conversational which is often the tone of voice and style that is required on the web.

  6. Acronyms

    Avoid using these if possible. It would be careless to assume that everybody who visits your site will understand the meaning of any acronyms you use. However, this is linked to knowing your audience. The same rule here applies to jargon, avoid as best you can, cutting out any unnecessary complexities.

  7. Punctuation

    Minimise punctuation as best you can. Punctuation marks can be difficult to discern on screens, especially semi-colons, so try using commas or shorter sentences instead.

  8. Effective Hyperlinks

    Your hyperlinked words tend to stand out against standard copy so should be relevant and motivate the user into carrying out an action. I don’t like ‘click here’ but if this is used, it is more effective to use it along with some contextual information, so ‘click here to apply for a loan’. This way the user knows exactly where they will be led.

  9. The right length

    Keep your sentences short. If they are too long then reader’s interest will dip and your message will become muddled. One rule of thumb is that sentences should be between 15 and 20 words long. Please don’t count all my sentences in this article, just in case I broke the rule!

    Paragraphs should be no more than 5 lines of type long, or in depth. Also, a good measure to abide by is that there should be no more than three sentences per paragraph.

    Make your copy digestible by using sub sections, headings and lists where appropriate. If you do use lists try not to have more than 6 items in each one.

  10. Proof read

    Another obvious point but not always one that is carried out. Proof reading and editing should be a matter of course when it comes to writing. If a user is deep in your text and spots an error it will immediately break the connection between them and your site.

They are some of my favourite tips. If you have any of your own then please share them in the comments below.

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64 Responses to “10 Things to Consider when Writing for the Web”

  1. Police department are discussed fairly routinely when managing
    illicit purchases, as well as dark net market areas are no exception.

  2. Robert Mills on December 9, 2009 at 4:29 pm said:

    Thanks for all the comments everyone.

    Glad the article has been useful and I enjoyed reading all the other suggestions and tips too.

    Rob.

  3. thank for the great info.

  4. Totally agree about uppercase, I just hate them and hate people writting so.

  5. Very nice summary of some of the most useful tips. Writing for the web is a different art than writing an essay or printed article, as readers are often in search of quick information and don’t want to hang around long. This is why certain grammar rules and “good” English can be sacrificed!

  6. This informative, thanks you share this tips, I already do that step just the step number five still in progress.

  7. thanks for sharing, I’ll follow the tips when I write blogs, it’s really useful thing…..

  8. Another Rule : “Don’t Copy & Paste” , ” Avoid Copy Cat”

  9. Your article is quite nice. Answering Charlez opinion above, i think if a healine contains more than 7 words, it will have bad effect on the SEO perspective. Google will see that as black seo. But it just my opinion

  10. I think your article is usefull, but there are several things that i dont agree:
    “Headlines shouldn’t be longer than 7 words and should be written in the present tense”
    “One rule of thumb is that sentences should be between 15 and 20 words long”

    I think that is not the role of thumbs, i see may web with more that 20 words and its still worthed to read

  11. This is a fantastic article! It’s actually kind of sad how many blogs are not aware of who they’re writing for, and even worse, are unaware that you need to copy edit PRIOR to publishing.

    Thank you for writing this – it’s amazing and totally bookmarked.

  12. Great article, I think it’s more important than ever to have good content on your website, too many people overlook the importance of copy and then wonder why their search engine positioning is suffering or people aren’t staying on the site for very long.

  13. Just another excellent post, thanks again. Great stuff!

  14. What a great list you have put together. The use of acronyms is good advice for sure. My rule when using them is to always write it out the first time with the acronym behind it. Then use the acronym throuhout the remainder of the copy (if applicable of course). Loved your post.

    Beat wishes

  15. I think no.10 is the most important and of course most neglected. If you are writing,are successful, and have people coming back again & again to read your posts, thenit can be inferred that you are following most of the tips mentioned.However a positive following also sometimes brings in a sense of overconfidence, and consequent negligence. My suggestion is people should continue their learning process, even if they feel they are successful.Success is a relative term and there is no cap for it.

