If you’ve picked up a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables” or Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” lately (ha), you’ve probably noticed the thick, meandering language these authors use to convey their message (for anybody who doesn’t own a copy, we’ll wait while you get one). The other thing you might notice about these novels are the endless seas of gray that emerge when word after word are piled in impossible heaps of ink on the page.
When the Internet first became a thing, it wasn’t a lot different than these novels — visually, at least. But we’ve learned better since then, haven’t we? Web readers are scanners and simply won’t wait around for you to get to your meandering point. To write for the web is to write succinctly and to format your words in a way that drives readers right to the heart of the action.
What Do Web Wanderers Want?
The folks that haunt the Internet are voracious consumers of information, but they synthesize at a speed that’s dramatically faster than you might imagine.
Web-friendly copy is just that — it’s copy designed specifically for the way the web is used. That means incorporating things into your writing like:
Subheads. Subheads highlight important sections of longer web pieces, allowing readers to jump to the sections that are most important to them. You’ve got to label these sections accurately or the peasants may revolt from sheer frustration. Too many subheads is a disaster waiting to happen, but placing one every two to three paragraphs is usually ideal.
Bulleted lists. When I teach folks like other writers and sales teams to format web copy, one of the first things I always tell them is to make a list anywhere they can. The purpose of this is to break out vital information to make it ultra-accessible. That’s why I made this list, so you’d really understand the take-home of this blog. Figure out your finer points and sort it into a list. Trust me.
Shorter paragraphs. Long paragraphs were great for our author buddies mentioned above, but they’re not going to work for we web writers (and our readers). Web paragraphs work best when they’re kept short — but not too short. Arguably, the perfect length for a web paragraph is about 75 words, though anything in the 50 to 100 range will generally format well. It’s ok to even use the occasional single sentence paragraph, provided you’ve got a good reason to do so.
Less complex sentences. Keep it simple. I can’t stress this enough. If you need more than a couple of “ands” or commas to make your sentence make sense, it’s too long. Split it up, be happier and make everything easier for your readers to understand while they’re scanning your site for information.
When you’re writing for the web, you’ve got to consider how your copy will look as much as you plan what it’s going to say. Keep it simple, highlight anything that’s vital with bulleted lists, subheads or bold and get right to the point. Your readers will appreciate the candor and will get a lot more out of your copy. Now read the whole of that novel you picked up and we’ll discuss it next class period.