Writing for the web requires a different approach to copywriting. This guide will take you through how to create effective web copy.
Reading online is a very different experience than reading in print—it’s often more scanning than reading. A study from Chartbeat found that just over half of website visitors spend 15 seconds or less on a webpage. Compare that with an online reading behaviour study from Jakob Nielson which found that users have time to read only 28% of words on an average webpage. Learning how to write for the web is key in beating these metrics!
Before you start any writing, knowing the purpose and goals of your webpage(s) is the first step in making sure your content achieves what it’s set out to do. Ask yourself the following:
What is this page for?
What do I want visitors to do on this page?
For example, if your page is informational, you’ll want to make sure it’s easy to understand and that it gives visitors all the information they need to know. If your page is action-oriented, you’ll want to make sure visitors have an easy path to the desired action. You’ll also want to clearly convey the reasons why they should take action.
In order to write content that will resonate with visitors, you’ll need to have a good idea of who they are. Knowing who you’re writing for can help you make decisions about what information to include, how it should be structured, and what kind of language and tone to use. Building out user personas is a good way to do that—it will help you to identify your audience’s needs and desires.
Build out user personas. This exercise will help you understand your audience’s needs and desires. Identify their demographic data, interests, values and challenges.
WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). Always consider WIIFM and make sure your content addresses that for your audience.
Knowing how little time visitors spend on the average webpage means simple, clear and concise language will make your content easy for visitors to consume.
Avoid abbreviations and jargon. If you must use abbreviations, be sure to define them.
Use simple words. Even if your audience is highly educated, simple words are faster to read.
Go easy on the adverbs. While it might be more descriptive to say “beautiful, sleeveless, red dress”, too many adverbs will take visitors more time to read. If your verb isn’t strong enough on its own, consider a different one.
Examples of how to simplify your writing:
|Instead of this:||Try this:|
As we mentioned earlier, reading online is often more scanning than actual reading. Another study by Jakob Nielson found that only 16% of people read word-by-word. Employing these simple tips when writing for the web will help make your content enjoyable and easy to read.
Highlighted text. Bold, italicized, colored, or hyperlinked text is more noticeable and will help key pieces of content stand out. Just don’t overdo it or else it will have the opposite effect, making your page look cluttered.
Subheads. Clear and concise subheadings can help highlight important content. Headings are not the place to get creative because it simply takes longer for the visitor to process.
Lists. Bulleted or numbered lists are a great way to break up text to make it easily scannable.
Whitespace. Lots of text can make visitors lose interest quickly. Adding white space around your content will not only improve the look of the page, it will make it easier to read.
Single-point paragraphs. Paragraphs that have just one idea make it easy for visitors to pick out those important details you want them to know (while also allowing for whitespace).
Short sentences. Sentences should be as short and concise as possible. Skip any flowery or complicated language.
Dots & Dashes. Another way to give the eyes a break is to use (brackets), dots… or dashes — Used well, they can make a statement stand out.
Links. Links stand out from normal text and can give visitors more cues to what your page is about. See Link Best Practices for more tips on how to create effective links.
Passive voice is a style of constructing sentences when the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence. It’s often more wordy, a style common in formal or fiction writing. When it comes to web content, it requires visitors more time to process so it’s best to avoid it whenever possible.
Examples of passive voice:
At dinner, six shrimp were eaten by Harry.
The savannah is roamed by beautiful giraffes.
The flat tire was changed by Sue.
There are instances where using passive voice makes sense — often when the subject is unknown or irrelevant.
Active voice is the simplest possible sentence structure which features The Subject who does The Verb. Active voice is not only a simpler way to write, it’s much more engaging
for the reader.
Examples of active voice:
Harry ate six shrimp at dinner.
Beautiful giraffes roam the savannah.
Sue changed the flat tire.
Use action words whenever possible.
Write what you would say if you were talking to your website visitors on the phone.
Keep the focus on the subject.
The inverted pyramid is a writing structure where the most important information (generally considered ‘the conclusion’) is presented first. It’s a quick way to get to the point and an effective strategy in writing for the web!
Identify your key points. Put the “need to know” information first and then expand on it with the “nice to know” facts.
Go beyond the Inverted Pyramid and add a summary or list of key points to further highlight the important takeaways.
Recommendations from the The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) include:
Avoid “Click Here”. It doesn’t tell the user where it’s going to take them, nor is it relevant to users browsing from a smart phone or tablet.
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