    You can view my post on capacity building at http://www.shyamsunder.wordpress.com

    Shyam

  16. Those are really good tips.. Nice post thanks

  17. writer extraordinaire on December 3, 2009 at 4:08 pm said:

    Weird – one word was taken out of my post “poorly written MESS” and two random words were added at the end. Ah well, even when one is being careful, technology can get in the way…

  18. writer extraordinaire on December 3, 2009 at 4:06 pm said:

    The fact that the author felt even slightly compelled to put together such an obvious and elementary list of writing tips is clear evidence of something I’ve known for a long time – most people are crappy writers (hey, I’m a crappy painter; we can’t all do everything). Web designers and developers should always have professional writers in their stables and should utilize them every chance they can. The fact that people (both designers and clients) often push cutting corners by not wanting to pay for a professional writer/editor/proofreader seems utterly insane to me. The entire point of having a website is to convey your content as effectively as possible. The graphics can be as slick as ice, but if the text is a garbled, mispunctuated, poorly written, I for one am taking my business elsewhere. Every single time. And I’m not alone in this – many people I know (writers and non-writers alike) won’t touch a business with bad text on its website or print media.

    Do yourself and your clients a favor and hire a professional. And if you’re the designer, push your clients to pay for a wordsmith. It’s worth the investment every single time. Unless you’re putting together a site for a writer, neither you nor your client can do a better job than a professional.

    And yes,

  19. Yeah, i definitely need to improve my writing skills 🙂

  20. I’m torn: I like your article and agree with some of your points, however, I take exception with a few. I don’t like the idea that you’re advocating tossing out grammar and punctuation just to accommodate “writing for the web.” Isn’t that like throwing the baby out with the bath water — pardon the pun.

    Avoid contractions — come on, we’re all grown ups.
    Avoid long sentences — I’m an educated individual with an exceptional ability to read the written word. Consistent use of short sentences is best suited for advert copy.

    Can’t we all just write intelligently?

  21. I’m torn: I like your article and agree with some of your points, however, I take exception with a few. I don’t like the idea that you’re advocating tossing out grammar and punctuation just to accommodate “writing for the web.” Isn’t that like throwing the baby out with the bath water — pardon the pun.

    Avoid contractions — come on, we’re all grown ups.
    Avoid long sentences — I’m an educated individual with an exceptional ability to read the written word. Consistent use of short sentences is best suited for advert copy.

    Can’t we all just write intelligently?

  22. John Kessler on December 3, 2009 at 2:14 pm said:

    Proofreading is of course a must, but I find I can read over the same obvious mistake in my work several times and not notice it, but once the item has been published the error jumps off the page or screen at me. The lesson I have learned is to either proof read at least the next day after writing or have someone else proofread for me. Printing out the copy and reading it on paper may help as well.

    Perhaps it’s the change in context that makes a difference. I’ve often carefully proofed a message I’ve written to a forum like this before clicking “Submit” and was 100% positive I had corrected every error, only to see huge obvious errors once the message was posted.

  23. I’m always trying to push my clients in this direction. Now I’ll just send them to this article. Thanks!

  24. Thank you for the tips!

    I’d like to add that those tips are very useful to everyone, not only those who write web copy.

    I teach English to foreigners and teaching them to write digestible texts is really hard – a lot of my students write paragraph-long sentences and are very proud of themselves. They think I’m mean when I correct them and split one sentence into three. I’ll show them your post and hopefully they’ll get the idea. 🙂

  25. I have to disagree on number 9. Shorter sentences are good. But if you are keeping the reader’s attention with your content, length is not a big issue. Context is much more important than format.

  26. Hello Rob,

    thanks for taking the time to explain a few things. I posted the comment “Concerning #4: ‘Also avoid starting every word with a capital letter in your headings”. Can you explain why you shouldn’t?’

    Could you tell me why this is bad? I’m very curious 😉

    Thanks,

    Ivo

    • Robert Mills on December 3, 2009 at 1:32 pm said:

      Hi Ivo,

      Sorry, I didn’t mean to ignore your question. The answer is that it is incorrect English to start every word with a capital letter and it is unnecessary.

