Writing for the web

Web writing is a big topic; it's been the subject of many books, blogs, careers and classes. But there are a few things that can be useful to keep in mind, even if web writing isn't your primary job function.

1. Think about your reader.

Who will be reading this web page that you’re writing? What are they trying to accomplish? Are they rushed? Stressed? Confused? Excited? Curious?

Ginny Redish talks about web content as conversation in this fantastic presentation. Web writing isn’t a monologue, it’s a dialogue. Even if you have specific goals for your content and what you want your readers to understand, your chances of accomplishing those goals are much higher if you can meet them halfway to what they want to do, find or understand.

2. Provide context.

When you’re reading a brochure, book or report in paper form, you usually know what you’re reading: the binding, cover and physicality of the document all tell you what you’re looking at.

Online, we’re lacking those material clues, so we have to rely on other elements to figure out where we are and what we’re looking at. Each site, page and paragraph should help readers know what they’re reading, whether it’s the right place for them and what other pages are related.

(Elizabeth McGuane and Randall Snare talk about this as coherence and offer some great advice about how to get it in this article.)

3. Be clear, concise and readable.

Most of good web writing is the same as other effective communication:

  • Use words that people understand, the way that people expect them to be used. Don’t get too fancy.
  • Use active voice.
  • Use verbs.
  • Keep sentences simple. Subclauses get confusing really fast.

4. Make it easy to skim.

People read a little differently online. Web readers tend to read quickly and searchingly until they find what they need. Here’s what you can do to help them find what they’re looking for:

  • Use headings to mark sections of the content.
  • Use bulleted lists to make organized content stand out.
  • Keep paragraphs short.
  • Use hyperlinks. When you need to refer to other documents, detailed policies or organizations, links are the best way to give readers the depth and context they need without cluttering your page with too many tangents.
For more information, see best practices: structuring content pages.

5. Get a second pair of eyes.

Everybody needs an editor. Have a colleague review what you write for coherence, clarity and correctness.