Writing for the Web LyndalCairns.com

Writing for the web is different to writing for any other medium. It is short, to the point and visually orientated. Journalism practice is vital.
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Forget everything you know about writing

So you’re the organization’s best writer and have been tasked with putting information on the website. You’ve written great reports in the past – maybe a brochure or two – and all the info has already been written. It’s a cinch, right?

It’s not hard but you do need to approach it differently to other forms of writing.

1. Readers scan on the web

LyndalCairns.com readers scan web

One of the hardest things for me to learn was that readers scan on the web. I was used to working for newspapers, where journalists would craft stories around an inverted pyramid structure. The structure was pretty rigid but still allowed some leeway – especially in features.

On the web, we take in what we need to – keywords, fact boxes, images. It’s your job to make those elements easy for people to find. Use some white space to separate elements and keep sentences to 10-15 words.

Eyeball studies have found the way we take in web content is fundamentally different to other forms of reading. We scan, usually in an F pattern, taking in the headline and elements immediately to the right (such as a fact box or ad) then down and across again.

LyndalCairns.com lede

An F-shaped heatmap of our web viewing habits, from Useit.com

2. Don’t bury the lede

When I was a cadet newspaper reporter, my cranky dragon of an editor-in-chief would quite often take story printouts, screw them up and hurl them at speed, shouting: “Don’t bury the lede!” Her frustration was when reporters failed to recognize the most important facts and include them in the opening paragraph.

As important as this is in newspapers, it’s doubly so when writing for the web.

LyndalCairns.com lede

This new inverted pyramid for web writing came from Big Duck.

You need to front-load your page, not only to catch their attention but to tell them as much as you can in as few words possible. Use dot points, fact boxes, graphics and headlines to convey key information.

3. Be ruthless with your content

04 cut cut cut

A German team’s empirical study of web use in 2008 found users read about half of the words on 100-word page; and a mere 20 per cent of a 600-word page. How many words are on your page?

You might be thinking: but my content is really interesting so my readers aren’t average – they will stick with it. Time yourself reading the page, then look at its analytics – you’ll realize no one is reading it as thoroughly as you are.

Turn everything you can into a graphic, a list or a factbox. Cut what you can, condense the rest. Make it easy for your readers and they will come back to you.

4. Writing for mobile

If a large proportion of your viewers are coming by mobile (or you’re trying to attract more mobile readers), you’ll need to shorten your sentences even further and write even more in dot points. If your organization is tied to a place, like a drop-in center, make sure your address and contact details are in the top section of the page.

Even when you’re writing for a mobile-optimized site, make sure to keep it short and keep your graphics small. Almost two-thirds of mobile users want a site to load in less than four seconds, and slow loading times was the top frustration with browsing, mobile performance tester Keynote reports.

5. Writing for email

Too many nonprofits fail to consider (or even find out) what their subscribers want from them. We send out weekly or monthly updates about the organization rather than tailoring our messages to our readers.

Split your mailing list into groups and target them with the information and updates they want. Track your open and click-through rates to find out what’s working, and do more of it.

Use compelling language and calls-to-action. Be clear about what you want your constituents to do; and make it easy for them to do so.

Keep it short and keep it mobile-friendly. More than 40 per cent of US respondents to a 2011 survey read their email on a mobile device. That is likely to rise swiftly.

Email engine MailChimp has more advice on email subject lines.

Want more?

Buffer blog’s awesome description of what storytelling does to our brains.
Big Duck on editors – the unsung heroes of the web.
Useability.gov’s guide to how people read on the web.