If you’re trying to reach an audience you probably write web pages, blog articles and maybe guest blogs, and social media posts. Here’s some guidance and a checklist to help you do it better so you can engage your audience with your message.
You can’t just throw text on the page and expect it to work. You have to respect the reader. It’s in your interest to respect the reader.
Their brain is poised to remind them of more important and enjoyable things they could be doing right now. And if it sees a page that looks like hard work, it will.
If you have a message that you want to get into their mind, you need to make it smooth. Any bumps are likely to throw them off. Your ideas don’t get their due consideration if they don’t get read.
But if you do a good job they’ll enjoy the experience, learn something from you, and maybe want more.
The web is a distinct medium with its own requirements and conventions. This post won’t turn you into a great writer, but it might just turn you into a web writer who steers clear of basic mistakes, and that’s a good start.
And actually, a lot of web writing good practice is good for e-documents and print too, overturning habits that make life harder for readers.
There are more screens to read on than there used to be, and reading on them is easier going than it used to be. But for many people it’s still harder on the eyes than print.
Also, those screens differ wildly in size. A modest paragraph on one might be a screenful on another.
So several of the tips below are about countering ‘wall of text’ syndrome. If it’s well broken up it looks less scary to read. That also aids comprehension, because you can break ideas into bite-size chunks.
You also want to help the reader navigate through the piece. If the paragraphs are nicely varied with plenty of visual landmarks like headings, emphasis, quotes and graphics, it’s easy to keep track of where they are in the text and see where they’re going. A lot of this is unconscious, but may create stress and put them off.
Are the paragraphs too long? More than about 6 lines on a standard computer monitor will put readers off. Start a new paragraph for each stage of an idea. Vary the length to avoid visual monotony. Paragraphs of one or two lines are punchy, and good as a hook at the start, but don’t overdo it or the reader will feel they’re under attack. (Pro tip: when typing Facebook posts, use shift-enter for new lines.)
Are the sentences too long? If so, readers will get lost. The full stop (or period) is one of the most powerful pieces of technology a writer has. If you’re introducing a new idea, or you run out of breath reading it aloud, split the sentence.
Is it broken up into sections? This is the top-level organisation of your piece, and some readers may skim the headings to get an idea of the content. So make each big idea-chunk a section with a descriptive heading.
Is the text left-aligned? In a culture that reads left to right, we scan the left side of the screen for the start of sections and paragraphs. Use other styles sparingly. Centred or right-aligned text needs work to find. Justified text means you can’t use the shape of the line ends to track where you are, and may mess up word spacing.
Do you have a good main heading? This is hugely important in attracting readers, and a lot has been written about it. I think there are two main things to do: let the reader put the piece into a mental pigeonhole of ‘about X’, and ask or imply a question they want the answer to. Don’t get too clever with the wording: if they’re not on the same wavelength you could lose them.
Are you using plain English? Unless you know you have a specialised audience, stick to shorter words that are in general use. If you need to use a term your audience might not know, define it when it first appears. Having said all that…
Are you using power words? Clear doesn’t have to be boring. Sprinkling in words connected to emotions and imagery will engage readers more. Like ‘delight’, ‘painful’, ‘soaring’, ‘secure’. Just don’t overuse them like news headlines do.
Have you checked it? Typos and mistakes in spelling and grammar can make readers doubt your commitment, care and capability. Get help if you need it.
Does it sound like you? This can be a bit hard to pin down, but ideally reading the piece should feel like having a spoken conversation with you (even though the structure isn’t the same). If it rings false or says things you’d never say, it’ll jar.
Does it tell them what they need to know? If you were reading it, what details would you want? For instance if it’s an event be sure you’ve given the date, time and place. If it uses a personal tone make sure they can find out more about you.
Does it need to filter? Some content, events, products and services are for a restricted group, like women only. Be clear from the start so other readers can filter themselves out and not get attached to benefits they can’t have.
Is it connected? The web is an interconnected medium, and people expect that, so sprinkle a few links in where appropriate. Make the descriptive text the link: for example, “Visit the resources page.” Don’t use “Click here” all the time: it looks bad and may confuse visitors using accessibility software to read your page aloud.
Does the design support it? I’m not going far into this here, because you can’t fix it on the writing side. But: is the text big enough and high enough contrast so it’s easy to read? Do surrounding graphic elements enhance or interfere? Does the overall feel of the site support your message?
The key to writing for the web is to take the time and trouble to make it easy for the reader. So putting yourself in the position of writer means you need to think about the details that make for an easy reading experience. The list above will help you do that.
The aim is to make the way the writing is presented fade into the background, so the reader isn’t even aware of it as the information sinks in. Then you’ve got the foundation for sharing your message.
This content originally appeared as a pdf download at wordsthatchangetheworld.com.