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No matter how often people claim “Nobody reads online!”, it’s just not true. We probably read more than at any point in time. In our digital world, words are literally everywhere.

And these words are critical to shaping behaviour from your audiences online. Without words, how could you raise awareness for an issue, interest someone with the work you’re doing, compel them to donate, volunteer, sign your petition, or inspire them to join your movement? 

None of that happens without words. None of that happens without a writer to write them. 

But writing for the web requires a particular approach. You can’t publish an essay online and think people will read it. You can’t write quite the same way as you would write a novel or even an article in a magazine, even though the writer’s end goal may be similar—to connect with someone, to share an idea, to spark an emotional reaction. 

The internet is its own medium, and as such it has its own rules. 

In this article, I’ll share the principles of good writing for the web, composing techniques that will enhance your writing and formatting techniques to make your online content more readable. I’ll also share some additional tips for improving your writing. 

But before all that, we have to start at the beginning, and for us the beginning is understanding how people read online. 

Understanding how people read online

Over a decade ago, people sat in waiting rooms that were littered with recently published magazines and newspapers. As they waited, they picked them up, hoping to find something interesting to read. 

They weren’t trying to get anything done, they just wanted to pass time and so hoped to find a topic that would interest, entertain or inspire them. It’s a similar reason people read novels: they’re not trying to do anything other than enrich themselves. 

That’s the biggest difference with website content. Most of the time, people don’t navigate to a website to fill the time. They are trying to do something—buy a product, understand an issue, find the right person to contact… 

Websites are tools people use. Think of a website like a coffee maker. What we want from a coffee maker is a cup of coffee. The words are designed to get out of our way and make it easier for us to use it: on/off, program, strong… 

Therefore, the most important task for a web writer is to research and understand what users are looking to do and to help them get that as easily as possible. 

Some content will be longer—like this article or a user manual. But all of it needs to fulfill a user’s need.

Here are some other insights on how people read online:

  • Users tend to scan rather than read every word

  • Attention spans are limited

  • Visual elements play a significant role in capturing attention and enhancing comprehension

Principles of good web writing

To create content that effectively communicates your message and engages your audience, here are some fundamental principles to follow:

  • 1

    Write for your users: all good content is written with someone specific in mind, but that someone needs to be your target audience and your content needs to help them solve a problem they’re facing.

  • 2

    Emphasize accessibility and inclusivity: writing for accessibility means keeping in mind that not everyone will navigate your content the same (e.g. some will rely on screen readers). There are many ways to write in an inclusive way, from using non gendered pronouns to limiting the overuse of cultural phrases and expressions.

  • 3

    Prioritize readability: that’s the goal of your writing, after all, to be read. It’s not an obstacle to be overcome. For a reader, words should fade away and yield understanding. Always strive to write at a grade level below that of your readers, even if they’re highly technical. Use the appropriate language, just make sure your words don’t get in the way.

  • 4

    Maintain a consistent voice: your website is a part of your larger brand. You want to make sure you’re sounding consistent across the different touch points but also throughout your website—or even on each page.

  • 5

    Know when to shift your tone: while your brand voice is consistent, your tone needs to shift to match where your users are at. Imagine this: your user just read a heartbreaking story about an individual who is struggling to overcome their situation and at the end is met with a cheerful, “Donate today!” The tone is not appropriate to the situation.

  • 6

    Optimize for searchers: in order to improve your SEO, you’re going to need to identify the questions your audience is Googling for answers and structure your content to provide the best possible answer. 

  • 7

    Use the inverted pyramid approach: present the most important information first, followed by supporting details.

  • 8

    Opt for the active voice: communicate your message with clarity and authority by using active sentence structures.

  • 9

    Avoid adverbs: choose a verb that will communicate the same idea. This will keep your sentences crisp, dynamic and engaging.

  • 10

    Less is always more: Thomas Jefferson said, “Never use two words when one will do” and that is still the most fundamental principle of good writing. Cover your topic comprehensively in as few words as possible.

These principles lay the foundation of good writing for the web. They are skills that every great writer continues to hone in order to improve the quality of their writing and make it more readable.

Formatting techniques

Good writing for the web is not just about picking to express your ideas; formatting is just as important. From descriptive headings to engaging visuals, every element contributes to the overall readability and user experience of your content.

In other words, writing on the web is designing with words.

  • Use descriptive headings to organize your content and guide readers through the information.

  • Break up paragraphs into bite-sized chunks to make your content more digestible.

  • Incorporate relevant links to provide additional context and resources for your audience.

  • Utilize bullets and numbered lists to highlight key points and improve scannability.

  • Emphasize important text using bold, italicized, or highlighted formatting.

  • Enhance visual appeal with graphics, images, and videos to complement your written content.

  • Incorporate pull quotes to draw attention to noteworthy insights or quotes within your content.

With these techniques, you can format your content in a way that is easier for a reader to scan, while improving their comprehension.

Additional tips to write better web content

To further enhance your writing process and refine your content, consider the following additional tips:

  • Create a content guide to maintain consistency in writing style and formatting.

  • Leverage writing tools such as Grammarly, Yoast, and the Hemingway App to improve grammar, readability, and SEO.

  • Explore the use of AI for generating content ideas, optimizing headlines, and editing your writing.

  • Be human. Humans are good at capturing each other’s attention by telling stories, building interest and paying it off with a twist, a surprise, a valuable takeaway. Humans break the rules and obsess over weird details, throw off the rhythm of their sentences, and show their personality quirks. And that makes for fascinating writing. Know the rules, learn them and use them to improve your craft. Then smash them to smithereens and be human.

In an online world where words are everywhere, don’t underestimate their power to shape behavior and inspire action. 

Yet, writing for the web demands a unique approach. It’s not enough to simply publish; you have to tailor your entire approach to the medium. Remember to stay true to your voice, adapt to your audience’s needs, and never underestimate the power of a well-crafted story. With these insights and techniques at your disposal, you’ll be equipped to create content that not only captures attention but also leaves a lasting impact on your readers.

So, embrace the art of web writing, and let your words pave the way for meaningful connections and transformative change. Together, let’s harness the power of the written word to inspire, inform, and unite communities across the digital space.