Is writing for the web different from any other kind of writing?
The short answer is not really.
Writing on any platform should follow the same basic rules: good sense, good grammar and spelling, good reasoning. Clarity and conciseness. Lack of jargon. No padding… and so on.
That said, there are some things that need special attention on the web. Those things are largely to do with the fact that the reader is not looking a text on a page. That seems obvious, but I think many people forget about the differences between the two.
Let’s break this down.
When you are reading text on a page:
* You can see the text in its bigger context – if it’s in a newspaper or magazine, you can see the article in one glance, along with its pictures and headlines.
* You are likely to be spending some time with text. With a book or a newspaper, there’s a built-in expectation that the reader has sat down – metaphorically with a cup of tea or coffee and is going to “read and inwardly digest”, as the saying goes.
When you are reading text on a screen:
* You don’t necessarily see all the related content at once – you have to scroll in one way or another to get to the pictures and other elements.
* You might be looking at a phone or a tablet in very small fragments of time – quickly in a queue, or while sitting at a traffic light.
Studies suggest that people scan screens in particular ways. There is a whole field of research called eyetracking which keeps tabs on this, and the latest research suggests that people scan a page in a lawnmower pattern. The Nielsen Norman group has been looking at how people read things online for a long time, and they have this to say:
People rarely read online — they’re far more likely to scan than read word for word. That’s one fundamental truth of online information-seeking behavior that hasn’t changed in 23 years and which has substantial implications for how we create digital content.
Research from the same organisation also shows that when people encounter text which is not formatted for the web, they are likely to lose interest and click away:
“The vast majority of the web users would rather finish their tasks as fast as possible with the minimum amount of effort; they visit a page because they want to find a quick answer rather than read a dissertation on the topic and educate themselves.”
So the way in which text is formatted can be very important in keeping people reading.
What you need to do
To keep a reader’s interest, there are some simple things that can help, all aimed at breaking text into easy-to-scan elements:
- Bold important words.
- Where possible, turn a string of items of concepts into a list (like this one!).
- Use headings and subheadings throughout the text – this breaks it up, but can also help the reader to find the section that they are interested in.
- Making sure the important information is easy to find – unless you are writing a long narrative, make sure you have the important facts at the top of the article.
- Include pictures, maps, graphics and videos.
As always, as a writer or editor, all of this means that you are thinking of your reader first. You may feel that people “ought” to plough their way through long blocks of text because the material is important. But in the real world, your reader is busy and distracted. Your task is to make it as easy as possible for them to get the information they need.
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Main image: Petar Milošević, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Note: This is an updated version of a post which first appeared in 2018.