I meet a lot of people in the charity sector who are looking to build their digital writing skills, so I’ve put together six tips on writing for the web. Though before we dive into what’s different about online copywriting compared to print I want to look at what’s the same. Because honestly, it’s the most important bit.
1) Observe the golden rules of copywriting
Know your purpose. Before you put pen to paper you should have a clear idea of what this piece of copy aims to achieve. What do you want to the reader to do, think, or feel as and after they read it?
Know your audience. You need to identify and understand your reader before your copy can fulfil its purpose. Don’t get sidetracked by demographics, a reader’s situation and motivation are far more important than their age or eye colour. Think about where, how, and why they will read your copy.
When you are developing a piece of content, whether that’s a blog post or a video script, think about how to bring your goals and your audience’s interests together.
2) Help your readers filter out the noise
It’s easy to get carried away worrying about information overload in the internet age. However, it’s safe to assume that your readers will have competition for their attention just a few clicks away, or even on the same page.
Happily, human beings are very good at selective attention. Your online readers are constantly filtering out irrelevant information. Think about the last online news article you read. It’s likely that above, beside, below, and even inline with the text there were adverts. Do you remember what a single one of them was for?
The key to winning your audience’s attention online is to be relevant and make it easy for them to see that, fast.
3) Know that most of your potential readers are searching, not browsing
On the whole people don’t browse the web, they search. Most of your readers will have a question in mind, whether that’s “which is the best kind of bicycle helmet to buy?” or “what can I do to help refugees from Syria?”. When you are developing online content think about the question your page or blog post or video is the answer to. What is the problem it will solve?
While conversation – via email or social media – is our primary online activity, searching for information comes a close second. Google calls these information searches micro-moments. Most of your readers will be in this searching and filtering mindset.
They’re also in a hurry. Each click is an investment of their time, especially if they’re using mobile data on a smartphone. And most likely they are: in 2015 smartphones overtook laptops as the UK’s most popular device for getting online, and now account for a third of internet traffic.
4) Understand how people read online
Research has shown that people generally decide within 10 seconds to stay on a website or go elsewhere. If you count it out that actually feels like a long time, I’ve certainly left websites in less.
Obviously this isn’t enough time to read every word on your typical blog post or content page. On average, 20% of the copy on your page will be read.
Eyetracking studies have shown that rather than reading each word, people tend to scan the content on a webpage in an ‘F’ pattern: reading the headline and first sentence or two left to right, then casting their eyes quickly down the rest of the page, perhaps taking in a subheading.
This research is based on laptop and desktop computers. Less is known about specific reading patterns on a smartphone or tablet screen but it does seem that people are even more likely to skim and scan on a mobile device, often scrolling down a page at high speed.
5) Make your copy easy to scan
When you’re writing for the web your goal is to make it easy for readers to get the gist as quickly as possible so that they can decide whether to read the page in detail.
You need to make your most important points quickly and air out big blocks of text with white space. Remember, on a small smartphone screen just a few lines can create a block of text, so be brutal.
Here are some practical tips for creating that white space:
Put the most important information for your reader at the top of the page. Think inverted pyramid.
Be concise. Lyrical flights of fancy will get skimmed. Use plain English wherever possible.
Use short paragraphs, with two line breaks instead of an indent.
Learn to love subheadings. They are the single most effective way to draw your reader’s eye down the page and communicate relevance.
Embrace bullet points. A reader can take in information far more swiftly from a bulleted list than a list in a paragraph. ‘Front load’ the list items.
Use bold for emphasis. It helps readers to make sense of a page as they scan, and provides a neat anchor for the eye. Use italics sparingly as they don’t work well on a screen.
Use short sentences.
6) Write like a human, for humans
Your copy can be clear without being colourless. Just remember that you can write great web copy without being Gov.uk. You don’t have to lose your voice. The web is typically a less formal place than many corners of the print world. Use you, we, us, our. Be direct, and clear, but write like a human.
It’s important to write for humans too. While I would urge everyone writing online to get to grips with the basics of Search Engine Optimisation, your most important audience isn’t Google. In fact the best way to rank for your target key phrases is to write useful, quality content which offers value for your readers. You need to be easy to find, but the key is to be relevant.
Which takes us back to the start: know your purpose, know your audience.
If you’d like a hand with any digital copywriting, or to arrange some training for you or your team in writing for the web and simple SEO, please drop me a line.
“Sarah’s training on Writing for the Web and SEO was engaging, knowledgeable, and pitched at exactly the right level for the audience. She managed to cover all the key elements of online writing in under three hours, energising and inspiring everyone who attended.”
– Kathryn Green, Digital Content Manager, Alzheimers Society
Lovely spider web image CC Suzanne Nilson, 2015