“Know your audience.” That’s the first — and best — lesson my high school English teacher gave me. But these days, it’s no longer enough to write for your audience; you must write for your medium as well.
There’s no doubt that the internet has changed how we read, consume, and digest information.
But how is web writing different than writing for print? It depends on which expert you ask — and on your ultimate goal.* That said, I think there are three core ideas that apply universally: reading behavior, brevity, and information hierarchy.
Reading behavior is different online.
Research suggests that we read differently on the internet than we do in print. On the web, we tend to scan rather than read. We’re usually seeking specific information. We’re more impatient — and more easily distracted. That’s why …
Brevity is king.
Effective web text must be scannable — which means it must be clear and concise. When writing for the web, shorter sentences are better. The same applies to paragraphs: It’s easier to scan several short (two- to five-sentence) paragraphs than a long block of text.
Less copy is better, too — so omit needless words. I look for adverbs and colloquial phrases. You can also remove quotes if they don’t contain vital information. Or, you can apply a self-editing method like the 10% solution.
Information hierarchy matters.
Structure is vital on the web. Put the most important information at the beginning, and save the details for subsequent paragraphs. (Journalism’s “inverted pyramid” writing style uses this approach.)
And if your piece is longer than 10 to 12 paragraphs, add headings. This breaks up the copy visually. Plus, the headings can help the reader better navigate your text.
Obviously, these guidelines don’t apply to all web writing (it would be silly to put headings into a personal blog post, for instance). Follow your best instincts and use your common sense.
Still need a hand with your web content? Drop me a note; I would be glad to help.
* If you care most about usability (ie., how your visitors interact with your site), I recommend Jakob Nielsen’s research. But if you’re more focused on the quality of your content, Gerry McGovern offers some good tips as well.