We all understand that newspaper articles use a different kind of writing than novels do. So it’s easy enough to understand how writing content for the web might be a particular kind of writing. But take it a step further: just as there are many different kinds of books (novels, non-fiction, how-to’s) and newspapers (national dailies; local weeklies; industry-specific) there many different kinds of websites: a multinational firm’s site will have very different requirements from a local church. In short, “writing for the web” isn’t a distinct, easily defined kind of writing. And yet, there are certain useful things we do know.
- Users will always be just one click away from another web page. Whether they are conscious of it or not, their attention is fragile.
- They are reading on a screen. But we don’t know what kind of screen: Is the reader sitting at a desk, viewing a large screen? Curled on a sofa cradling a tablet? Crammed in a subway car reading a tiny phone screen?
When it comes to advice about how to get your message read, the Nielsen Norman Group is a goldmine. The company’s tagline is “Evidence-Based User Experience Research, Training, and Consulting,” and those first 2 words are key: this company DOES RESEARCH. They don’t speculate or bloviate: they actually conduct research. And generously share a great deal of it, for free. (There is even more information they make available for a fee — thus supporting their research.) Writing for the Web lists all their articles on the topic. The range is wide, so it’s well worth looking through them all for your specific needs. Though many are quite old in web terms (some date to the 90’s!), they have lost none of their relevance (especially since, where necessary, articles have been updated since first publication). But to start you off, here is our list of key, general articles (in reverse chronological order):
Inverted Pyramids in Cyberspace
Full article: www.nngroup.com/articles/inverted-pyramids-in-cyberspace
Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web)
Full article: www.nngroup.com/articles/be-succinct-writing-for-the-web
The three main guidelines for writing for the Web are:
- Be succinct : write no more than 50% of the text you would have used in a hardcopy publication
- Write for scannability : don’t require users to read long continuous blocks of text
- Use hypertext to split up long information into multiple pages
How Users Read on the Web
Full article: www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web
They don’t. People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.
Applying Writing Guidelines to Web Pages
Web users generally prefer writing that is concise, easy to scan, and objective (rather than promotional) in style. We incorporated these and other attributes into a redesign of Web content. Doing so required trade-offs and some hard decisions, but the results were positive. The rewritten website scored 159% higher than the original in measured usability. Compared with original-site users, users of the rewritten site reported higher subjective satisfaction and performed better in terms of task time, task errors, and memory. Implications for website writing and design are discussed.
Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines
The requirements for online headlines are very different from printed headlines because they are used differently. The two main differences in headline use are:
- Online headlines are often displayed out of context: as part of a list of articles, in an email program’s list of incoming messages [etc.] ….
- Even when a headline is displayed together with related content, the difficulty of reading online and the reduced amount of information that can be seen in a glance make it harder for users to learn enough from the surrounding data. In print, a headline is tightly associated with photos, decks, subheads, and the full body of the article ….
Because of these differences, the headline text has to stand on its own and make sense when the rest of the content is not available.
Full article: www.nngroup.com/articles/information-pollution
Excessive word count and worthless details are making it harder for people to extract useful information. The more you say, the more people tune out your message.
Passive Voice Is Redeemed For Web Headings
Active voice is best for most Web content, but using passive voice can let you front-load important keywords in headings, blurbs, and lead sentences. This enhances scannability and thus SEO effectiveness.
How Little Do Users Read?
Full article: www.nngroup.com/articles/how-little-do-users-read
On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.
Writing Style for Print vs. Web
Full article: www.XXX
Linear vs. non-linear. Author-driven vs. reader-driven. Storytelling vs. ruthless pursuit of actionable content. Anecdotal examples vs. comprehensive data. Sentences vs. fragments.
World’s Best Headlines: BBC News
Full article: World’s Best Headlines: BBC News
Precise communication in a handful of words? The editors at BBC News achieve it every day, offering remarkable headline usability.
Website Reading: It (Sometimes) Does Happen
Full article: Website Reading: It (Sometimes) Does Happen
When web content helps users focus on sections of interest, users switch from scanning to actually reading the copy.
Finally, if you want to know more or want some recommended books, the list offers: