How to write for the web

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For my current project, I was asked to compile some resources on how to write for the web. What follows is a brief overview of information available online. About.com has an excellent collection of articles on how to write for the web, which is recommended reading. Most are short, so they’re easy to get through.

More than for other platforms, writing for the web requires the author/blogger to deploy a strategy of multiple platform authoring, where the article, cut of by the reader at whatever length, still has to make complete sense. This means that, as an author, you have to start with the most important bits first, then work your way down.
Directly related to the above is the inverted pyramid, which dictates that the author addresses ‘who,’ ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ in the first paragraph of the article.

Already in 1997, Nielsen wrote a paper on how users read on the web. In short, they found that web pages have to employ scannable text, using:

  • Highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others).
  • Meaningful sub-headings (not “clever” ones).
  • Bulleted lists.
  • One idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph).
  • The inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion.
  • Half the word count (or less) than conventional writing.

They found that credibility is important for web users, since it is unclear who is behind information on the Web and whether a page can be trusted. Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound hypertext links. Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites.
Users detested “marketese” and as web users are busy, they want to get the straight facts.

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Writing summaries

The first text in most web and intranet pages should be a summary of 1-3 sentences. The starter-summary has several important functions (adapted from here):

  • It shows what your page is about; The summary saves your readers time and
    annoyance.
  • It clarifies your thinking.
  • The summary doubles as the text people see in search results.

As a result, criteria for the summary are:

  • Clarity, a simple guide to what is on the page.
  • Making sense as the first text on the page.
  • Making sense alone, if people read nothing else at all on the page.
  • Usefulness in search results.
  • Short.

Four suggested approaches are:

  • The executive summary-summary, a true summary of the entire page’s content, similar to the first sentence in a news story.
  • The key message-summary, conveying the single most important message on the page.
  • The description-summary, the easiest option for the writer, if slightly dull for the reader, it resembles the abstract that precedes an academic article.
  • The instructions-summary, explaining when and how the page should be used.

General tips

For the actual writing, a series of guidelines should be taken into account (adapted from here):

  • The shorter, the better: Simple, direct language communicates your thoughts more efficiently.
  • Active voice: “Do it,” don’t “will have been done” it. Reserve passive voice for situations where you don’t know the subject, such as crime and court reports.
  • Strong verbs: The best verbs demonstrate action. If you’re writing a string of weak linking verbs, think about the action that’s happening in your post, then rewrite a new draft using nothing but nouns and verbs in an attempt to better engage your vocabulary.
  • Attribute sources: Attribution brings you credibility.
  • Contextual hyperlinking: Online narratives should allow readers to “branch off” and click through to other, more detailed, supporting content, depending upon a reader’s level of interest.
    Try to link those URLs to the relevant proper names, keywords and phrases.
  • Use formatting: Break up that boring mass of gray type by using lists, headers, blockquotes, etc.
  • Easy to read: No block of text more than five lines on the screen.
  • Spell check: With both an automatic checker and a manual re-read.
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Similarly, a good overview on what makes a good online story.

Tracking the web

Related, when keeping track of postings from around the blogosphere that relate to your own content or blog, this flowchart can be useful to formulate the right response.