10 hard lessons I’ve learned about writing for the WWW

Remember how early web text could make you cringe? Squinting at all 2000 solidly crammed words so obviously lifted straight from an equally cringe-making corporate brochure? Peering at that fat, uniformly gray column of garbage scrolling hypnotically up through the browser window?

Well, nearly all of that went some years ago to the Great Delete Tab in the sky, thanks to people like Jakob Nielsen (and many others) who showed us how to get real and write for the web as it should be done. But the journey hasn’t always been easy.

Because I’ve been writing for the web for a long time now I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Here are my top ten to share with you…

1. It’s essential to have clear objectives

Any piece of online communication that doesn’t have clear-cut objectives comes over as chinless and indecisive. Many printed documents have got away with being chinless and indecisive in the past, but the internet shines a very strong light through the transparency of woolly thinking and soon reveals if that’s wearing any knickers or not. If they’re going to be taken seriously today, all comms need clear objectives too – driven by what you want to achieve, not just what you want to say.

2. People often prefer to scan and go back to get detail later

Thanks to those cute little scroll buttons, online text has championed scanning. To facilitate scanning we break up text with highlighting, bold type and crossheads which enable readers to get the gist of our message in a few seconds. If all you offer people to scroll through is endless bland text they’ll soon get “text blindness” and move on – to your competitor’s site.

3. People do not always read in a linear fashion

We don’t expect people to view our web pages and blogs in any particular sequence. This is not new. For years people have been leafing through brochures starting at the back, skipping to the front, dipping into the middle and back again. Always organize your content on a non-linear basis to cater equally for the linear readers and the grasshoppers.

4. Not everyone needs or wants the technical stuff 

Even with high-tech business, we often put the techie details in their own little cubby-hole on a website, or in a downloadable PDF file. That way they’re there for those who are interested but don’t obscure the main marketing messages. OK, your audience may be technically minded, but they probably don’t want all the finer details about what your latest doo-hickey does right now – they’re more interested in what it will do for them. Save the features for another page on your site.

5. Visual clutter confuses readers 

People loathe website and blog home pages that bristle with shouting headlines and graphics and other grinning gargoyles. If it’s hard to find your message in amongst garish junk, they’ll just click over to your competitors’ information. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) isn’t very romantic but it certainly is essential on the internet, and all the more so as online business keeps growing exponentially.

6. BS is boring 

Everyone sees through hype now. The online environment makes it look even sillier than ever.  Readers of any marketing communication expect your writing to talk directly to them, as one human being speaks to another. If you wouldn’t insult a customer by using boastful, pompous hype in face-to-face business circumstances, why do it online?

7. Complex thinking doesn’t work 

Although long copy often works online, the writing style itself needs to be very economical and uncomplicated. Every word has to earn its keep.  Sentences and paragraphs should be short and free from convoluted notions. One sentence should lead logically on from the previous one; one paragraph should follow on logically, too. If your audience needs to read your text twice or more to understand it, you will have lost them – probably for good.

8. Lists in the form of long sentences don’t get read

If you have more than two or three items to list you’re advised to create bullets, rather than run them together in a long sentence.  That makes them quicker to absorb, and also helps to break up text visually.

9. Headlines and crossheads must be relevant, not cutesy-clever

These lines often have to stand alone – e.g. as email subject lines – so must be directly relevant. Also, they must appeal to the search engines which certainly have no time for anything other than straight talking. Although abstract headlines are acceptable in some circumstances, in longer text the headlines are what people latch on to while scanning. This means they also have to be directly relevant, so they’re instantly understood.

10. Cut the c*** and get to the point 

Not only do online comms demand uncluttered information, but also relevant information. People haven’t got time to wait 10 minutes while your incredibly creative animation downloads, and equally they haven’t time to figure out the meaning of a literary quote over an arty picture when they’re in a hurry to find out about your diesel generators. In our high-speed business culture, direct is beautiful.

Now, make your writing WWWonderful:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Comments

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Thoughts

  1. Great tips for the online writer! It’s been a struggle for me to make the transition from print to web. One of my key challenges: keeping sentences short and simple!

  2. Looks to me like you’re doing a good job, Mary!

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