It's easy to find advice for how to write for the web. As soon as companies realized that websites would be a powerful marketing channel, they looked for the magic bullet that would make their content web-ready. And web experts were happy to jump in and provide guidelines, creating a discipline of web writing. Now, with the surge of interest in mobile, companies are again trying to figure out how to rewrite their content so it will work for users of mobile devices.
But when you look at these guidelines, you'll see that many of the principles are really just principles of good writing. If anything, the web has just made it easier for companies to see where their content is failing (through high bounce rates or abandoned shopping carts). I'd argue that you shouldn't look at your web writing as separate from all the other marketing you do. Instead, you should create content that is well written and use it across channels.
Let's look at some of the tips often provided for web writing and why you should be doing these things across the board:
Keep It Short
The primary message that comes across for web writers is to keep the content short because people don't like to read on their computers. This means you should distill your content down to the information that's most essential. But why wouldn't you do this for any of your readers, in print or on the web?
If there's any content in your marketing materials that could be considered "fluff," get rid of it. This could be content that's there to satisfy an internal stakeholder's ego, because that's how someone thinks marketing materials "ought" to sound, or simply because nobody has ever questioned its utility. Keep it short, and more importantly, keep it simple.
Consider how two different email marketing companies - AWeber and MailChimp - describe their services on their websites. One of these marketers gets to the point quickly and clearly, while the other does not.
Comparison of the AWeber website and the MailChimp website.
Help Users Scan and Find Information
Consistent use of headers is essential on the web, and they need to be descriptive to give users a sense of what content is on the page and where they can find the information they need.
For example, Fog Creek does a great job of using descriptive headers to show users what they can do with their FogBugz software:
Source: FogBugz website
Headers are especially helpful for breaking up long walls of text, which can cause anybody's eyes to glaze over and require the user to read the whole page to find what they need. Breaking out information into bulleted lists or tables also makes it easier to find information quickly.
These are tools you should be using frequently in all your communications to help readers see at a glance what you're trying to communicate and then decide if they want to engage further.
Use Your Audience's Language
This issue comes up frequently when trying to optimize content for search. If you're not using the words users are searching for, you won't be showing up in their search results. That's why it's important to avoid jargon or proprietary names when writing on the web, or at least make sure to always explain them simply, in layman's terms.
This point may actually be even more important off the web. Imagine the frustration of somebody reading your materials who doesn't know what you're talking about - and doesn't have easy access to Google to find out (or want to bother).
Test With Users
User feedback is the Holy Grail of web writing. Not all projects have the time or budget for it, but whenever you can test your content with real users, you'll have a much better chance of creating something that helps achieve your business goals.
The same goes for creating other marketing materials. These materials often cost quite a bit of money to produce, so you want to be sure you're getting them right. You may not be able to get the same volume as with a website and A/B testing, but you can still get valuable feedback from testing your stuff with a few real customers.
So What Is Different About the Web?
That said, there are still a few special considerations to keep in mind when writing for the web. The most important thing is knowing how to organize your site and use links effectively. You need to use the right words to get people to click (or tap) and create a clear information trail for users. Part of this skill is deciding where to break pages and what the relationship between pages will be.
But in general, I would argue that web writing is not, in fact, a new discipline, but instead follows principles of plain language and information design that have been around for decades. The problem is that few people get trained in this kind of writing, either in school or in the workplace. However, it is a skill that can be learned, and if you have writers who can do it, you'll be able to simplify not just on your website, but on all fronts.
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Sarah has long been intrigued by the challenge of how to translate complex concepts, particularly scientific and technical information, into plain language that everyone can understand.
As a writer at Carnegie Mellon University and Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Sarah developed communications that explained the universities’ research in clear, engaging language. Most recently, she honed her online information design and web writing skills as web services manager for The Segal Company.
Sarah holds an M.A. in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon University and a B.A. in English from Oberlin College. She currently lives in Brooklyn under the reign of a French bulldog.
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