10 Tips for Writing Online

By Niklas Nordlof on Thursday, December 18, 2014

When you were taught to write, I’m guessing it was all about proper grammar, complete sentences, well-formed paragraphs, and formal, precise language.

Well, forget it. The way you learned to write in school isn’t going to cut it on the web. Here, people:

  • Only read bits and pieces of what you’ve written
  • Don’t read from top to bottom
  • And they often have a low reading level

Since people don’t read webpages the same way they read books, you have to change how you write. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

Make it scannable

Unnecessary complexity hurts your content’s readability—and not just because it takes up space on small screens. Your users aren’t reading every word of your content from top to bottom—they’re scanning. 

This has been common knowledge since the ‘90s—just ask well-known usability guru Jakob Nielsen, who points out that, based on his research, 79% of users scan new webpages, and only 16% of users read the content word-by-word (Nielsen 1997).

So what does scannable mean? That’s what the rest of this article is about.

Make it concise

Concise content doesn’t mean leaving out information. It means removing unnecessary words, ramblings, and maybe it does actually mean leaving out (or at least reorganizing) the information that your readers don’t care about. 

It also means avoiding unnecessary, complicated sentences that never seem to end, even if they are grammatically correct, because readers will forget where you started—and in conclusion… (what was this sentence about again?)

In Nielsen’s example, he cuts out unnecessary figures that add complexity. But you can do the same with unnecessary words—like:

  • Really
  • Very
  • Rather
  • Actually
  • Basically

And cut down redundant phrases like:

  • Period in time
  • Free gift
  • True facts
  • End result
  • Final outcome

Before

On our site, you can search for pants, shirts, and fuzzy socks.

After

Search for pants, shirts, and fuzzy socks.

Add formatting

Nielsen added bullet points in his study. But formatting also means:

  • Adding bold and italic formatting (sparingly—don’t go overboard)
  • Breaking up large paragraphs
  • Adding clear sections
  • Working with a designer on your font choice, line height, and heading styles

If you’re not sure where to start, start by reviewing the Gestalt laws of grouping. This picture shows an example of the law of proximity, which states that when objects are close to each other, people perceive them as part of group. Adding lists is one way to create groups. Wikipedia has a decent introduction to these theories.

 

Before

We’ve made a few changes to our shipping policy. First, we pay for return shipping. Always. Also, shipping is free when you spend $100. Plus, the third thing is that we now ship to Canada. 

After

Our shipping policy:
  • Free return shipping. Always.
  • Free shipping when you spend $100.
  • Now shipping to Canada!

Break it up

Like I mentioned in the formatting section, big blocks of text are hard to read. When you originally learned about paragraphs, you were probably taught that they should be about 4 sentences long, but they could be longer if necessary. Also, the point of a paragraph was to contain one thought. You’d start the paragraph with an introduction sentence, and then end it with a concluding sentence that led into the next paragraph. OMG, is this paragraph still going?

On the web, that’s too long. Write short paragraphs.

Short paragraphs aid scanning. Readers can see what you’re talking about, and skip ahead.

Headings break up text better than short paragraphs. Add a heading every time you switch thoughts. (Want an example? See this post.)

Before

Founded in 1901 by Caleb Deffell, Deffell's Pants has been the industry innovator in leg coverings for over 100 years. When your great-grandmother first dared to put on a pair of trousers, she turned to Deffells. That sentiment is still a big part of our design process today. With that sentiment in mind, I'm happy to announce the latest innovation in the Deffell's line: Design Your Own Jeans. Send us your measurements and pick the fabric, stitching, leather patch, buttons, rivets, zippers, and every detail. And we'll build a pair of jeans just the way you want it.

After

Founded in 1901 by Caleb Deffell, Deffell's Pants has been the industry innovator in leg coverings for over 100 years. When your great-grandmother first dared to put on a pair of trousers, she turned to Deffells. That sentiment is still a big part of our design process today. 
With that sentiment in mind, I'm happy to announce the latest innovation in the Deffell's line: Design Your Own Jeans
Send us your measurements and pick the fabric, stitching, leather patch, buttons, rivets, zippers, and every detail. 
And we'll build a pair of jeans just the way you want it.

Use sentence fragments

 

Try incorporating sentence fragments and interjections. We speak in sentence fragments, so if you use them in your writing, you can achieve a more natural flow. 