      There is some interesting information in the Wikipedia Manual of Style about capitalisations (or capitalizations) and whilst it is specific to Wikipedia content, I still think it is advice that can be applied elsewhere.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Manual_of_Style_(capital_letters)

      Specifically it says:

      ‘Use sentence-style capitalization, not title-style capitalization: Capitalize the first letter of the first word and any proper nouns in headings, but leave the rest lower case. Thus “Rules and regulations”, not “Rules and Regulations”.’

      Hope that helps. Let me know if you have any other questions

      Rob.

      • John Kessler on December 3, 2009 at 2:02 pm said:

        Are you saying title capitalization rules should be different between web and print content? I ask because the Chicago Manual of Style refers to “heading caps” and has this rule applying to them.

        —-

        Heading caps capitalize “the first and last words and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and subordinating conjunctions” (CMS 1993, 282). Also capitalize the first character after a colon in a title or heading. Otherwise, do not capitalize:

        Articles: a, an, the.
        Prepositions, including: against, between, in, of.
        Conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet.
        Infinitive: to.

        —-

        I’ve always followed that both for print and the web.

  27. 11. Follow your own rules.

  28. It’s really interesting about uppercase text taking longer to read. Thanks for the write-up.

  29. Great article. Number 9 is a rule that is often abused. For me personally, when I see large paragraphs of unseparated text, that’s my queue to move on.

  30. No problem, Rob. Thanks for your forbearance in wading through a detailed essay on grammar. I really should get out more…

  31. “Avoid the use of ALL UPPER CASE in your copy as it takes 57% longer to read”

    Really happy to finally get some information like this so I can offer a quantitative reason for NOT doing this. I remember I had built a site (using WordPress) and let my client fill in all the copy himself… he wrote everything in CAPs and it felt like the site was yelling at you. Yikes!

    • Rob Mills on December 2, 2009 at 7:00 pm said:

      Hi Emerson,

      Regarding the 57%, something that others have commented on in reply to my article, that figure is attributed to University research carried out by Robert Vartabedian in 1971.

      As is often the case with research, figures can vary depending on the variables and similar references have been made since, including a reference in Applied Ergonomics Volume 26, Issue 3, June 1995, Pages 227-229.

      I think regardless of the specific percentage though, the notion of legibility stands true as A SENTENCE WRITTEN LIKE THIS is much less legible and enjoyable to read compared to A sentence that is written like this.

      Glad my article will help you explain why not to write in this way.

      Thanks

      Rob.

  32. Great tips to apply on my blog. My blog is fairly new and while it has done very well, I believe that if I continue to hone and improve my writing skills, the blog will just be more successful.

    Thank you for these great tips!

  33. There are some very good points here, but a couple of odd ones too. Number five is the first:

    “Words that people like include thoughtful, imagination, progress, and ambition. Less popular words include dispute, failure, weak, and extravagant.”

    It’s true that when you are writing *sales* copy it is helpful to avoid negative words. But in that context it’s also a good idea to cut your use of abstract nouns and simple adjectives, so I’d look askance at all eight on your list, both positive and negative. In non-sales copy I don’t see why you can’t be as negative as the subject demands.

    And number seven:

    “Minimise punctuation as best you can. Punctuation marks can be difficult to discern on screens, especially semi-colons, so try using commas or shorter sentences instead.”

    I agree that semicolons are best suited to sophisticated audiences. You’re also right that two short sentences can be a good replacement for a single long one that has a dividing semicolon. But using commas instead? Consider this sentence:

    “We took the dog to the park; Annie bought ice creams, to eat while we walked.”

    If you replaced the semicolon with a comma, you’d end up with two main verb clauses unseparated by strong punctuation or a conjunction. That would be neither elegant nor syntactical. (The comma after “ice creams” is there to prevent “while we walked” becoming a dangling modifier.)

    I disagree that punctuation marks are difficult to discern on screen, though there are some marginal cases. For example, if I’m writing for the web I’ll often use “double inverted commas” where in print I would use ‘singles’, especially for a UK audience.

    Apart from that, you can’t really “minimise punctuation”. Certainly, you can replace semicolons – but they are rare anyway. You can’t cut apostrophes or full stops, or commas that are being used to delineate clauses or lists. Apart from question marks and bangs, that only leaves “breath” commas, parentheses and dashes to cut – and sometimes they are useful.

