How to Utilize Web Writing’s Best Practices

Originally published on Music Meets Social.

The topic of best practices of writing for web is wide, deep, and constantly changing. Even though it can feel a little overwhelming to see all you may need to learn, every tidbit will help! And once you have that foundation, minor changes are easier to learn.

Chunking, bullet points, and brevity are all important parts of web writing, so buckle in for a ride through best practices, reading patterns, and putting all this knowledge together!

writingforweb

The Aerial View

Best practices are well, the best practices for a particular field. Best practice for HTML includes using lowercase characters in tags. A design best practice is to label layers and to use groups for ease of use.

And writing for web has it’s own set of best practices, because it’s unique from other types of writing. Of course, grammar and spelling are still important, but there is a very crucial difference.

You don’t read a webpage, you scan it.

Unless they’re genuinely interested and you’ve caught their attention, visitors won’t read word by word. They’ll read the intro, headings, and bullet points because they stand out. If they see a heading that intrigues them, they’ll slow down and take a closer look. But I can almost guarantee you they’ll still be scanning.

The F-shaped Pattern

In order to have a grasp of writing for web, a little background is necessary. You may have seen Nielsen’s eye-tracking study before, but if you haven’t, here’s a visual that shows how people view web pages. (Even if you have, it’s always a good refresher!)

nng eye tracking

(Source)

The F-shaped pattern proves that users won’t read your page thoroughly in a word-by-word manner. It’s important to note that not all sites will create an “F” pattern. The basic idea, though, stays the same.

To create a page for the web reader, follow these formatting tips:

  • Begin sub-headings and paragraphs with info-carrying words to help users deduce the content.
  • Users will read the third word on a line less than the first two. Front load those sentences!
  • First two paragraphs must state the most important information.
  • Most important information should be in the upper left-hand area of the webpage
  • Creativity is great, but some rules shouldn’t be broken.
  • If you break a rule, break it for a reason.

This study is relevant in two main ways: design and writing. Designers, you need to make sure that from the initial wireframes you consider how visitors will look at your site. Is your important information above the fold? Are the sidebars on the right side? Writers, is your copy compelling? Are you maximizing the ability to scan?

How People Read

As I mentioned above, people read very differently online than they do in real life. These tricks can help you keep those eyes on your copy!

  • Emphasize the important words or [short] phrases with bolding or italicizing. (This guides readers to what’s really important.)
  • Maintain separate formatting for links so readers can easily tell what is emphasized and what is a link.
  • Be specific and get to the point. (A struggle of mine!)
  • Large amounts of information should be organized well or be broken into pages.
  • Smaller paragraphs (“chunking”) help break up information.
  • Maintain a 6-8 grade level in your writing. (Hemingway App is great for this.) LINK
  • Prioritize gender neutrality, but if you have a good reason, this can be broken (like in personas, stories, etc).

What Newspapers can Teach Us

Newspapers can teach us a surprising amount of how to share content in an easily digestible way, even though they were around before the web was even a glimmer of an idea. (Think of each news story as a separate web page.)

  • Present large amounts of skimmable content. Busy people don’t need unnecessary information!
  • Smaller paragraphs aid quick reading.
  • Subpages and headings guide readers.
  • Headings and lead sentences attract the reader’s attention.
  • First, introduce the content. Then, details to fill the gaps.

The Nitty Gritty of Web Writing

I’m pretty ruthless when it comes to reading on the web. There are a lot of messages competing for my attention, and if an article has long paragraphs and no headings, I’ll stop reading it. (Unless I really want to know what the author has to say.)

Writing for web comes down to relevance.

Ask yourself these questions while creating and writing web content:

  • Does the reader care?
  • Is it focused on my target audience? (Side note: have you thought about who your target audience is?)
  • How will it help your reader resolve an issue?

Why Clarity is Crucial

I mentioned above that you should strive to maintain a 6-8 grade level in your writing. Obviously, this changes if you’re writing for something highly technical, like a medical journal. But no matter whowhom ihavenoideaeventhoughI’mawriter you're writing to, maximize meaning while minimizing words.

Have you noticed the lists in this article? Say you have a paragraph listing different restaurant options in a geographical location. It will be easier to scan and more effective if this information is in a bulleted list.

Personally, this is a tough one for me. I can ramble. Thankfully, writing allows me the chance to edit my words to make them more concise!

The Ideal Amount of Content

There is a delicate balance of too much scrolling and click-throughs. Some sites have begun utilizing an automatic process of loading more content on mobile devices. Others though, keep the click-throughs. There are pros and cons to both methods. A goal should be to minimize tapping small buttons on small screens, but should balance with an article so overwhelming the reader doesn’t know where to begin.

A solid example of this is Mayo Clinic’s website. For a particular condition or diagnosis there are standard pages the user clicks through. It begins with the summary, then goes through symptoms, preparing for your appointment, and more. This is an excellent example of giving your visitors what they want in a predictable way while staying organized.

mayo clinic

Every condition is organized the same way, and has the relevant content broken down into the same categories. This gives users a sense of what to expect.

The Right Way to Cut Content

Remember the abomination that is internet shorthand? (Okay, maybe that’s too strong, but bear with me.) Nothing spells “unprofessional” like a lack of vowels. (Well, that’d actually be nprfssnl. See how silly I look right now?)

There are a few tools available to help you cut space for tweets and other uses.

URL shorteners! bit.ly, goo.gl, ow.ly, and others are all options to give you more characters for the thrilling words making your audience click.

It’s both a tool and a mindset: professionalism. There are differing levels of professionalism, but it comes down to a lack of stupidity. I’m all for a tongue-in-cheek or apropos use of YOLO in a marketing campaign, but that should be the exception not the rule. You want to set a great first impression with your audience, and that is through professionalism.

Whew! I know that was a lot to absorb! My advice would be to start using one tip at a time. It doesn’t matter if it takes three days or three weeks. Pick one tip and focus on improving. When you’ve mastered that, move onto the next. And so on! Splitting this up can make it much more manageable.

I hope this has provoked some questions about how you could be improving your content. Each entity is different and needs to create a unique content plan, but I hope this has helped give you a foundation or a refresher for writing for web!

Was there anything that made you rethink some of your content strategy?

What would you add to this list?