Writing for the Web

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So you've followed all the advice and have a responsive website, great information architecture, and intuitive navigation.

But how do you get people to read your content? And enjoy reading it? And come back?

Here’s a list of best practices in writing for the web that can help you create readable and meaningful content.

1.  Write for the Skimmer

Keep in mind that 80% of the people interacting with your content are only skimming it. So you can't write your web content the same way you would write a report or proposal to a donor.

Your page is like the surface of a lake; the reader only gets an overall impression and remembers what jumps out. Here’s what you can do to make a splash:

  • Short title. Keep your title short and sweet. People tend to ignore pages or articles with long titles, and studies have shown the shorter the title, the more likely people are to click.
  • Use headings. Break up the content on the page with a heading every few paragraphs. This makes it easy to skim and find content of interest.
  • Bold key ideas. So they stand out.
  • Bullets. Use whenever possible. Skimmers do tend to read them.
  • Get to the point fast. Getting fancy with a lead-in doesn't work that well anymore. Quickly state what matters, and your reader is more likely to stick around.

In other words, if you are writing an article about a fundraiser to save the endangered sand kitten, don’t start by waxing poetic about the lustrous fur and indomitable spirit of the sand kitten. Start with an invitation to the fundraiser.

2. Draw People’s Attention Strategically

  • Meat on Top. Think of your website like a steak salad. The most important information always goes toward the top of the page.
  • Calls to Action. Every article or post should have at least one clear call to action (with hyperlink) that jumps out at the reader. Invite them to learn more, sign up or respond immediately to make the most of their visit.
  • Buttons. Calls to action should be embedded as a button whenever possible. (The human animal is nothing if not a button pusher.)
  • Visuals. Use infographics, photos and video wherever possible. They convey much more than words and people DO pay attention.

3. Keep it Short and Linked

  • Be concise. With your wording & explanations.
  • Target length. The shorter the better, unless you're the New York Times. Shoot for 3/4 of a page in Word, max, for any news article or blog post. Usually 3 paragraphs broken up by bullets is plenty.
  • Hyperlink. Links are your best friend. Link to additional resources for more information, rather than trying to cram a lot of details onto one page.

4. Be Personable

  • Know your target audiences and speak directly to them
  • Use a friendly tone, simple and warm
  • Speak informally, as you would to a friend
  • Avoid acronyms and formalities
  • Shoot for a 6th-8th grade reading level, no matter who your target audience is. It's been proven to work best on the web.

5. Write for Sharing

Always ask yourself: “Is this article worth sharing?" Why or why not? "Who would be likely to share it, and with whom?"

Remember that people most often share things through social media that are funny, quirky, opinionated, exceptionally insightful or somewhat provocative.

Sharing Tricks

  • Titles that spark interest often start with “Why...” “How...” “Five Reasons to...” “Top 10 Ways to...”
  • Remember that your title and first few lines will stream to social media if you or someone else shares. So again, a scintillating title and first line are crucial to luring someone to click through.
  • Make it personal. For example “Are Your Rights in Danger?” is much more compelling than “The Supreme Court Recently Upheld a Ruling on the Rights of Police to Search Without a Warrant If They Believe Someone to Be Harboring Somesuch or Blah Dee Blah.”

Final Thoughts

Above all, make sure your content is interesting. Even if you follow all of the above, you won't get far with mediocre content.

Remember that people love stories. Your staff, volunteers, and beneficiaries surely have great stories to tell, and if you tell the story using their words, it's even more compelling.