    Finally, to return point five – and this is an observation rather than a criticism – while I agree that contractions are good in the informal context of the web, I can never bring myself to love “they’re”, which always strikes me as ugly and hard to read.

    I’m obviously not praising the points I agree with at the same length that I’m moaning about the ones I think are wrong, so don’t get the impression I think this is all rubbish. Most of it is good, useful stuff that many people could benefit from reading.

    • Rob Mills on December 2, 2009 at 6:49 pm said:

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks for the comments. Since your tweet to me earlier I was looking forward to reading your views.

      Firstly, I believe that articles like this should encourage discussion so I would never, or rarely, be upset with someone for disagreeing with me so I definitiely haven’t taken the comments personally (as per your tweet).

      I shared my views and clearly some have found them helpful. Likewise others have shared theirs and I have found those helpful, it’s all about learning from each other right? Plus everyone has different methods and ways of working.

      Anyway, your point about negative words is very fair and shows that in some contexts it would be suitable.

      I really love your comment about the commas and ‘dangling modifier’. I’ll be using that in the future for sure.

      As for the contractions, I hadn’t really thought about ‘they’re being ugly but now I’ll never look at it in the same way again 🙂

      Thanks for your views Bill, they make for an interesting read and have given me plenty to take away and put into practice.

      Rob.

  34. With my clients, I update the time-honoured advice of the ancient rhetoricians and ask them to pay attention to four main aspects, with details pertaining to each:

    1. Logos (Writing): making good sense
    2. Ethos (Self): the way you and/or your company come across
    3. Pathos (Audience): what will appeal to your visitors/customers
    4. Occasion (Context): time, place, marketplace, trends, purpose for your site

  35. Tip #11 could be:

    “Don’t post completely pointless and irrelevant comments in response to articles, especially if they are shamelessly advertising your company blog”

    Excellent article though Rob.

  36. Robert Mills on December 2, 2009 at 4:14 pm said:

    Thanks everyone for your comments and suggestions.

    Rhys – I think breaking the rules and having an identifiable style is really good advice too.

    Phil – Good suggestion about the Acronyms. Explaining it once and then using the acronym thereafter makes sense.

    Adam – Definitely agree with you re: add images. They can be powerful communicators too and certainly bring a lot to your site.

    Russell – I don’t think that the tips need to be exclusive to the web.

    Maryan – Agreed, they don’t all need to be applied to every piece of writing you do, just suggestions. Likewise they can indeed be applied to writing that isn’t for the web. This piece certainly wasn’t put together just to satisfy a topic, it was written with the aim of helping people when they come to their own writing.

    Beckley – I disagree I’m afraid. Writing what you want how you want is fine if you are blogging or writing for a personal site but I really don’t think this is good practice for client work where there are specific audiences to consider and objectives to achieve.

    Regarding the title being in capitals and longer than 7 words – I neither wrote the title or posted this article so that was out of my control 🙂

    Thanks all.

    Rob.

  37. Great article. Don’t forget to keep in mind some of the basic SEO fundamentals when writing your articles as well. Having titles and copy that have both appropriate keywords and are intriguing is a necessity for search engine friendliness.

    You’re writing great content, just make sure it can be found!

  38. These are fair guidelines, but I wouldn’t apply all of them. Nor would I apply them only to web writing. Maybe this piece was put together just to satisfy a topic?

    As for using all short sentences, varying your sentences to create a rhythm keeps the reader engaged longer. A bunch of short jabs begins to sound like a laundry list. Would love to know where your 57% came from. (Statistics should be cited, yes?)

    I really like tip #11 – but would add, proof your work, polish it to it’s finest, be sure of your facts. That might be the only tip we need.
    -mkp.

  39. Great tips. Thanks. I have another one:

    #11. Now write whatever you want, they way you want to.

  40. “Headlines shouldn’t be longer than 7 words” – why is yours 9 words long then? 🙂

    I jest – good post with some useful tips.

  41. Nice tips!

    Concerning #4: “Also avoid starting every word with a capital letter in your headings”. Can you explain why you shouldn’t?

