How To Write For The Web

Before I launched my career in digital marketing, I was a graduate student who wrote long academic articles on deconstructing intersectionally, Foucaultian power relations, and semiotic theory. You know that saying, “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail?” Well, in grad school, this style of writing served me well, but once I started my first job at a digital marketing agency, my boss was not too pleased with my 5 page long, single-spaced blog entries with references cited sections at the end. It turns out that years of studying critical Marxist theory isn’t exactly the best training for a career in marketing.

“What is this?” he asked after I handed in my first assignment.

“It’s the analysis of Facebook advertising ROI you asked for,” I replied proudly.

“Yeah, no. No. No, this is not going up on the web. I want you to rewrite this, and make it 80% shorter. Maybe 90%. Break up these paragraphs. Nobody is going to read this.”

“But, but it’s solid, well researched content! I assure you, everything is accurate.”

He sighed deeply. “I’m sure it is. But Jessica, nobody reads things start to finish online. Nobody has the time or the attention span. People need to be able to discern the top 3 points you’re trying to make within a minute of scanning the page so they can move on. You have to work from the assumption that people don’t read.

When writing for the web, think about your content in tweetable chunks. Ask yourself, what’s the one sentence takeaway that will get quoted and shared? Can I tell what your article is about within five seconds? If it’s not clear, you have to redo it.”

What a revelation. Once he said this, I began to notice how all the best sites were written and formatted similarly. Just as public speaking is an acquired skill, writing for the web takes practice and there are certain parameters that you should strive to abide by to ensure that your copy is readable.

Here are the guidelines I use when writing for the web:

  • Use bullet points. They force you to condense your point into 1-2 sentences.
  • Break up long paragraphs whenever possible, and bold important points.
  • Keep your target audience in mind when choosing your topics. It will make it easier to decide on possible subjects if you consider the needs and interests of your particular market.
  • Use top 10 lists (or top 5, or top 20, etc.) They’re easily scannable and easy to mentally digest. This top 10 list by Tao Lin contains no semantic value whatsoever, but it illustrates how well top 10 lists work as a web format.
  • Write for two audiences: the scanners and the readers. Most of your visitors will be scanners, so using bolded phrases, bulleted lists, and headers will please the scanners, while the longer paragraphs will provide more depth for the readers.
  • SEO your articles whenever possible. This means doing keyword research, making your URLs search friendly, and a slew of other small tweaks to optimize your articles for your audience. If you’re totally clueless on SEO, this beginner’s guide from SEOmoz is an excellent place to start.

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