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Writing for the Web

Overview

Most of us know the basics of good writing – proper grammar, spelling and punctuation, word choice, organization, etc. Writing for the web, however, requires a new set of skills to best grab and hold your readers’ attention. In addition to following basic writing techniques, to successfully write for the web your content must be:

  • Understandable
  • Scannable
  • Searchable

Why is Writing for the Web Important?

We don’t read online content the same way we read printed content – studies of online reading behavior show that online users only read 28% of the words on the screen during an average webpage visit. In addition, according to Tony Haile of Chartbeat, the majority of web users spend fewer than 15 seconds on a web page.

The question for successful web writers is:

  • How do you engage your audience in less than 15 seconds and
  • Communicate your message with only 28% of your total content?

How Do You Write for the Web?

Plan Your Message

Before you start writing, ask yourself:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What does your audience need to accomplish?
  • How can you help them reach their goal?

Knowing your audience’s needs can help you plan your content, headings and page structure – all things that work to quickly and effectively communicate your message to your users.

Make Your Content Readable

We have all been turned off by web content that was full of jargon, acronyms and unnecessary data that hid the real information we were searching for. How many times have you immediately clicked the “Back” button after seeing nothing but a wall of text? Fortunately, there are easy ways to make your content readable and understandable:

  • Use your reader’s words  Using familiar words will help your users search for and find your content. Limit your use of jargon and acronyms to help your users understand what you are trying to say. If you do use an acronym, define it for the reader.
  • Break up text blocks  Break up your text into manageable sections by using smaller paragraphs, bullets and meaningful headlines.
  • Place the most important information first  Start with the most important details and then add your supporting information.
  • Active voice over passive voice  Active voice makes your writing clearer and stronger.
  • Use short sentences and paragraphs  No more than 20 words in a sentence and 5 sentences in a paragraph.
  • Use images, multimedia and white space  Images can visually represent your content and reinforce your message. White space helps breaks up your information into manageable sections.
  • Use descriptive links  Instead of writing “Click Here,” write “Download a map of the park.” Not only does it make your text clearer, but it helps those using screen readers easily scan the page for useful links.

Fine-Tune Your Content

Read your text out loud (or have someone else read it) and figure out how to make your writing better. When looking at your content, ask yourself, is this the simplest and clearest way to say this?

  • Is there a simpler word you could use?  For example, instead of “commence,” use the word “begin.” Instead of “determine,” choose “decide.” Use this word suggestion list from plainlanguage.gov to help you find the simplest way to communicate your message.
  • Use the word you mean to use  Affect or effect? Complement or compliment? There, their or they’re? If you don’t catch these little mistakes, your readers certainly will.
  • Stronger sentences are usually shorter  Rather than write “The supervisor performed a review of the employee’s work,” write “The supervisor reviewed the employee’s work.” Cut out your unnecessary words and get to the point of the sentence.
  • Avoid clichés  Find an original way to write your content. Your readers will appreciate the effort.

Use a Readability tool to help find the reading-ease score of your text. The tools use words and sentence length to score your text – more readable text gets a higher score. Use the Readability Tool built into the CLP editing pages to see how your content measures up!

screenshot of readability tool for CLP content

Improving Your Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Once you have written your content, you need to make sure users can find it.

  • Use keywords effectively  Is your main keyword in your title and your first few sentences? Readers scanning your text need to see what they are looking for quickly and easily. A clever title or headline may be fun to write, but make sure your reader knows what they will find in your content.
  • Learn to write the perfect meta description  Your meta description gives users a glimpse into your text and tells them what to expect. A good meta description can help your content stand out on search engines and draw users to your page.
  • Add optimized images  Use relevant, high-quality images and make sure your main keyword is in the title, caption and/or alt text to boost your SEO.
  • Make your content long enough to count  Search engines tend to give preference to longer articles and pages. Aim for at least 300 words in each piece you write.

Use the Yoast SEO tool to give the findability of your CLP content a boost.

screenshot of Yoast SEO plugin on CLP

Additional Resources

Plain Language and Accessibility

General Web Writing Resources

  • National Park Service Publishing Checklist  NPS guidance on links, content writing, search engine optimization and images used on the web.
  • Nielson Norman Group  Articles on writing for the web, covering topics such as writing for mobile devices, language, readability and writing better headlines and titles.

Reflection

  • What is your greatest challenge in writing for the web? For example, do you have trouble covering a complicated or technical topic while keeping your language simple? How can you work to overcome that challenge?
  • Think about your own web reading habits. Do you find yourself scanning headlines, jumping around the page looking for content or quickly leaving a page when you can’t find what you were looking for? How can your own habits help you become a better web writer?

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