A beginner’s guide to writing for the web

Guest post by Rob Mills One of the privileges of being a writer is the opportunity to share stories with, evoke emotions in, and connect to other people.

With more traditional storytelling platforms such as books, authors are not present when their audience is reading their work. Indeed they can still get feedback but the relationship is a more impersonal one.

When writing for the web, this gap is bridged somewhat. You can reach a wider and more diverse audience who can instantly give feedback on your work through comments on blog posts, forum posts, book reviews, user-generated content and social media.

This is a great advantage to using the web as your platform to share stories. Yet each medium brings with it constraints and challenges, and the web is no different.

Less time to engage

With traditional media, writers are afforded the luxury of being able to introduce characters, create settings, and build the story one chapter at a time.

On the web there is no such luxury. Typically, people want information fast (although this is not always the case) and studies tell us that users scan the page rather than digest each and every word.

That means that we have to be more selective about what we write on the web: every word counts. And yet writing less is usually harder than writing reams.

This is perfectly illustrated in the following quote from Blaise Pascal.

“I would like to have written a shorter letter but didn't have the time.”

The key here is to know your story. What information is essential for your users for them to achieve the task that they’ve come to your website for? Once you know this, you can focus on communicating without too much fluff and unnecessary copy.

If you do feel that several paragraphs are necessary, make sure you segment your copy with headings to make it easier for readers to absorb.

Calls to action are also helpful. A button that says, ‘Register here’ is a standard web convention and there is little need to explain in sentences about registering. Lead users to a page where you have a new quota of words to share with them.

Tone of voice

There is an often quoted statistic that non-verbal cues make up 93% of what we communicate. Whether valid or not, the thinking behind that number is important. We don’t communicate through words alone, but through cues, imagery and our tone of voice.

We may lose the in-person interaction on the web, but that doesn’t mean we can’t convey a tone of voice through our copy. Some websites adopt a formal tone of voice and others more informal and chatty.

To decide what tone of voice is most appropriate for your website, you need to fully understand who it’s aimed at.

If you’re writing for a group of corporate stakeholders, chances are you need to write copy with a more formal approach. A website for a band would be better suited to a more jargon free, informal tone of voice.

Another way to find your tone is to read other websites. What do you like? What don’t you like? Can someone else’s tone of voice inspire what you’re doing on your own project?

Ultimately, it’s about knowing your story and the audience you’re writing it for. Only then will you be able to successfully write copy that communicates in the right tone of voice.

A picture paints a thousand words

Icons and images can sometimes communicate what it would take many words to say. They need to be used carefully and with consideration, especially cultural variants, but icons and imagery can quickly lead users through your site. Keep copy to a minimum and support your story.

Reaching the masses

This is a big plus for writing on the web. You have a potential worldwide audience at your fingertips. Cracking.

On the other hand, this means you are trying to communicate with many cultures and as language, colours and pictures have varying cultural significances, there’s a risk you will offend some people.

You won’t be able to appeal to all though, so you need to hone in on the key audience and write with them in mind. Perhaps there will be localised versions of the website where copy can be amended to suit, but in the first instance write for your core audience.

Bringing it all together

The most important thing is to always write with your audience in mind. Keep it simple, complement your words with calls to action, icons, colours and pictures and ensure that across all of this there is a consistent and appropriate tone of voice.

Above all though, and this applies to all platforms, be passionate about what you write. If you are then you are already half way there.

Share your thoughts

What's your experience of writing for the web? Does it come natural or do you find you have to adjust what you do? Tell us what you think in the comments section of this post.