Writing for the web, and making it readable.

Pundits say people don’t read on the web. Baloney. You’re reading this, aren’t you? Don’t be fooled into nothing but bullet points. People will read a lot, you just need to know how to write for them, and how to make your words easy to read.

Myths about reading

  1. People don’t read on the web.
    If people are interested they’ll read, but you generally don’t want to throw a ton of text at them right from the start. Make sure your site’s home page concisely and clearly says what you offer. Clever tag lines aren’t as effective as specifics.
  2. Pages have to be short.
    Short pages are fine for intros where you lead people directly to various sections of longer pieces. But if your information is in-depth, people will read (or print) long pages.

    Don’t ignore the fact that people print web pages, so offer them a way to print entire articles in a single bound.
  3. Text must be short
    Intro text can be short, but the web gives you the luxury and freedom to go into incredible detail about your subject. One of the very best sites about digital cameras is the Digital Photography Review—the reviews here can be twenty one long web pages long! They are unbelievably in-depth, and they are also the very best source of digital camera information on the web. Here the length is a powerful asset.

Write with Personality

  1. The web is more personal from other mediums, because people read your text on their screen (the same screen where they read their own text).
  2. Write person to person. You are a person. Your reader is a person (even if they work for a government or big corporation). Talk to your reader like the living, breathing person they are. If people think of you as a person, they are more likely to trust you and work with you.
    1. How do you do this? Write like you talk. If you find it hard to write this way, then talk into a tape recorder, then write it down. Your writing can instantly improve 1000% this way.
    2. Think of writing like a conversation. How would you talk to someone else? Think of who your readers will be—and write for them as if you are talking to them. Yes, if you are explaining a product to a customer you may speak differently than if you are talking to a friend, but you can be both official, credible, and friendly and personal at the same time.
    3. Boring corporatespeak and technospeak writing is deadly and ineffective on the web. People immediately tune out and use their “disbelief” filters. Don’t give your reader a bunch of hype that sounds like everyone else’s hype. “The leading provider of...” “The premier corporate solution...” That’s BS and everybody knows it.

Be specific.

  1. Generalities are a waste of time. Everybody’s busy. Get to the point.
  2. Tell me what’s in it for me. I don’t care what you’re going to get out of it—I want to know what I’m going to get out of it.
  3. Tell me why you’re better and I should choose you.
  4. Go into detail. Do you need 21 pages to explain everything you or your product can do? Fine. When asked how long a man’s legs should be, Abraham Lincoln said, “Long enough to reach the ground.” Make it as long as it needs to be.

Make Printer-friendly pages

  1. Test your pages not just on screen, but on your printer, too.
  2. Font sizes: Keep type at least 10 point
  3. Line lengths: Keep lines of text under 70 characters wide.
  4. Color: Black text is always best. Colored type will print gray, which is bad.
  5. Backgrounds: Most browsers print text without backgrounds, so don’t put vital text in a background image.
  6. Links: Remember that when you print a link, you just see underlined text, not the link itself. So provide the spelled out links at the end, or teach people how to use their browser’s link printing feature (it’s harder to teach people to do this, so just spell out the links).

Ways to improve your text’s readability (to be discussed in detail on a later show)

  1. Create concise, clear introductions that have links to the various sections of your article. Bullet points are good here. On www.eFuse.com we have long articles with short bulleted intros on the top of the page that link to various sections within the page. On the Digital Photography Review they use drop down menus to help you navigate through the 20 page long reviews.
  2. Use subheads. One of the things that makes long articles intimidating is that they look like they go on and on without a break. Subheads are vital signposts to help people skim articles, and to give them something to look forward to, “Oh, look, another topic!” You can link directly to these subheads in your intro.
  3. Use a good web typeface such as Microsoft’s Georgia or Verdana. They’re better than Times and Arial or Helvetica.
  4. Set your text big enough. When possible use the default browser size (12), and if you use CSS, don’t set in points or pixels because these keep your visitors from enlarging the text if they want to. Don’t use “tracking” to make the letters closer together, this severely hampers reading on-screen.
  5. Have plenty of contrast. It’s best to use dark type on a light background. Your background should be simple, not patterned.
  6. Keep line lengths short. Between 40 and 70 characters long. Wider lines of text (running from one side of the screen to the other) are very hard to read, so they defeat your purpose.

For more information

  • Web Writing Basics - The web has some special requirements to keep in mind, and some pernicious myths to forget. Learn about both.
  • Effective Text: Happiness. Love. Comfort. And sex. I explain how, when you boil life down to its essence, these are the four things that every person (and animal) on this planet wants.
  • When bad copy happens to good Web sites: Let Marc Alan Holmes (who's written for Jay Leno and Joan Rivers so you know you're talking high-class entertainment here) tells you (in no uncertain words) how to make the words on your site soar.
  • Write Away with Christopher Meeks: Shouldn't we ought to write better? Ahem, yes, we should, and Christopher Meeks, noted author, Hollywood screenwriter and teacher shows you how. Click here to read more.

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Copyright © 2005 Daniel Will-Harris, www.will-harris.com

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