For example, use sentence fragments to:

  • Introduce a list.
  • Draw attention to examples. Like this.
  • Continue a long thought without creating an extra long sentence. So your readers won’t get lost. 
  • Emphasize your point. Bam.

Unfortunately, sentence fragments are not proper grammar. (But interjections are. Hurray!) So be careful how you use them, and understand that you’re creating a specific tone when you do. 

But even if you’re writing for a professional audience, a smattering of carefully considered fragments will improve your writing.

Before

If you have any issues, our support staff is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

After

24/7 support!

Start sentences with conjunctions

 

Despite what your third-grade teacher told you, starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (like and, but, and or) is grammatically correct. Why should you use conjunctions? Because they:

  • Connect thoughts. Conjunctions help your readers draw connections. 

  • Aid scanning. For readers that scan, conjunctions tell them that the previous sentence was related.

  • Shorten sentences. People absorb information better in bite-sized chunks. So break up long sentences, and use conjunctions to show the reader the connection.

But be careful! This myth is pervasive, so carefully consider your audience.

Before

If you send us your measurements, and then pick the fabric, stitching, leather patch, and every other detail, then we'll build your jeans just the way you want.

After

Send us your measurements. Pick the fabric, stitching, leather patch, and every other detail. And we'll build your jeans just the way you want.

Put important stuff first

Eliminate unnecessary details, but also make sure important details come first. Remember that people scan on the web. Your readers don’t want to sift through a funny anecdote or the unique history of how a product was developed. 

Your readers just want the information. 

And since they won’t read everything you write, make sure they read the what’s important first. This technique is especially relevant when writing the title for a product or a page, or when writing email subject lines.

Before

Long Sleeve Shirt With Snap Buttons Embroidered With Roses in the Western Wear Style by Deffell’s

 

After

Deffell’s Western Snap Shirt with Flower Pattern—Long Sleeve

 

Use contractions

Contractions aren’t the enemy. Contractions shorten character count, turn two words into one, and help readers flow through a sentence. We speak with contractions, so using them makes your writing sound more natural.

Of course, be careful how you use them. Here are some guidelines:

  • Do not use negative contractions if the not is important. To people scanning your writing, can’t and can look alike, but cannot stands out.

  • Avoid non-standard or old-fashioned contractions. Like ain’t, shan’t, y’all, or gotta. These types of contractions stick out (even when you don’t want them to), and they set a very particular tone. Plus they don’t translate well.

Before

Once you have added your product, click Check Out.

After

Once you’ve added your product, click Check Out.

End sentences with prepositions

 
(Image from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.)

Prepositions (like with, at, for, and about) are generally little words that describe relationships. Those of us of obsessed with grammar are familiar with the myth that you must not end a sentence with a preposition.

This myth is based on a misapplication of Latin grammar. English has it’s own unique blend of grammar, and this Latin rule does not apply. 

Not only can you end a sentence in a preposition, but intentionally avoiding this construction creates awkward sentences for which your readers have no patience (or do you prefer …which your readers have no patience for).

Before

For what are you waiting? 

After

What are you waiting for? 

Lower your reading level

Even if you’re writing in English for an American audience, your readers might not speak English as their first language. Or they might be children. Or they might not feel like reading complex sentences.

A lower reading level not only makes your writing accessible to a wider audience, but it makes your reading more scannable.

Here are some tips for lowering your reading level:

  • Write short sentences. Short sentences move readers forward and let them skip around.

  • Avoid uncommon words. Your readers just want the information. Don’t require them to open a dictionary.

  • Test your reading level. If you have Microsoft Word, you can easily enable readability testing. Word presents two scores: Flesch Reading Ease Test (which is a 100-point scale, and the higher the better—aim for 60 or above) and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test (which is based on grade level of US schools—aim for a 6.0 – 8.0).

What else?

You can fill entire books with tips about writing for the web. Here are a few good ones:

  • Letting Go of the Words. This book will set you straight about the difference between the writing style you learned in school and the style that you should be using on the web.

  • Microsoft Manual of Style (4th Edition). While this book is technically about software, it has some great guidance on writing for an international audience. This book is dry. So if this stuff doesn’t fascinate you, you’ll have a hard time getting through it.


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