This page is an introduction to basic concepts of Web writing. It is very different than writing for print. Please take a few minutes to look this over.
View or print out a one-page Write for the Web desk reference (pdf, 70 kb) to use as a quick guide.
People won't read your Web page
People come to a website to complete a task as quickly as they can. Tasks range from locating information to creating an online account.
People will scan your Web page . That's what the testing says. As few as 16% of people read Web pages word by word.
Scanning takes seconds. If scanners do not find what they are looking for right away, they move on. Writing for the Web is writing for scanners.
How to write for people who scan
- Sentences that are simple and direct
- Paragraphs that are short and concise
- Headings that are short and concise
- Simple words and phrases in plain English
- Without acronyms such as SR for State Route or AWV for Alaskan Way Viaduct
- So the subject is understandable to someone who is not an expert
- Without using bureaucratic language:
Think Hemingway when you write for the web. Break down your complex sentence constructions to simple ones. Instead of tying two sentences with a conjunction, consider writing two sentences.
Try to keep paragraphs to about three sentences.
Use bullets in place of paragraphs. Bullets are excellent for scanning.
Say a lot with few words. Make sure that the heading and sub-headings are descriptive of the content, rather than cute or clever, as you might be tempted with print.
You will have a harder time with headlines. You need to include an active verb. But you can do it.
Forget writing for print
To be effective at Web writing, you need to rid yourself of practices that make good print copy.
Write in bits and pieces
Web writing is largely non-linear. Instead of developing a story, discussion, or proposition over time, write in discrete chunks that can stand alone, or link to other places.
You don't need to create content that already exists elsewhere. Use links to connect to content on other pages or sites that you'd like your users to see, rather than working up the same material on your page.
Because of linking, a Web page is three dimensional. In contrast, print is flat on the paper in two dimensions.
Working up extended metaphors over the course of a piece of writing is not good practice for the Web, generally speaking. That practice assumes that the user is reading progressively, from one paragraph to the next, like with print. Instead, they will likely be scanning, jumping from one place to the next.
There is a lot to writing for the Web. It can't all be covered here. You can take classes or self-educate with books and online resources.
Here are some places to start: