Writing for the web is different: Why and how

Anyone who regularly writes on the web should learn some basic web writing techniques – this is a belief that gets stronger and stronger with my daily reading of blog posts and online articles.

Some well-written materials and posts are just too difficult to read on the computer screen: chunks upon chunks of long paragraphs, a reader easily loses track after several paragraphs into the reading.

Writing for the web is different from writing for the print: people read in a different way on the computer screen, and some simple techniques can dramatically improve the readability of the web texts.

Why reading on the computer is different?

Online usability expert Jacob Nielsen did an eye-tracking visualizations study which shows that users often read Web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.

The images above show the study participants’ viewing pattern on three different pages. The areas where users looked the most are colored red; the yellow areas indicate fewer views, followed by the least-viewed blue areas. Gray areas didn’t attract any fixations.

This study shows that people don’t “read” everything on a web page. They pay more attention to something that interests them, and disregard other contents that (they think) are not useful or interesting.

People get frustrated with contents not optimized for on-screen reading

Web pages with big chunks of text will just turn people away – online readers have much less patience than readers of print materials such as book or magazine. It frustrates readers if they have to read through all the texts to know what the article talks about.

Looking at a blog post that is better written and formatted, we can find some traits that make blogs easy on the eyes:

  • short paragraphs
  • proper white space
  • use of list
  • selected use of boldface as emphasis
  • proper use of graphics and images

Writing tips that facilitate reading (scanning) of web contents

When people come to a new web page, they initially do not “read,” they actually scan for tips of information that would be of interest to them; what people scan is usually the page heading and subheads.

Here’s some guidelines I discussed with students in my writing class:

  • In the first paragraph, summarize the key points or highlights of the article.
  • Break your articles up into two or three levels of headings–a general page heading, plus some subheads, and, occasionally, some sub-subheads.
  • Insert more headings than you feel comfortable with on paper. This is especially useful for long articles and posts.
  • The group of headings and subheads alone should be able to inform the user; which means you should carefully draft a meaningful and descriptive subhead for each section.
  • Use lists where appropriate: bullet list or number list.
  • Keep each paragraph short (three or four lines of text at most).

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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