Approx. 5-minute read | I’ve received a lot of requests for these tips, most recently on the email list for the Global Health Knowledge Collaborative. This is not a formal work product yet, so it doesn’t have my project or organization branding on it — it’s what I think, based on more than 15 years of writing on the Web. EDIT, 10/6/2016: It is a formal work product now! Read a slightly more serious version for the knowledge management context on The Exchange (K4Health’s Medium publication), or download a 2-page abridged-for-print version from K4Health.org.
Consider Your Audience
1. Think about your readers. Before you begin writing, put yourself in a reader’s shoes. People read on the Web to find solutions to problems, get information, be entertained, or be moved or supported emotionally. What are you trying to convey? Is it useful, interesting, motivating, or energizing? Make reading worth their time.
2. Be careful with jargon. Jargon and abbreviations can be useful shortcuts with the right audience. With the wrong audience, they are actively alienating. Jargon and abbreviations can also be hard to translate, if translation is a concern. Use plain language and spell out your abbreviations.
Jargon tangent: I recently did an informal survey asking friends how they felt about “thought leadership”—an expression I hear quite a bit in my professional sphere. 78 people responded. 10% felt neutral or grudgingly positive. The other 90% felt negative: They found it pretentious, confusing, or Orwellian.
“Writing well” is a huge undertaking —far beyond the scope of this tip sheet. The tips below are the pieces of “writing well” that are particularly applicable to writing for the Web. They can be especially helpful for people who are used to writing in a more academic or specifically-professional style (e.g., reports to a particular funder, papers for a known group of experts).
3. Find your own voice, and use it. Within whatever style guide you might be held to, express your own ideas or build an argument from your own perspective, but in words your readers will understand. Imagine reading your piece out loud: Does it sound like you? If you read it aloud, would people listen? Readers recognize authenticity when they see it.
4. Condense your sentences. Check your writing with a readability tool (like this one). Keep your average sentence length down (15–20 words is a reasonable range, depending on your target audience). Vary your sentences — break up long sentences with short ones. (Write music.) Even people who have the patience to read a 40-word sentence on paper may give up after 20 words on the Web.
5. Watch the details. This includes proper grammar and punctuation. Check your spelling. Small mistakes will distract some readers from your ideas. (Imagine grit in a salad. Is the salad still good?) Also, double-check sources and quotations. It’s tempting to illustrate your point with a supporting aphorism from a famous person, or a quote from a colleague—but make sure they really said it. A misattributed or inaccurate quotation can be a big embarrassment.
Web Writing Specifics
6. Don’t paste from Word. Word is full of background formatting code that does not play well with most websites. If you wrote your piece in Word, copy and paste it into a plain-text editor (like Notepad or TextEdit) before putting it into a website content management system (CMS). Yes, you’ll have to re-do all your links—but that’s much less work than cleaning out incompatible code. If you must write in Word, and you’ll be sending your work to a content manager for publishing, it’s polite to include the URLs of any embedded links, so the content manager can reconstruct the links when s/he strips out the formatting.
7. Be conscious of length. This tip used to be “Keep it brief.” Experts used to recommend 300 to 700 words as a guideline for blog posts . Over the past ten years, with the rise of Twitter and mobile, very short-form writing became popular — but then there was a backlash in favor of more in-depth writing. It’s not uncommon now to see online posts of 3,000-5,000 words. If you think your piece needs to be longer, consider turning it into a series or a different type of publication. It’s a good idea to put an estimated read time at the top, and/or a summary of the key message of your post (some people call this the “TL;DR” — “too long, didn’t read”). Here’s a tool that calculates read time.
8. Make your piece scannable. Most people don’t actually read on the web. They skim through a page, looking for headings, keywords, and bullets that interest them. Would a reader still learn something from your piece if they read only the first few words, and skimmed through the highlights?
9. Make links meaningful. Links stand out — so make them mean something. A link to a video of a cute kid racing an otter is more meaningful and scannable than one that says to click here — even though they both go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9APqLA2YKs. (Don’t use bare URLs like that on a web page; they are not meaningful to humans, and they clutter things up.) Meaningful links are also an accessibility issue for people with disabilities. Many people with impaired vision use a “screen reader”—a device or app that literally reads website text aloud. In some modes, the screen reader only reads header and link text — it skips all the paragraph text until the user asks for a paragraph. Imagine the difference between hearing “a recent study about injectable contraceptives…today’s statement by the World Health Organization”, versus hearing “click here … here … click here.”
10. Write a good title. If someone were to try to find your piece with a search engine, what would they search for? Are those words in your title? Are they in your piece? Search engines tend to rate things more highly if the words in your title are also in your text. (Read my colleague Liz Futrell’s To Click or Not to Click: The Art of a Good Title.)