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10 tips for writing great web content

Posted Monday, September 22, 2003

Online writing is different to writing for print. This is because: people read slower on the screen than on paper. Most readers scan for information instead of reading every word. People often come to the web to find specific information, rather than read for leisure.

1. Use headings and sub-headings (organise by categories). Readers scan headings and sub-headings to decide if an item is relevant to their needs. Text should be organised into different categories, with headings that accurately reflect the content.

Headings and sub-headings should be clear, precise and include as many keywords as possible, for example "Caring for your pets", not "Doggies, moggies and more".

Keep in mind the following tips when writing headings: try to use between three and four words. Headings are often displayed out of context, so they must be able to stand alone and make sense don't begin headings with 'a', 'an' or 'the'

2. Using bullet lists Lists are an effective way to present information because they allow the reader to skim read. Use bullet lists when there are more than three points in a sentence.

When writing bullet lists you should: begin the sentence with lower case; not put a full stop or comma at the end of the sentence; use shorter sentences, with an absolute maximum of two sentences.

3. Put important information first. News writing's 'inverted pyramid' style should be used when writing content for the web. This style involves beginning with the most relevant information, then expanding into more detail.

Separate your content into short paragraphs that contain one main idea. Keep paragraphs to less than three sentences.

4. Keep sentences short and simple, and make every word count. Web writing should be clear and concise. This is achieved by choosing shorter words and writing information in the shortest possible way.

You may be planning to use content from print materials you already have. As a general rule, you should cut it by 50% before using it on your website.

5. Write in the active voice. The active voice is more bold and direct, which is appropriate for the web environment. Your visitors are task-focused and this should be reflected in your writing.

The writing tone needs to be active and clear. For example, "I will always remember my first ride on a horse", is more direct and concise than "my first ride on a horse will always be remembered by me".

6. Put yourself in your visitor's shoes. Generally, writing on the web is informal. It's a great opportunity to make personal contact, so a conversational tone is vital.

Always keep the reader's needs in mind. They are task-focused and will not tolerate rambling.

7. Don't write in all upper case, italics or bold face. Over-emphasising important points will only end up confusing your reader. You should: only use italics for large fonts and small portions of text; use bold face sparingly for key words and phrases; never capitalise large portions of text.

8. Do not clutter your screen with text and images. A website covered in graphics may look nice, however most people (especially those with slow Internet connections) will become frustrated when waiting for them to download. Also, keep in mind that graphics and navigation menus often resemble banner advertising, which most visitors ignore.

Too much text on a web page will overwhelm your readers. Spaces and sub-headings between sections of text will allow the reader to scan for relevant information.

9. Use links (hypertext). Hypertext is text that's connected by various paths, which lead in many different directions. It's different to print documents because you can simply select a link to get to a new document.

The structure of the web allows the reader to quickly access information on a particular topic (provided the hypertext is well-designed).

10. Proofread for spelling and grammar. Beware of trick words such as form and from. Your spell checker will not alert you to these kinds of mistakes, so you should: read your writing aloud; proofread from hard copy; read the page backward.

It's often difficult to proofread your own work, so if possible, have someone else proofread your writing.


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