You've found your voice, now how do you use it?

We don't read on the screen the same way we read on paper, so we need to adjust our writing style accordingly. On the web, we tend to scan content quickly, picking up highlights, rather than read word-for-word.  


You’re not writing a murder mystery, so get to the point

All of the how-to guides on writing for the web will say basically the same thing:

  • Be concise
  • Be objective
  • Be consistent
  • Be accurate
  • Be clear
  • Use active voice
  • Avoid hyperbole

In other words, get to the point quickly using clean, clear prose. 

Why is that so important? Because we read a webpage differently than we do a paper book or magazine. In fact, we barely  “read” a webpage at all.  Most users simply scan for formation, moving their eyes in a F-Shape pattern from left to right across the page.

For the one actually charged with putting keystrokes to webpage, this means you should aim for 50% fewer words than in print, placing the most important info in the first two paragraphs.  Stylistically, try to break up information by addressing one point per paragraph, and choose the most simple and direct wording (for example, use not utilisedecide not make a decision).

Newspapers had it right all along 

The time-honoured inverted pyramid works great in print newspapers, and even better on the web.  That’s because print journalist understood that they are competing for the time and attention of busy people.  So, how do you write for a audience who only read a fraction of the publication? 

  • Catch people ‘above the fold’ with the most vital, important, or even entertaining content.
  • Start with a broad overview – basic facts first
  • Save details for lower down the page, site structure or for linked documents 

Strong Headlines are critical.  They provide a succinct snapshot of the content on the page and entice users to read further. Page headlines should be intuitive, written in plain language, and make sense on their own: no puns, cute or clever headlines or clichés. Remember, a good headline answers one simple question: What is the key message on this page?” 

Page structure.

The web is a visual medium.  Typical users don’t read a page, at least not at first. They look at a page quickly, and then usually move on.  Users expect, demand really, to glean your key content in just a few seconds.  Those of us who are academically trained can decry the Internet as the death of literacy, but that is not the point. The task at hand is to communicate a message in a way that is most appropriate for the medium.  Here are a some a few tricks:

Use sub-headings 

  • Sub-headings divide and label logical sections or paragraphs within a single web page.
  • Sub-headings help users follow the flow of the text and enable them to quickly assess the bits they want to read.

Use bullet points.  Bulleted and numbered lists:

  • Draw the user’s attention to the most important points
  • Allow the user to scan the text quickly and take in key information.

Minimise page lengths

Ideally, users should not need to scroll down more than two or three screens of information. If you are dealing with more than about 800 words, edit it to make it shorter.  Divide it into self-contained and logical chunks that can live on separate pages.