Maybe you’ve been asked to write a blog post on your company’s website. Maybe your website is getting redesigned and you and your team are taking the opportunity to update all the content so that when it gets to its new home it’s fresh and sparkling and ready to perform.
Maybe you don’t even like writing, but you’re a one-person-show so content is suddenly your responsibility. Maybe you’re not ready to invest in hiring an outside source.
Whatever the reason, you’ve come to the right place.
Most of us were taught how to write in grade school. That kind of writing, however, was not web writing. That was print writing. And web writing is very different from print writing.
Basically, forget everything you thought you knew about writing and start over. Throwout your old rulebook and get a new rulebook.
Am I starting to sound scary? Don’t worry. If you’ve been tasked with creating a piece of content for the web, keep these 10 commandments in mind and you’ll be in web writing heaven.
1. Thou shalt know your site’s goals
…and how your copy helps achieve those goals. Online readers are primarily purpose-driven readers. They usually want to solve a problem, learn something, get information, or be entertained. If it’s not clear that they’ll be able to achieve one of those goals within seconds of arriving at your site, they’ll leave.
So it makes sense that you, as the content creator, should have a good sense of the goals you’re hoping to achieve as well. When you’re writing, think about which goal you want your user to achieve.
Also think about your own goals. Is your copy going to get users to buy something from your site? Book a consultation? Share something about your organization online? Whatever it is, keep that goal at the top of your screen as you write so your copy remains purposeful at all times.
2. Thou shalt destroy large blocks of text
Forget everything you thought you knew about paragraphs. Because screens exhaust our eyes more quickly than printed pages, online readers are “scanners”. That means they are more likely to skip over long paragraphs.
Web writers, take this commandment as an opportunity to get creative. It might feel strange at first, but your paragraphs no longer have to be 3-5 sentences. If a sentence is meant to be emphatic, make it its own paragraph. A one-sentence paragraph? Get out! It’s not only allowed, it’s encouraged.
Other ways you can break up large blocks of text on your site include: introducing descriptive sub-headings into your copy, using lists, bullet points, graphics like tables and charts where appropriate, creating block quotes, and including lots of images.
3. Thou shalt learn to love the “F-shape”
Eye-tracking studies show that online readers tend to read in an F-shape. This means that the most important information should be contained somewhere in the “F” (preferably near the top).
4. Thou shalt avoid the temptations of clickbait
No matter how much you want to attract visitors to your site, make your headlines specific and clear. Studies show that misleading headlines may initially attract visitors, but these visitors rarely end up returning to your site or following through on your calls to action.
Which would you rather have? A bunch of strangers at your party who you’ll never see again? Or a smaller group of close friends who have your back and are invested in your growth?
5. Thou shalt frontload
Studies show that online readers spend 80% of their time “above the fold”. The “fold” is what we used to call the natural fold in newspapers. For online readers, the “fold” is the bottom of their laptop screen, or – even worse – the bottom of their mobile screen*.
This means that, like newspapers, the most important information you need to convey to readers should appear right away, above the fold. If not, readers may click away instead of continuing to scroll.
Front-loading applies to web writing on a paragraph and sentence level as well. Always include the most important information first.
*More current research suggests that online readers’, especially mobile readers’, habits are changing to include scrolling below the fold. It is still considered a best practice to include your most important information first, but you no longer have to worry about including all necessary info above the fold.
6. Thou shalt trim the deadwood
“Deadwood” refers to unnecessary words. Since online attention spans are ruthless, every word must count, and that means no flowery language that may distract, confuse, or bore readers. To limit your use of unnecessary words try writing in the active voice, using the present tense rather than present progressive, and using prenominal adjectives.
7. Thou shalt ask of every word: “Does it matter?”
We read slower online. For writers, that means shorter word counts. Blog posts should be between 300 and 700 words (though search engines are starting to respond to longer form content like this post). Service pages should max out at 500.
Luckily, because of the way people read online, web writers rarely have to include much introductory content. Just jump right into it! You can also get rid of traditional conclusions.
8. Thou shalt harness the power of white space
Designers have always known the value of white space, but there’s no reason writers shouldn’t make use of it too. Use white space to emphasize important points rather than bolding or italicizing. Think about what you want to pop out to readers as they’re scanning.
9. Thou shalt use bold judiciously
The urge to use bold to highlight the importance of certain words and ease scannability is real, but it loses its effect if it is used too frequently. Try using white space or images to drive your point home instead.
10. Thou shalt never publish print text directly to the web
I’m looking at you print magazines. Just because a piece of content was originally published in print doesn’t mean that it must remain unchanged when it moves online. Your online readers have different expectations of your online content than your print content. If you don’t want to lose them, each and every piece of content that is published on your site should be optimized for the web by using all or some of the 9 rules above.
Now you’re ready to get started writing! Check out this post for some blog post ideas.