10 Rules for Writing For The Web

What’s the most common thing visitors do on your web site?

Okay, so some of you might offer more…uh…visual adult entertainment. But for the majority of us, our visitors come to our sites seeking information. Simply, most come to do one thing: read.

But so often, the value placed on the site’s words isn’t commensurate with the value we place on, for example, its cool design.

At least, that’s the view of content guru Gerry McGovern, who says that:

“the ability to create and publish quality content is a critical skill in the information economy.”

Speaking at a San Francisco conference last month on web site usability, Gerry laid out his prescription for the twelve golden rules of writing powerful content that will pull readers or customers into your site. I’ve condensed them here for you to ten. (Yep…I’m always an editor!)

  1. Know your reader. Don’t think of your “audience” as a faceless customer base. Gear your content to a particular person you think best represents the face of the people who use your site. Maybe he’s a 72-year-old retiree who is fond of cruise line vacations. Whatever. Write to HIM.

  1. Develop a style and tone. Develop a voice that speaks to that individual. Be sure that your site writers and copywriters adhere consistently to that style and tone. Develop tools to help: invest the time and energy to pull together a style guide and word and phrase glossary. Otherwise, your style and tone comes across as flat as the beer at a college keg party.

  2. Understand legal and copyright issues. If you outsource any writing on your site to freelancers, have a clear understanding of copyright and fair use laws. For example, will writers producing articles for your site maintain ownership of the piece, or would you prefer to buy their words for your own exclusive use? There are many shades of gray in between those two extremes.

  3. Size does matter. In web writing, shorter is actually better. The “word count” feature on your tool bar should become one of your most intimate friends. Readers online are impatient; it’s difficult to read documents on a screen that run longer than 500-700 words. This rule doesn’t apply only to text. Think short headers (4 to 8 words), short article summaries (30-50 words), short sentences (15-20 words), and short paragraphs (40-70 words). Really. It. Works.

  4. Be direct and compelling. Remember Faulkner’s words:

    “Kill your darlings.”

Those pieces of text on your site that are so well-crafted they bring tears to your eyes should be your first target: Strike them out. Really. Stick a stake straight through their beautiful hearts. As coarse and unlovely as you view them, practical bullet points and straight-to-the-matter text are what you want.

  1. Titles are critical. Headings on the web are even more critical than they are in print. They should be short, of course, but also descriptive. Think keywords and search engines. Tempting as it may be, avoid clever headlines: Save your creativity and double-entendres for the subheads.

  2. Summaries should - guess what! — summarize. Many of your so-called readers are actually scanners. Scanners impatiently look for the good stuff they need, so be sure that any summary truly offers the essence of a longer piece…and entices the reader to read on. An accurate summary is also critical for top search engine results and for other web sites that might want to link to yours.

  1. Write for searchers. Throw plenty of relevant keywords into your headlines and summaries. Google will love you for it. And like all solid love, it’ll be returned in spades.

  2. Create web documents. Okay, so there are those times when a longer piece of text really is necessary. You just have too much to say to cram into 700 words. In that case, you have two options: Publish it as an Adobe PDF file, or write a punchy summary in HTML that links to a whole ‘nuther web page. Break up that lengthy document in any way you can: Pull out quotes in a larger font size, use sub-headings within the text, break out interesting sidebars, or use hypertext links to break up blocks of text.

  3. Edit, edit, edit! Get that first draft out. And then get out your chainsaw and slice it neatly in half. After that, produce your choicest set of editorial surgical tools and precisely cut and remove excessive words and verbose prose. Be your own editor, before your readers take a look at it. It’s less painful to criticize yourself than to hear it from others.

Really. I should know.

Written by Ann Handley, the chief content officer of MarketingProfs (www.marketingprofs.com). She writes for the MarketingProfs Daily Fix (www.mpdailyfix.com) and authors her own blog, Annarchy (www.annhandley.com).

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Tem is the CEO of BuildYourSite.com, a web agency providing web & digital marketing solutions to small businesses. When he's not producing great results for clients, he's spending time with his boys.
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