WRITING FOR THE WEB

Unlike traditional forms of writing for books, magazines, newspapers or other printed material, writing for the Web has its own unique principles and criteria that set it apart. Internet users are prone to action.  They tend not to read instructions or guidelines but instead learn by trial and error.  They seek instant gratification.  They are always seeking the next point of relevance in their search for information. And long copy blocks are rarely read. Content on the web is processed differently than other media. Three of the most impactful considerations are:

Reading from a computer screen is different than from a printed page.

The Inverted Pyramid Style of writing works best on the Web.
People don’t “read” Web content, they scan it.

 COMPUTER SCREEN VS. PRINTED PAGE

Reading words on a computer screen is more difficult than a printed page. Here are four plausible reasons for this:

Reading from computer screens is tiring for the eyes and about 25 percent slower than reading from paper. No wonder people attempt to minimize the number of words they read.
The Web is a user-driven medium where users feel that they have to move on and click on things. People want to feel that they are active when they are on the Web.
Each page has to compete with hundreds of millions of other pages for the user’s attention. Users don’t know whether this page is the one they need or whether some other page would be better. They are not willing to commit the investment of reading the page in the hope that it will be good. Experience encourages them to rely on information foraging. Instead of spending a lot of time on a single page, users move between many pages and pick the best of each page. Modern life is hectic and people simply don’t have time to work hard for their information.

THE INVERTED PYRAMID STYLE

Traditional scholarly, educational and research writing adheres to the pyramid style of exposition, starting with the foundation and gradually building to the conclusion.

Journalists have long adhered to the inverse approach: start the content by telling the reader the conclusion: “After long debate, the Assembly voted to increase state taxes by 10 percent.” Then,  follow with the most important supporting information and end by giving the background. This style is known as the inverted pyramid for the simple reason that it turns the traditional pyramid style around. Inverted-pyramid writing is useful for newspapers because readers can stop at any time and will still get the most important parts of the article.

On the Web, the inverted pyramid becomes even more important since several user studies confirm that most users don’t scroll below the “fold”, so they will very frequently be left to read only the top part of the text.  Very interested readers will scroll, and these few motivated souls will reach the foundation of the pyramid and get the full story.

Web writers should split their writing into smaller, coherent pieces to avoid long scrolling pages. Each page would be structured as an inverted pyramid, but the entire work would seem more like a set of pyramids floating in cyberspace than as a traditional “article”.

SCANNING VS READING

People rarely read Web content word by word. Instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites, 79 percent of test users scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word. As a result, effective Web pages should employ scannable text, using the following devices:

highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)

meaningful sub-headings (not “clever” ones)
bulleted lists
one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
half the word count (or less) than conventional writing

On the Web, short paragraphs help scanning. A “long” paragraph should be no more than two or three lines of copy.  In fact, one sentence is a great paragraph on the Web.

Users detested “marketing-ese”. That means promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims, i.e., “hottest ever”, “most amazing”, etc.  Web users are busy.  They want to get the straight facts. Also, credibility suffers when users clearly see that the site exaggerates.

WRITING EFFECTIVE WEB CONTENT

CLARITY

The best designed Web site is worthless if it the content is not understandable. Clarity is a key to effective communication. Use short words that we all know. The fewer syllables, the higher impact.  Why use “vehicle” instead of “car”, “acquire” instead of “get”?

What we said about paragraphs applies to sentences.  Try to use simple sentences instead of complex, compound, or compound-complex sentences:

Avoid clichés and jargon.  That goes for proverbial clichés (“An ounce of prevention…), slang clichés/jargon (“my bad”), and trendy clichés/jargon  (“imbedded” in place of “inserted”, “spin doctor”, or “self-actualizing”).

Don’t use extended metaphors.  In print text we may develop an argument through contrast and comparison, but this doesn’t work on the Web.  With readers scanning and skipping around, extended metaphors will be baffling.

Try to use strong verbs over weak ones. There’s a tendency in business and academia to turn a short word into a longer phrase.  Don’t do it.

Examples:

Make a decision…Decide

Make use of…Use

Serves to explain…Explains

Do a review…Review

Perform a test…Test

Use the active voice over the passive.
Another occupational hazard of business, government and academia is use, or misuse, of the passive voice.  That’s because the active voice draws attention to the writer, the passive voice is more group oriented or nondescript. It tries to give the appearance of seeming objective and therefore more credible.  Traditional writing guidelines are clear on the use of passive voice:

Worst: The passive voice should be avoided.

Bad: The passive voice should be avoided by writers.

Better: Writers should avoid using passive voice.

Best: Writers should use active voice.

When structuring a sentence, active voice is usually better than passive voice  because it more directly represents the action. As a result, readers don’t have to jump through as many cognitive hoops when trying to understand what’s going on.

