Writing in the active voice also helps to keep things clear, concise, and impactful. Passive writing can be vague and wordy, and risks confusing the reader rather than delivering your message clearly.
Writing For The Web
The use of websites as educational tools provides a unique way for students to access material in a variety of different formats. However, while educational websites may increase access to information, they also present their own challenges. Research suggests that only 16% of people read webpages word-for-word. Most people scan (Nielson, 1997). Additionally, people often spend only a few seconds exploring a site before determining whether to stay or leave. And, with the distracting world of the Internet, where a funny cat video is only a click away, it is even more challenging to maintain readers’ attention on a website.
When you are writing for the web, you must create content that is captivating, engaging, and informative while also being easy to scan. This means writing for the web looks very different than writing for print. Check out our chapter overview video to see an example of how to transform a traditional print paragraph into text that is easy to read on a website.
This chapter will showcase the tricks you need to write web content to capture and maintain the attention of your readers. We will begin by discussing how to use formatting techniques (e.g., whitespace, bold, italics, bullet points, headings, and font size) to facilitate quick reading and to draw the attention of the reader to key information. Then, we will cover how to use language in a way that appeals to your audience. Finally, we will showcase tips for writing subject specific content to engage learners.
The way you organize and format a website is the first thing visitors will notice. It’s essential to design your website to be easy on the eyes. Websites that have a lot going on (often referred to as “busy”) are difficult to gather information from and can turn people away from your page. If viewers are overwhelmed and can’t figure out what to focus on, how to find information, or where to go on the site, they will make an immediate exit. The following section offers tips and ideas to improve how your website is read by visitors.
One way to avoid making your website look busy is by utilizing white space. White space is the unfilled space on your website. Keeping some space free of images or text helps to break up your page to make it less cluttered.
In the example below, the Lings Cars site fails to utilize white space as a means of breaking up the content for two reasons. First off, there is very little background space – most of the website has words, pictures, or menus on it. The remaining background has a complex pattern that is jarring to the eyes. This combination creates a website that is difficult to look at for more than a few seconds, which is not ideal when you want visitors to stay on your webpage.
In contrast, the Pisaccochronicle site featured below uses a lot of white space, which makes it easy to quickly scan. By minimizing content and maximizing white space, readers have only a few options (read, move to the previous or next page, or explore the menu). Rather than feeling overwhelmed, viewers are encouraged to read, scroll, and explore.
Breaking Up Text
Not every website has to be as simple and limited in text as The Pisacco Chronicle. Your website can include paragraphs of text. However, if you are planning to write a lot of text on a webpage, one way to make it easy to read is to break up the text into smaller paragraphs. Take a look at popular news sites, like the New York Times or Dallas News, which are known for producing long articles of text, and you’ll see that most often paragraphs are 2-3 sentences with white space or visuals in between. Another popular technique is bullet points. Using bullet points with short sentences:
Remember: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences” (Nielson, 1997, para. 1). Since readers tend to scan webpages or skim right over large chunks of text, you can use typographical emphasis, such as bold, italics, font color, style, and size, to direct their attention to the most important information. Take a step back and look at this paragraph – what is the first word to capture your attention? Likely one of the bolded words since those stand out in contrast to the rest of the words. Italics can be used to capture attention, but not in the dominant way of bolding. Use bold to draw attention to the most important words and phrases and italics to make any additional information standout.
Changing the font color will also draw attention, but be wary of using color only to highlight key information as that may leave out individuals who are colorblind or visually impaired. While shifting the font style and size are other ways to emphasize text, limit your use of this technique. The more you change style and size, the more overwhelming the text becomes to read.
The idea behind the inverted pyramid is to have the most important information “on top” (within your first paragraph), with the details coming in the subsequent paragraphs. Readers often scan pages for information, so by putting the big takeaways early on, you will increase the chances the readers learn the information they need.
Subheadings give the reader a roadmap of your website and are critical for accessibility and screen readers. Using subheadings helps chunk, or compartmentalize, ideas and concepts, while also reinforcing the hierarchy of information. For example, if you have a website heading for “atoms,” and subheadings for “protons,” “neutrons,” and “electrons,” the subheadings reinforce that they are the parts of an atom. It’s important to consider the size of font when making headings, below is the best way to determine it:
It is worth noting that certain web design platforms (such as Wix, Weebly and Google Sites) automatically set the page title to Heading 1, but you will want to check the settings to confirm this. These platforms often also set the size and style of the headings, so all you need to do is use them!
Before You Start
#1. Research Your Reader
Before putting pen to paper – or, rather, fingers to keyboard – you need to get inside the mind of your readers. It’s essential to know your audience so that you can grab their interest and fulfil their needs. Ask yourself: why are people coming to my site? What are they looking for?
Readers are fickle, impatient, and flighty creatures – use the wrong language, or give them the wrong information, and they’ll be leaving your site before you can say “please don’t go.” Here are a few tips for keeping the customers satisfied:
Advice from the Experts
John Pannell, Senior Marketing Executive at Access Self Storage
“One of the most essential elements of writing for the web is knowing your audience. Four years ago, we were attracting just over 100 organic visits to our blog per month. In a shift in tactics, we began to write regular, quality, optimised content targeted at the interests of our website visitors, and we now generate 2,500+ organic visits per month.”
#2. Know Your Enemy
First, you need to identify your main competitors. Try to list your top ten rivals – if you have no idea, you can find out by Googling your main service, product, or topic, and seeing which other sites pop up the most.
Now you know who you’ve got to beat, settle in for a virtual stake out. Look at what type of content they’re producing – is it videos, blog posts, news stories, or downloads? What’s the level of quality? How frequently are they publishing fresh content?
Advice from the Experts
“Understand what your prospects are searching for and why they’re searching for it; take a look at the content that appears when you search for what your prospects are searching for; then write better content – in that order!”
Don’t Scare Your Reader Away
You might have heard of the comparison of web users with wild animals, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about here. Today’s online readers are hunting for information, but they don’t want to waste tons of energy taking down the web equivalent of a giant buffalo. Just like a lion picking out its prey, they are constantly on the lookout for content they can easily digest.
If a reader isn’t happy with what they see, you can bet they’ll be gone in seconds. Harsh, right? Luckily, there are ways you can send all the right messages so you don’t scare your reader away.
#3. Use Headings
Headings make it easy for readers to quickly get the gist of your content and head to the section they most want to read. Think of headings like sign posts, catching you reader’s attention and waving them in the right direction.
Top Tip! Headings are great for your readers, but they’re also important for SEO. Good Search Engine Optimization helps your site to rank well in search engine results, and having good, structured headings is one important way to optimize your site.
#4. Hook Your Reader
We all love a bit of drama. Controversy, mystery, surprising facts – they all draw us in with one key effect: we want to know more. If you can start your content with a fact, a question, a controversial comment, or even an anecdote, you stand a good chance of getting your readers’ attention.
#5. Keep Language Simple
❌ 1: Writing in uncomplicated, comprehensible language is imperative when creating content for an online audience, due to the reading patterns and habits most often portrayed by online readers, which differ massively from the tactics applied when reading other types of published materials.
Which example are you more likely to engage with? Especially when you’re on your phone, checking this article in the spare five minutes between meetings at work? Whether you like it or not, “simple” is the universal language of the web.
#6. Tell Readers Where They Are
If you’re writing a series of connected blog posts or related guides, make sure you link to the previous one so your reader can go back and get some context. If you’re reviewing something, make sure to quickly recap what it is first.
You get the idea. We always start out our reviews and comparisons by briefly explaining what a website builder is, how drag-and-drop works, or what hosting is and why you need it, before getting into the meat of the article.