  42. Isn’t only #8 web-exclusive?

  43. These are the rules I stick to when writing my Warhammer 40K blog. People are certainly more likely to read punchy sentences than lengthy paragraphs of text.

    The only addition I can suggest is to break up the test with images to illustrate your points further or make the quantity of text less hard on the eyes.

  44. Thank you for the tips! I am starting out by writing a blog lately and I do some writing for my company’s web content as well. I will keep these tips in mind to help me write better 😀

    Thanks again!!

  45. Really? 57% longer to read all caps?

  46. one last thing, do not make lists!

  47. Good post, Rob! I like your point about making the copy less-formal. It makes so much difference when trying to communicate over the web.

    I had written my 8 points on writing sometime back here – http://lucidconfusions.com/2009/11/19/8-steps-to-writing-better/

    Cheers!

  48. ’10 Things to Consider when Writing for the Web’ (avoid starting every word with a capital letter in your headings – see item four).

  49. Regarding #6. Sometimes is it not important to use acronyms. For instance, Google App Engine, becomes bit of a mouthful (eyefull?) after the secord or third time reading it. Would it not be a good idea to provide the acronym on the first mention and then use form then on? For example:

    Using the Google App Engine (GAE) as a development platform … one thing to remember when developing for the GAE ….

  50. Just another excellent post, thanks again! I was just about to start making a few more content pages when a team member sent this around, glad they did – great stuff.

  51. I always look forward to reading your articles Rob, straight to the point, concise and well written. Good job fella!

    I’m also a big fan of your company’s blog: http://huwdavid.wordpress.com and look forward to purchasing a copy of your imminent book title: ‘Designing the Invisible’.
    (any chance of a signed copy?)

  52. Brian Jones on December 2, 2009 at 1:26 pm said:

    Good read – thank you for the refresher. #4 is interesting – as you should never type all uppercase for any type of writing – but 57% longer to read – that is an interesting figure. Thanks for the post –

  53. The advice above, while generally good, I think is good advice for creating generic, readable web copy. However, I would add as point 11 that having an identifiable style is also important, and that breaking some of the rules can be part of your style eg. giving links and headings not so helpful, whimsical text can be an important bit of establishing an identity.

  54. Nice article.

    I wrote a similar one called “Beginners Guide to Effective Web Copy”. It was designed to help introduce our clients to writing for the web.

    Take a look at:

    http://www.deepbluesky.com/blog/-/basic-principles-of-effective-web-copy-a-beginners-guide_78/

    Your article is a little more comprehensive and I will certainly consider using it as a resource in future.

  55. Good advice for the most part, but #5 is a bit weird.

    “Words that people like include [5 random words about positive things]. Less popular words include [5 random words about negative things].”

    So, people like progress more than failure, but isn’t it the concept that people (dis)like rather than the words. And what evidence do you have that reading a negative word will “turn them off”? The tone of the words will be dictated by the nature of the subject – if you’re discussing a failure, use the appropriate terms.

    I suggest that “choosing the right words” is really a matter of keeping it simple. Don’t try to dazzle readers with the depth of your vocabulary, use plain language that can be easily digested.

  56. Cool post.
    The only thing I would add is tailoring the content to the reader/visitors.
    Using the wrong language/slang/content can make your webpage go from relevant and easily found through search engines to hidden in the darkest depths of search engines SERP’s.

  57. Nice round up, I totally agree with everything here, it is amazing how much poorly written copy is on the web. I worked at a publishing company for a year straight out of my studies, possibly the best move I’ve made as far as picking up fundamental writing skills.

    Keep up the good work!

  58. Web copy is one of those highly underestimated things. It’s funny how good words makes so big difference. Good copy not only makes an impact when read but it looks good too!
    I’ve seen good designs lose their power under very very bad copy.

    I try to bring a professional copywriter along in every web project I have. It’s so much easier in so many ways to work with a professional.

    Unfortunately there are times client wants to do all the writing… Usually it means 100000 lines more than you planned hard-to-read technical words. Good bye my beautiful design, my lorem ipsum that looks so neat. Just the right amount here and there 🙂

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