The golden rules for writing for the web

19 APR 2017 0

The great promise of the internet is that it gives everyone a voice. If you want to say something, you don't need to be a publisher to print your words. You don't need the approval of an editorial board. All you need is a blog and a text editor. 
That's all true, anyone can write online. Whether people will read what they write is another question entirely.   
Despite all the wild west language used to describe writing for the internet, not everybody is going to find success. Writing for the web presents it's own unique challenges and it's own defacto style guide. While you might not need to get your copy past and editor of publisher, the reader will judge you just as harshly if you don't live up to their expectations. 

The medium really is the message 

One of the issues many writers have when they try to write online copy is that they're used to writing more. Whether you come from an academic or professional background, you're probably used to writing longer paragraphs than what is acceptable for the internet. 
Copy for the web needs to be short and punchy. Statements need to be clear, paragraphs need to be short, and long blocks of text need to be broken up in some way. 
The fact is, reading from a screen is different from reading a page of text. A paragraph that might seem reasonable in a novel or journal can look like a wall of unreadable text in a browser. The more dense the text, the more likely it is that your reader will lose focus and skip it. 
You also need to consider the nature of web browsing. Buying a book is a commitment, when people hand over their hard-earned dollars for something, they're more likely to give it attention. On the web, content is free and plentiful. If your text is too difficult to read through, or the reader can't find what they were looking for , they'll close the browser tab and go somewhere else. 
This is why you need to make your text easily scanable to the eye. Short paragraphs, sub-headings and quotations to mark topics and break up text, and the strategic use of images are all essential. You need to write for the pace of the internet, fast, direct, and always moving. 

Writing for everyone 

When writing online, you need to write for an audience that contains all manner of reading levels. Journalists who write for local papers will be familiar with this, but this concern even more pressing on the web.   

Depending on your content, you have no idea who is going to be reading your text, what they're background is like, or even if your writing in their first language. Your copy should be accessible to as wide a variety of readers as possible without sacrificing style. 
That's the rock and a hard place online writers find themselves in. You need to write copy that is exciting and entertaining enough to hook readers and informative enough to be meaningful. But you can't get so fancy that you start alienating readers as well. You need to find the Goldilocks zone that is "juuuusst right” to satisfying all these demands. 

Avoid industry jargon and five dollar words whenever possible. Be clever, but in always in the service of entertaining the reader, not showing off how smart you are. Be concise and trim your sentences like a Bonsai tree. Always look for simpler alternatives to complex statements.   

For many of us, myself included, this can be a challenge. Writing is fun and it's easy to get carried away if you're not holding yourself accountable. If you need some extra help trimming your sentences, consider using the Hemingway app

The Hemingway app is a in-browser or desktop editor that will scan your writing for overly complicated sentences, passive voice, and unnecessary adverbs. It will highlight sentences that wander around too much and supply simpler word substitutions when your writing is getting a little too fancy for its own good. 

That said, there is no substitute for your own instincts. Part of knowing the rules is also knowing when to break them. While I think the Hemingway app is good for giving your writing a second look, taking every suggestion it gives can lead to some flat, lifeless writing. Think of it as a second opinion rather than gospel. Use it, but know when to trust yourself too. 

Be real 

Writing for the web is intimate. Where academic writing is distant, and marketing copy is often filtered through several rounds of revisions and touched by multiple hands, writing online is direct and from the individual. Authenticity counts. 
There is a grittiness to writing for the web that you don't see anywhere else. When you read a novel, whether you like it, hate it, or used it to prop up the leg of your couch, there is no way of directly sharing those immediate thoughts with the author or other readers. When you read a blog, you can drop a comment on it right then and there. You can click the author's byline and find his or her Twitter or Facebook feed. There is a 1:1 immediacy there.   
This is why personality is so important online. You need to write like a person, not a business or a brand. If a novel is a lecture hall with one person speaking and the rest quietly absorbing, online articles are seven minutes in heaven. You're right up next to your audience, you need to acknowledge that.   

Readers can spot the inauthentic and phoney a mile away. If you're trying to connect with your audience or customers through a blog, you need to be willing to give your readers a piece of yourself. 

So our golden rules for writing online are: Be real. Be direct. Write for the medium your using. Be entertaining.   

That's a tall order. There is a reason anyone can write for the web, but only those who put time and thought into it can write for the web well.   

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