Writing for the Web: Some Golden Rules

Writing for web pages and writing for traditional paper-based texts are two different disciplines the require slightly different approaches. There are some golden rules that you need to observe if your web content is to be successful. You need to:

Keeping it Simple

Simplicity doesn't just apply to the graphical design or layout of the web page you are writing for, it's also important in the text that you write. People tend to use the internet to dip in and out of subjects and to find specific bits of information. Keeping your writing simple, but not insultingly so, will increase the speed at which readers can understand what you have written and therefore where else they may have to go in your pages to find what they're looking for.

Part of the skill of keeping it simple is the ability to be concise. Use as few words as possible, while still getting your meaning across and not becoming ambiguous.

Getting the Important Stuff Up Front

Readers will be attracted to your writing in much the same way as they are to newspaper articles and headlines. Make sure that the most important elements of your information or argument are introduced as early as possible to get the reader's attention and ensure maximum effect.

Readers will not persist with pages of text in the vain hope that they find a nugget of gold in the middle of it. Invariably, a reader will decide within a few lines whether or not your page is worth reading completely.

Make the Information Randomly Accessible and Structured

Imagine you're reading a book; how would you do it? Easy, you start at page one and read each page in order until there are no more pages left to read. That's the traditional way of reading and so it's also the traditional way of writing. Remember what you were taught at school: "every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end".

While this is still largely true for fiction writing, non-fiction writing for the web requires the writer to think differently; to move away from this traditional concept. Internet surfing allows readers almost 'random access' to the information they are looking for, allowing readers to enter at the middle or end of your text without necessarily reading the beginning. To be able to write effective and useable web page content, the writer needs to bear this in mind at the very start of the process. While some writers, particularly when writing fiction, can start with a blank page, web writers need to do a bit more planning to give their content structure and to predict how readers will access and use their information. In this respect it can be likened more to technical writing than creative writing.

Take some time to think of what subjects you will be writing about. Look at the different possible ways that you could structure the information, based on how you think readers may want to access the pages. Modern technical writing standards employ standards to ensure that writing is not personally stylised and meets predetermined criteria. Many of the standards used nowadays also prescribe the use of what is referred to as 'data modules'. These are 'packets' or 'elements' of information relating to a specific subject or type of information for particular equipment or technical systems. Each data module can be a stand alone text file stored in a database and electronically 'built' with other modules into a completed publication. Although this method is not necessarily the way that you will want to go, the concept can be likened to your use of paragraphs and sections in your web page.

This simplification of the author's writing process is beneficial when producing web content as it takes account of the non-linear approach to web page reading that most users will take. For this reason you should also look at using headings and subheadings in your writing. While not always appropriate for fiction writing, they are invaluable in non-fiction, information based web pages to help the reader navigate your text.

Being Consistent

Many writers find consistency difficult to achieve as they find it restricts the thought process and therefore the flow of words onto the page. Consistency can be applied after the initial draft of your writing to ensure this doesn't happen. This is what many editors are there to ensure. Once you have written your text, leave it aside for a while before reading it. Look for inconsistencies in style, punctuation, grammar and terminology. Correct any instances that you think are causing the writing to appear inconsistent. Consistency will make your writing look more professional and readers will be inclined to take it more seriously.

Making Your Text Easy to Read

There are many reviews of how people read web pages on the internet that you can find to help with your writing. The common themes always appear to be around the speed and depth at which people read your content. Web readers tend to read quickly, although it is also recognised that it takes longer to read on-screen text than it does to read the equivalent paper-based version. Web readers also tend to scan the text rather than read every single word looking for subtleties.

It is also apparent that the style of writing is a big factor. Where text is written in an objective style, rather than in a promotional or marketing style, the web page becomes more readable and useable. Keep your use of promotional styles to a minimum to avoid switching your readers off. The aim should always be to keep you readers as long as possible and keep them coming back.

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