Writing for the web is different to print

Lady sitting on the floor using a laptop
People read online content differently to print.

Web writing is different to print. If you want your message to be read, adapt your writing style. Users scan for their content rather than read it. Be succinct and use simple language.

Writing for the web requires a different skill and approach to writing for print. This is because the online world is different to the print one. If you want your content to be read and remembered, consider these golden rules:

Summarise first
Objective language
Scannable text
Be succinct
Obvious howlers


Summarise first

Start your page with a short, sharp conclusion first. Journalists use this style, known as the inverted pyramid, when reporting news items. It turns the traditional content on its head so that the “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, and “why” of the story is at the beginning.

This style is preferred by users as they only have to read a few sentences to get the most important parts of the article. If they are still interested, they can scroll down to get the full story.

I also tend to list my sub-headings at the top of the page so that users can have some idea of the content for the rest of the page.

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Objective language

Whilst managing the AXA intranet, I was faced with this issue constantly – especially from our beloved HR department.

At all costs, avoid:

  • Marketese language. Your customers and staff are more astute than you think. For example Avoid adjectives such as "great" and "overwhelming"
  • Buzzwords (e.g. "paradigm"), and claims that are not supported with evidence
  • Jargon. When I re-designed the AXA intranet in 2001, I gave out a company umbrella every time someone pointed out jargon on the site. Not only were the brand team happy, it improved the content of the intranet
  • Exaggeration as the credibility of your website will suffer.

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Scannable text

A study carried out by Jakob Neilsen and John Morkes found that 79% of users always scanned a page and only 16% read word-by-word. It’s painful to read text on computer screens, especially laptops.

The online experience also seems to foster some amount of impatience so users don’t read streams of text fully. They forage for information and pick out elements that are of most interest to them. Scanning helps them pick out keywords, sentences, and paragraphs of interest while skipping over those parts they care less about.

Some techniques you can use to make your content scan easily are:

  • Highlight keywords (I prefer to highlight the area around the word)
  • Separate content with meaningful headings
  • Use bullets or numbered lists
  • Sub-headings are useful but don’t be too clever with them
  • Use shorter paragraphs with only one idea in it
  • Add tables if you are illustrating data

Organising your content correctly will also help those with reading difficulties or those using assistive technology.

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Be succinct

Reading from computer screens is about 25% slower than reading from paper. As a result, people don't want to read a lot of text on screen. As a rule of thumb, you should write 50% less text that you would write for print. It's not only a matter of reading speed – research also shows that people often don't like reading online text. How often have you printed a web page rather than read it on screen?

I think that users don't like to scroll: one more reason to keep pages short.

Try simple sentence structures rather than convoluted writing and complex words that are even harder to understand online. You are not doing this to prove your literary skills.

Puns don’t work online so find some other way to be humorous. This is if you have to add humour in the first place.

The text on each page should be written as if the user has not seen the rest of the site. Many will access web pages direct from search engines or through links from other web sites. Your content must be able to stand on its own.

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Obvious howlers

Over the last five years in Corporate Communications, I have come across some obvious howlers on how not to communicate. Here are a few:

I insist you know this

Web users are savvy. You cannot insist on telling them anything. Hence, before you write anything, think about the user. What message will turn them on? If it’s an employee survey, tell them what your commitment will be on the feedback received – otherwise what’s the point of taking part?

I once worked for a Group Chief Executive who insisted on having his CV on the corporate intranet. Why I ask myself? Having read it, it’s a wonder he ever got the job!

Once upon a time…

How often is a simple call to action wrapped around 800 words? Especially if it’s from HR or Company Secretary’s office? When an employee company share scheme is on offer, don’t go over the top on the legal issues. If it’s a company travel scheme, cut the chase and tell me my mileage allowance.

Quality web writing is about “less is more”.

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I kan’t spell

I use to joke in a non-Politically correct way that my spelling is poor as English is not my first language. Hardly an excuse! With so many tools available (spell checker, online dictionary, Google toolbar spell check just to name a few), bad spelling is not acceptable.

Neither is poor grammar. If this is not your core skill, get someone else in the office to check your work. Good web writing is difficult. It requires a lot of skill and experience.

I was lucky. I sat right next to Phil Hickley, senior media manager at AXA UK,  who was a skilled wordsmith. He did have a weakness – he supports Chelsea!

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It’s all the same

Web writing is not the same as print. At Deloitte, I was asked to publish the Firm’s strategy on the intranet as a pdf of the printed version. After a number of interesting conversations, I finally managed to launch an Executive Q&A site which supported the printed strategy. The web is multidimensional – use it as such.

If you have any other interesting examples, please let me know. I’ll publish the biggest howlers in the next update.

This page was last updated on Saturday, 19th December 2009.