For the same reason, it’s usually better to write a positive statement  than a negative statement, and it’s almost always horrible to use double negatives. Again, the simpler the translation between the text and the user’s mental model, the easier the writing is to understand.

Typically, it’s even harder for readers to understand passive sentences that don’t explicitly state the actor. This style can also lead to additional usability problems if users misinterpret who’s doing the action. For example, if you write “Social security taxes must be paid monthly” readers might think that employees have to pay the tax. In contrast, “Employers must pay social security taxes monthly” is clear and easy to read.  With the active voice, there is no ambiguity. You know exactly what is happening simply and clearly.

ACCURACY & CREDIBILITY

Accuracy on a Web site instills trust.  The New York Times wrote that trusting a Web site “is like following a helpful stranger in Morocco who offers to take you to the best rug store.” Research shows that trust is a long-term proposition that builds slowly as people use a site, get good results, and don’t feel let down or cheated. In other words, true trust comes from a Web site’s actual behavior towards customers experienced over an extended set of encounters. It’s hard to build and easy to lose: a single violation of trust can destroy years of slowly accumulated credibility.

Credibility is important for Web users, since it is unclear who is behind information on the Web and whether a page can be trusted. Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound hypertext links. Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites.

With that in mind, check content carefully to eliminate typo’s, grammatical mistakes like subject/verb agreement, misuse of pronouns and clear antecedents.

The guidelines for presenting numbers are different for websites than for print publications.

When writing for the Web:

Write numbers with digits, not letters (23, not twenty-three).

Use numerals even when the number is the first word in a sentence or bullet point.

Use numerals for big numbers up to one billon:

2,000,000 is better than two million.

Two trillion is better than 2,000,000,000,000 because most people can’t interpret that many zeros.

As a compromise, you can often use numerals for the significant digits and write out the magnitude as a word. For example, write 24 billion (not twenty-four billion or 24,000,000,000).

Spell out numbers that don’t represent specific facts.

Even when users aren’t scanning for data, having your facts stand out visually by presenting them as numerals is an easy way to enhance credibility by making your page seem more useful.

WRITING HEADLINES & SUBHEAD

As readers scroll, headlines help mark the way.  A good headline predicts what content will follow, allow the reader to decide whether or not to read the content in that section.

Break lengthy sections into two or three levels of headings:  A general page heading; subheads; and occasionally, sub-subheads.  This is helpful because headings and subheads reveal relationships between the various sections of a page, section or site. By putting thought into the relationship between headings, you help readers grasp the structure without too much thinking.

After a headline or sub-head, it’s often helpful to include a short blurb of to clarify and supply information about your information.  Consider, for example, various names of departments.  What is the difference between “Information Systems” and “Information Services”?  Blurbs after headings help clear up the confusion:

Information Systems
Computer support, webmaster, staff training

Information Services
Public relations, company newsletter, advertising purchases

Just be careful that you don’t let blurbs become whole chunks.

The requirements for online headlines are very different from printed headlines because they are used differently. The two main differences in headline use are:

Online headlines are often displayed out of context: as part of a list of articles, in an email program’s list of incoming messages, in a search engine hitlist, or in a browser’s bookmark menu or other navigation aid.
Even when a headline is displayed together with related content, the difficulty of reading online and the reduced amount of information that can be seen in a glance make it harder for users to learn enough from the surrounding data. In print, a headline is tightly associated with photos, decks, subheads, and the full body of the article, all of which can be interpreted in a single glance. Online, a much smaller amount of information will be visible in the window.

Because of these differences, the headline text has to stand on its own and make sense when the rest of the content is not available. Sure, users can click on the headline to get the full article, but they are too busy to do so for every single headline they see on the Web.

Hooking Devices In Headlines
To keep your readers interest high, you can use some “hooking” devices that have been used in the world of newspaper and magazine writing for decades.  Here are some of the more effective hooking devices used on the Web:

Quotation marks
“The rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Mark Twain’s wit is still popular today.

Questions
What makes a good course load?
6 students offer practical advice.

Unusual statements
You DON’T need our services if –
Score 8 out of 12 on our self-test and you won’t need remedial help.

Comparisons/Contrasts
How boys and girls perform academically in college.
Findings indicated boys are lagging behind in all but a few subjects.
Promises of conflict
Why charter-school advocates are wrong.
A critical look at a popular but misguided trend.

These examples could be links to another page, or subheadings in longer text. They help to break up the the text and signal what readers can expect in the section.  Whatever hook you use, however, make it clear and appropriate.  Avoid cuteness, ambiguity, and overstatement.

What Internet Users Want From Web Copy:

Simple, informal “conversational” writing is preferred.
Users like summaries and the inverted pyramid style.
Text should be scannable – users want to get their information quickly.
Use bullets whenever handling lists.
Credibility is important on the Web – hypertext is well-liked, increases credibility.
Use numeric values, not written.
Use active voice, not passive.
Text should be concise and clear.

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