Back in 1997, Jakob Nielsen ran some seminal research looking at how we read online.
He found that most of us don’t read—we scan.
This means that when writing for the Web, whether it’s a blog post, news article or plain old webpage, we need to think very carefully about structure and formatting to ensure that our readers (or scanners) pick up the most important points.
Here are 10 tips to help you write better Web copy:
1. Keep it short
We’re all busy. So, unless what you’ve got to say is insanely gripping (it likely won’t be), say it and then stop. No rambling.
2. Make your last point first
Many of us will have been taught that, when writing, you should carefully set out your arguments first and then make an informed conclusion.
Online, the reverse is often more effective.
Make your main point first, and then explain why you think it’s the case.
3. Keep paragraphs short
Look at the BBC website—this is one of the major U.K. online media sites where content is written specifically for the Web. (Newspaper websites often have copy written specifically for print.)
The paragraphs are incredibly short—often just a sentence long.
This is because we scan the start of a paragraph when reading online, but often won’t read to the end.
If your paragraphs are longer, make sure they contain only one idea per paragraph and that the idea is firmly stated toward the beginning.
If a reader is scanning your article, you need to ensure they will pick up the gist of your argument just by scanning the start of every paragraph.
4. Use numbered lists and bullets
If you read a number of blogs, you’ll be familiar with lists and bullet points.
This tip follows from the previous one. We like to scan, and things such as paragraph breaks, lists and bullets make this easier.
It helps give you structure and stops your waffling, while also ticking the box for point No. 2 above—with a list, you state your intention first and then use the list to embellish it.
5. Use emphasis/bold
Using bold text is another way to ensure that, if you do have a long paragraph or block of text, certain phrases stand out and aren’t skimmed.
It can therefore be useful if you have no choice but to make a really important point at the end of a paragraph or sentence.
6. Use links
Much like boldface for emphasis, it has been shown that our eyes are often drawn toward hyperlinks.
Not only does this break up the text, it demonstrates credibility by showing you have done some homework and are adding value by linking to other sources.
7. Use headings and subheadings
Headings and subheadings are other stylistic features that scanners love.
Again, look at the BBC website. It almost has a formula (and probably literally does) for where a subhead should come.
If you’re reading a page and start to get a bit bored, you’ll likely drop down to the next subhead.
They act as anchor points, helping you navigate your way through the article.
8. Avoid ‘big’ words and marketing speak
This is a tip that should probably apply to everything you write, but it’s even truer online.
There’s nothing more likely to put people off your article than long, complicated words that make them think twice, or vague and confusing marketing speak.
9. Think carefully about the headline
Titles or headlines play an even more important role online than they ever used to.
With the rise of social media, they are often used as the only reference to your article or post when it is shared on Facebook or Twitter.
Although the headline needs to be provocative and intriguing, it still needs to be clear enough so as to give the potential reader a good idea of what the post/article will cover.
Finally, don’t make it too long, otherwise it won’t do well in the retweet stakes.
10. Don’t forget SEO
Search engine optimization (SEO) is an increasingly important marketing discipline for everyone writing online.
Though you should never write an article or a post purely with SEO in mind (unless you really don’t want or don’t think anyone will ever read it or see it), you need to keep it at the back of your mind.
Include those all important keywords wherever you can—especially in the headline. Using bold and/or internal links will help, too.
Finally, make sure you use proper HTML heading tags.