Posted 04.10.2010

Writing for the Web is Different

A Shorter format

In real life, people write magazines, newspapers, books: pages of content. It could take me a few trips to the Y to get through a magazine or a couple of weeks to get through a book. You nod in agreement, but you’d laugh at me if I said the same thing about a website. Web sites are written in a much shorter form.

When I’m reading online, if I come to a longer post that will take me more than a couple of minutes to read, I’ll usually bookmark it or post it to Read it Later. Let’s be honest, though, rarely to do I return.

This challenged me when I sat down to write this series. I quickly realized that I could break my posts up. This meant:

  1. Writing a post wasn’t as overwhelming. I didn’t feel challenged to write a novel everyday.
  2. More people would (likely) read my post (versus bookmarking it and returning later)
  3. I could post more frequently.

Seems obvious, now.

We skim webpages, we don’t read them.

So what does this mean for us as writers?

Write titles that catch people’s attention.
Newspaper journalists know this. You decide in 4-7 words whether an article is worth reading. The same is true for the web.

Put the important information at the beginning…show all your cards up front.
When I was in elementary school, I was taught to tell people what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

Journalists do the same thing. They write with a pyramid in mind: tell all the important information up front and as you work through an article, you discover more information. This means if you stop reading an article midway through, you still get the gist.

Use lists and headings liberally
When skimming, your eyes will hang on bold words, lists, and headings. Take advantage of that.

The web isn’t read sequentially

What does that mean? When I’m reading a book, I’ll start at the beginning (I hate it when people read the last page first! That ruins everything!). I’ll read one page after the other. Even with a magazine, I might not start on the first page, but I will start at the beginning of an article and read it straight through. However, the web is different. As I’m skimming, a link might catch my eye. I’ll click on it, jumping around. I may or may not come back.

Most of these rules don’t translate to print. That’s why using the same copy that you use on your company brochure isn’t nearly as effective online as it might be in print. The two mediums are completely different — use that to your advantage. Don’t let that become a hindrance.