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Writing for the Web: General Guidelines

Writing online is not the same as writing an article for a magazine or newspaper – different rules apply. This guide will help you make your content stand out online.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first of all, people won’t read every word you write. According to recent research by Forester the average user has time to read 28% of words on screen during a visit and it takes an average of 25% longer to read on screen than read a paper copy. Reading from a screen for extended periods of time is an unpleasant experience but you can make your content easily digestible by using a few of the tips in this article.

1. Write for your audience

Always bear in mind who you’re providing your web page for. Are you providing them with the information they need? Are you making it easy for them to understand what you are talking about? Use your readers’ language, not yours. Try to use the words people are searching for. Remember that your website is one among many so you need to make sure that your blog stands out as the most relevant, interesting, and well written resource to encourage a repeat visit.

2. Front-load content

Front-loading content means you put your conclusion first, followed by the what, how, where, when and why.

Front-loading applies to both articles and paragraphs. The opening paragraph on every page should always contain the conclusion of that page. This way, site visitors can instantly gain an understanding of what the page is about and decide whether they want to read on.

Readers can come from anywhere via search engines so include a title and introductory paragraph to give the reader an accurate indication of what will follow. All articles however short should always have a title or headline and an introduction.

A paragraph should contain just one idea, allowing readers to be safe in the knowledge that if they jump to the next paragraph they won’t be missing any new concepts.

3. Writing about something complex?

You can be concise even if your subject is very complex. Start with a broad stroke: an overview, or even an abstract. Narrow your subject as you go on, giving more and more detail towards the bottom of your page. This is known as the ‘inverted pyramid’ style of writing. Very detailed background information, or information of interest only to a minority of readers, can be presented on secondary pages, linked from your main page.

Use Header Tags when writing introductory paragraphs

Introductory paragraphs also help improve with search engine optimisation if you use a header tag. It also shows the reader that the blog is easy to read! Make sure that this introduction includes key words as these will be picked up by search engines and this will help your blog come up higher in search engine results.

4. Write an effective headline or title

Web headlines have three audiences: people, social media and search engines, you need to think about all three when formulating a headline.

Web headlines must get the point across. If your news sites’ headlines can appear anywhere on the web and without supporting content, it’s incredibly important to be able to convey the point of the story with just text. Headlines need to be able to stand on their own, therefore I would avoid irony or word play. Keep in simple. In most cases a descriptive label is best!

Make an effort to keep your title short. Three to six words is the ideal length, and at around ten the maximum limit.

Is the title representative of what a typical potential reader would expect? Put yourself in the shoes of your reader and type the search you would write in Google, Yahoo or MSN if you were to search for an article containing the same content you are about to publish; make sure at least one of these words is included in your title.

5. Use descriptive sub-headings

Breaking up a longer piece of text allows site visitors to quickly understand the layout of an article and dip into different sections of text. People often don’t read down the page in a chronological manner – they will dip in and out of sections of the article- reading the points that interest them in more depth and skipping over or scanning other sections. This caters for those with a limited amount of time who would otherwise leave before reaching the end of an article.

You should  aim to use one subheading roughly every two to four paragraphs.

6. Make your content easy to scan

As already mentioned we know that readers will scan your content so it’s best to work with this concept and make your article easy to read. This doesn’t mean it has to be dumbed down, just more accessible for an online audience.

Use simple language
Don’t use long words where short ones will do. The purpose of your website is to provide people with information – make it easy for them. Avoid convoluted syntax, specialist vocabulary and over-use of acronyms.

Less is more Use less words and short sentences – If you need practice – start tweeting! (140 characters). Always consider the tone and style of the text. Do you need every word in the first paragraph?

Write objectively. Consider your target audience and use your common sense. Avoid using the passive tense where possible – users will engage more readily with content written in the active tense, for example, ‘it was decided’ is less engaging and inspires less confidence than ‘we decided’.

Quote Pull-out quotes can be effective in drawing readers in to your text. This is the technique used in newspapers and magazines of taking a few relevant words and placing them in a large font to the side of the text

List and bullet:

This will be able to enable you to:

Summarise content effectively
Allow users to read the information vertically rather than horizontally
Lists are easier to scan
Lists are a great way of highlighting important points as they draw the eye

Left align your text

Left-align text is easier to read than justified text, which in turn is easier to read than centre or right-aligned text.

Use images to illustrate points.

Images make articles more inviting and easier to read. Images should always be associated with your text and shouldn’t be too big or your readers will end up with a long delay while the page downloads and will give up.

Highlight keywords.

It makes points much easier to digest and content becomes easier to scan.

Include links

In the same way that bold text stands out to screen-scanning web users, so does link text. Make sure your links say where they are going! Link text such as ‘click here’ makes no sense whatsoever out of context so is useless to site visitors scanning web pages.

Think about tone and style of text and respond to posts

It’s okay to be less formal online. Being accessible and friendly means more people will follow your blogs and keep visiting you. Respond to posts you receive and you are more likely to build up a regular following.

And finally …

Proof read.  Always check what you write or better still get someone else to check it before you publish the article, mistakes will undermine your article.


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