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Clients sometimes make the mistake of writing long, editorial-style text for the web. We’ve found that even perfectly competent writers – professionals, like marketing communications pros and publishers of various types – often do not understand how writing for the web is different than writing for print-based media.

Basically, most people don’t “read” on the web, not at least, in the sense of reading a book, or magazine or even a piece of marketing collateral. Instead, people come to the web in hopes it can help them “to do” something:

  • I need to learn about my prescription
  • I want to compare camera prices and features
  • I have to check out the weather in Chicago
  • I’m going to check my account, download music, upload my pictures, pay my bills, and print my reservation etc.

Good web writing supports users accomplishing goals

If you can anticipate what your site’s visitors want to do and make it clear and easy for them to do it, you can increase your site’s usability and credibility. In fact you can double it, according to Jakob Nielsen, renowned usability expert and the author of a great web writing guide published by Sun Microsystems.

Nielsen provides these interesting web writing statistics:

  • 79% of users scan the page instead of reading word-for-word
  • Reading from computer screens is 25% slower than from paper
  • Web content should have 50% of the word count of its paper equivalent

Good web writing is short and concise. It should be structured in an “inverted pyramid” style with the conclusion at the top and increasing detail below or on subsequent pages.

Web writing should support text scanning:

  • Highlighted keywords (links are one type of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • Meaningful headlines and sub-headings
  • Bulleted lists
  • One idea per paragraph (users move on if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)

Write for action

Visitors to your site have their goals, and you have yours. You want your site to generate leads, increase sales, foster participation, etc. In order to be a business driver, your web text can’t just be a passive statement of information, i.e. just “features and benefits”. Well-written and designed web pages need to have clearly articulated “Calls to Action” that allow visitors to accomplish their task while inviting them to take the next steps in meeting your goals, that is, inviting visitors to engage in a process that leads to increased net results for you!

“Calls to Action” can be any number of things, for example:

  • Ready to try it? Download our FREE demo. [Download Now]
  • Ready to try it? Get 20% off your purchase with this coupon. [Print Coupon]
  • Ready to try it? Sign-up for a short sample session by phone. [Sign Up]
  • Ready to try it? Find a Dealer [Enter Zipcode]
  • Ready to try it? Call us 800-123-4567

User forms with auto email responders and notification features, printer-friendly pages, polls & surveys, zip code store locators, RSS feeds, email-a-friend functionality, and personalization are all tactics that allow you to engage visitors, increase interaction and capture data. A content management system (CMS) that supports these types of features will enable rapid implementation.

Write for your site’s non-human visitors

Lastly, take search engines into consideration. You’ll want to use appropriate keywords on your site and make sure they are relevant to the content on each page.

Remember breaking your copy up into headlines and sub-heads? Good for your readers and good for search engines as well. In HTML your headlines and subheads are rendered using a tag called an “H” tag [< h1 >, < h2 >, < h3 > etc.] Though all text is important, spiders assign more weight in descending order to your “H” tagged headlines and subheads then to your body copy, so again you’ll want to write meaningful headlines.

There are many other things to keep in mind for search engine optimization (SEO)—things like meaningful hyperlinks (hint: “Click here” isn’t one!) or good page titles.

About the author

As Creative Director at Netreach, a web technology firm that provides content management systems (cmScribe), authoring and collaboration tools, Heidi Merscher is responsible for helping clients to articulate their project’s design and user functionality requirements, while keeping them on track to achieve their business goals. With a background and formal training in graphic design, Merscher has been a principle in several web design firms since the mid 1990s. She excels in leading teams to develop sites that help organizations capitalize on the interplay between display presentation, usability and function.