Battling Internet ADD: Ten Tips for Writing for the Web

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Writing for the Web requires both creativity and discipline. Follow these tips to create more engaging, compelling copy.

Today, people all over the world are talking about one thing: improving usability on the Web. Why should you care? Because your Web site’s ROI depends on it. Diminished attention spans and plummeting patience levels force Web professionals to examine every possible way to retain users. But they often neglect the most important factor, content. (

Compelling, engaging content captures your audience. According to Jakob Nielsen and John Morkes research, better writing can enhance your Web site’s usability by 159%. But how do you write well for the Web? Follow these ten commandments.

1. Write for a reason

Get to the point. One of the basic references for Web design is Steve Krug's, Don't Make Me Think. My book for Web writers (not yet available in stores) will be called, Don't Make Me Yawn. The Great Democracy that is the Web has spawned far more spam and yammer than thoughtful prose. Don't fall in love with your own voice. Make sure every word supports the message.

2. Write for “scanners”

The five-second rule applies, only make it shorter.

Visitors look at a Web page, then they read it. Think of your page as the cover of a magazine. A visitor will first absorb the total picture, then kick into reading mode and skip tra-la from headline to headline until they find, a) what they're looking for, or, b) something better. Don't lose the scanners with deathless prose.

3. Get engaged

Lively writing will draw visitors to your message.

I know you're trying to be precise. I know you're trying to be complete. I know you need to get the whole message across. I know. Believe me. I'm reading it and trying to...zzzz.

4. Compartmentalize

Give long content a good home.

Okay, sometimes content gets long. Sometimes it is supposed to be long. Sometimes it even has to be long. Understood. When that is the case, tease it up front, and put the long content where the long content goes. People who want to read it will follow the trail, and the rest of us will be spared.

5. Above the fold

Sorry, guys, page length matters.

Newspaper page, Web site, or on the street, real estate is real estate. And in real estate, location rules. If I have to scroll down the page to find your content, I know it's not the good stuff, because you told me so. Most of the time, I won't even bother. So keep your key messages Top, Center.

6. Grammar kind of counts

Complete thoughts...less important...key words...phrases. Just kidding, ha ha. The point is, this may not be advertising writing, it may not be headline writing, and it had better not be bad writing. But in most cases it also is not pure narrative. Sentences, loaded with subordinate clauses, clogged with interesting but unnecessary detail, need not begin slowly, gain traction, and rise to a crescendo before a graceful, gradual, inevitable descent to a complete, satisfying end.

Just say it, and get out.

7. Hyper about links

Use them as aids to navigation, but do not overuse.

Hyperlinks are the fundaments of the Web, after all. They are the codex, why it's a web, so that you can follow links from place to place to place to place, all interwoven. Okay. Just don't overdo it. Too many links are like too much caffeine. You get the jitters, it's hard to keep your mind on point, and all that bouncing makes your stomach a little woozy. Use links to enhance, not scatter, the experience.

8. Smooth or Extra Chunky

Just enough information makes visitors feel refreshed!

Chunk your content into easily digestible portions. My brother-in-law-the-restaurateur talks about "plate coverage," making sure the beans and the catfish and the French fries coexist in harmony and balance. Portion control for your visitors comes from teasers and intro paragraphs and "Learn more…" and "Read article…" Chunking your content gives visitors a taste, rather than a force-feeding.

9. Think with your eyes

Use visual cues and graphical elements to strengthen content. Graphics happen. White space happens. It's okay. Work with your designers to bring (even more) life to your words. And as important, make sure that your words fit with the other elements of the page. You're not writing your novel here. A Web page is a collaborative effort.

10. Tighten it up

When I was in grade school, my newspaper editor father reviewed my papers for me. He never understood why I cried when my three-page report on Chile became a two-paragraph brief under the machete slash of his red pencil. But he was right. I didn't need that word. I didn't need that paragraph. I had said the same thing on the previous page. I did need to revise and rewrite and cut and cut some more. I did, and I still do, and so do you. Writer, edit thyself.

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David Beveridge is the Managing Director for Brook Group (, a full-service Web site design firm near Washington, DC. Brook Group provides content development services as well as Tacklebox, a content manangement system.


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Kari White
Brook Group
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