A quick guide to writing for the web


The contemporary web and the way we use it is changing. Gone are the days when you developed a website and forgot about it. These days, websites are much more interactive, accessible and transparent. With more and more people going on line to find information, websites are becoming a powerful way for businesses to serve their audiences.

The Internet is all about collaboration, sharing ideas, information and concepts with people. Writing for the web is different to writing for print media because of the way people consume information on line.

Think about how you use the web. You’re in search of information and if you don’t find it on the page you’re looking for, you click away and look elsewhere. In this attention deficit era, it is vital to serve the right information to the right users in the right way and retain their attention.

Internet users, in general, “snack consume” because of information overload and time constraints.

When writing for the web it is important to remember that great content is vital and being able to find what you are looking for is of paramount importance. It is the key for convincing audiences to take your desired actions and conveying commitment to them.

Good writing techniques will enrich your reader’s experience by making information accessible and creating value for audiences. Websites need to be dynamic to keep them relevant and interesting. You need to provide them with timeous  updates that offer them a reason to return to the site regularly.

Content writing that’s current and kept up-to-date makes a positive statement. Here are some steps to achieving this:

Analyse the audiences

You have many audiences that need to be catered for. Understanding your audiences is important to evaluate the specific needs of each niche group. This will help you organise the information in a way that makes sense to them and direct the content you create.

Before writing:

  • Know your audience – which audience are you writing for?  Find out their levels of digital literacy, who they really are and what they would like/need to know;
  • Know your services –understand your offering and look at it from the view point of your audiences, What actions do I want them to take?; and
  • Understand the users’ emotions – tap into their positive emotions like generosity and pride. What information do they need in order to take action?

“It is not about digital. It’s about people.” – Robbin Phillips

Aspects of good copy

Research into the way that people use a website, indicates that adoption will take place if three conditions are met:

  • They must see the point, they should have a reason to read the content;
  • It should be easy to use; and
  • It should make them look and feel good.

Here are some essential guidelines for writing content that will fulfil the three overarching principles of engaging the audience; delivering on user requirements by providing the information they require, being easy to understand and making the user look and feel good.

Good headlines will attract attention to copy before images. The first couple of words are the most important as readers will scan this before deciding to read further. Headlines must therefore be specific to the topic to attract and retain attention.

Make the page name the heading name as this will improve the SEO. The keywords in the heading or title of the page need to be the keywords for the topic of the page and to be about the content as this will also assist when the topic comes up in search engine results.

Descriptive headings are more beneficial on the web rather than a play on words that attract attention in print media.

Subheadings need to be intriguing and informative, too.

The information that you provide needs to stand out to the reader. Layout techniques help to attract or prevent users from reading the copy. The content should be easy to read.

Content structure complements the information and message. When you share information provide the background information which will help them understand the core message.

It should be easy to skim through and to find the information they are looking for. They will be attracted to information if the writing is simple. A long paragraph will have fewer users reading the content rather than a concise description which address and highlight the main points. Paragraphs should contain between three and four sentences. You can even include single sentence paragraphs.

Useful points to help make content easy to scan include:

  • Clear and concise headings;
  • Bulleted and numbered lists, three bullets is usually the optimal number;
  • Short paragraphs with short sentences and one thought per paragraph;
  • Do not use all capitals in any sentence as it feels aggressive and is hard to read;
  • Use Bold and italics for emphasis; and
  • Use descriptive links for example “Click here for a map”.

Your writing should take the shape of an inverted pyramid in which the main point is introduced first. The supporting sentences follow to allow the reader to scan over the points and decide what is relevant to them. Create a flow of information that will convince the viewer to read each page by:

  • Introducing the main point;
  • Incorporating key facts in the body of the text; and
  • Concluding with the least important details.

The writing style you use will not only influence users but will assist search engines to find the content that you have produced when your audience is looking for it.

If you want to cover a complex topic, consider breaking it into a series of posts. This gives the reader time to understand each piece of information separately. Line breaks make content more readable. The white space offers a friendlier environment.

Leave out what readers tend to skip. Go through the copy and look for parts that don’t communicate something meaningful. Make sure every word, every sentence is strong and pulls the reader through the copy.

Try reading your subject line, headline and introductory paragraph out loud. If the first paragraph or two sounds nice, but it’s really the third paragraph that gets to the “meat” of the copy and says anything substantive, get rid of the first two paragraphs (the “warm-up copy”) and start with the meat.

A call to action (CTA) is a short, descriptive instruction which tells a user, who is scanning the web, what to do next.

Write in the active voice, telling the user what is needed rather than using the passive voice which is less instructive. The difference between active and passive voice is that in the active voice the subject does the acting. In the passive voice the subject is acted upon.

Grammatical errors, typos, broken links and pages “under construction” are embarrassing and should be resolved and avoided prior to publishing content.

Forge a personal connection with your audiences by being natural, honest and sincere in your writing. Use similar techniques to what you would to persuade your family and friends.

“You” is the most powerful word in the English language. Readers are interested in information that will meet their needs. Focus your attention on the readers by speaking directly to them. The goal is to inform them within 10 seconds.

You are talking to a person not a vague group or demographic. Personalising your writing immediately shows that you are talking directly to your audience, as a person in front of their monitor looking at your website.

Addressing your audience as “you” will also bring about a more conversational use of language. Think about how DJ’s on the radio converse with their audiences. The modern web is really much more like radio than print.

Asking questions is an effective way to get your point across. Involving your audience in the topic will make them feel important.

It is important to understand the tone that you use to appeal to your audience. Be informative yet friendly and come across as approachable.

Avoid jargon, you may understand it, but your audience isn’t as intimate with your environment as you are.

Quotes lend authority to a story. They should not be lengthy repetitions of the update’s merits. The quote must add value. Decide who you want to quote, why you want to quote them and make sure that the quote adds to your writing.

In summary, the key ingredients to writing for the web are:

  • Understand your audience;
  • Use good unambiguous headlines;
  • Create interesting relevant content;
  • Write simply and clearly;
  • Be personable and keep the tone conversational;
  • Keep what you want to say short;
  • Get to the main point about your subject faster;
  • Update regularly;
  • Use bold words to emphasise and bullet points to list; and
  • Use keywords to tag your content.

By following these simple steps you will attract more readers and keep their attention. It will also help attract internet users who are unaware that your website has the information they are looking for, through search engine optimisation.

About Digital Bridges

Digital Bridges creates high performance organisations by unlocking the business value of the web. We create business cases, digital strategies, user requirement and functional specifications for Intranets, websites and web applications. We also develop and implement social media strategies and create powerful digital brands using eMarketing and Communication and manage brand conversations with consumers.

Digital Bridges approaches the web from a management consulting position and relies heavily on rigorous academic thinking as well as business experience. It is headed up by Kate Elphick who has a Law degree and an MBA from GIBS. Kate has spent the last fifteen years of her career on the business side of the IT industry with companies such as Datatec, Didata, Business ConneXion and Primedia.

Digital Bridges has a broad range of experience working with significant, successful clients in the Financial, Gaming, Tourism, Pharmaceutical, ICT, Legal, Airline, Professional Services, Media and Public Sectors.

To find out more about Digital Bridges, please visit www.digitalbridges.co.za or contact Kate Elphick on katee@digitalbridges.co.za

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4 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Business, eMarketing, Internet, Web 2.0, Web Marketing

4 responses to “A quick guide to writing for the web

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