For the first time in HBlog history, I’ve received a request from a reader: “I think you should do a post [on writing for the Web] … if you haven’t already.”
So, how is Web writing different than writing for print? It depends on which expert you ask — and on your ultimate goal.* That said, I think there are three core ideas that apply universally: reading behavior, brevity and information hierarchy.
Reading behavior is different online
Research suggests that we read differently on the Internet than we do in print. On the Web, we tend to scan rather than read. We’re usually seeking specific information. We’re more impatient — and more easily distracted. That’s why …
Brevity is king
Effective Web text must be scannable — which means that it must be clear and concise. When writing for the Web, shorter sentences are better. The same applies to paragraphs: It’s easier to scan several short (2- to 5-sentence) paragraphs than a long block of text.
Less copy is better, too — so omit needless words. I often cut adverbs because they seldom add impact. You can also remove quotes if they don’t contain vital information. Or, you can apply a self-editing method like the 10% solution.
Information hierarchy matters
The structure of your writing matters, too. Put the most important information at the beginning, and save the details for subsequent paragraphs. (Journalism’s “inverted pyramid” writing style uses this approach.)
And if your piece is longer than 10 – 12 paragraphs, add headings. This breaks up the copy visually. Plus, the headings can help the reader better navigate your text.
Obviously, these guidelines don’t apply to all Web writing. (It would be silly to put headings into a personal blog post, for instance.) Follow your best instincts and use your common sense.
The best advice I can offer is to write the thing that *you* would want to read. Don’t worry too much about being visible to search engines, or about attracting lots of readers. Write for your own enjoyment — about things that fill you with passion — and you can’t go wrong.
* If you care most about usability (ie., how your visitors interact with your site), I highly recommend Jakob Nielsen’s research. But if you’re more focused on the quality of your content, Gerry McGovern offers some good tips as well.