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In 1999, when I left a staff job at a newspaper to start my own
copywriting business, I never even thought about writing for the
web. A decade later, most of my work consists of web projects. It
struck me recently that this medium has led me to develop a
different way of writing—tighter, simpler, more transparent. The
results, I believe, are greater clarity and persuasiveness, and a
speedier, more user-friendly read.
In my journalism days, newspapers were still thick with ads.
There was plenty of room for long stories that “jumped” from page
to page. Like any writer who wants to be read, I took pains to
craft a compelling opening sentence (the “lede”). But I wasn't
terribly concerned with the mechanics of keeping readers interested
throughout the story.
The novelty of the web, on the other hand, made me question
every move. During my first few years, I treasured the free online
advice offered by Jakob
Nielsen and other pioneering web specialists. I became
fascinated by theories about how users absorb information online.
Everyone seemed to agree that the web user was, above all,
It's one thing if you're writing a blog with a devoted
following. But a corporate, nonprofit or e-commerce website doesn't
come with a readymade group of friends. If users can't immediately
find what they're looking for, they move on.
Web users tend to scan information rather than reading it
closely. One reason is physiological. Research—by Nielsen, Stanford
University/The Poynter Institute and others—has shown that reading
pixels on a screen makes eyes work harder than reading ink on
Another impetus for scanning, I believe, is the web's seemingly
limitless content. It's like being unable to enjoy yourself at a
party because you might be having a better time at someone else's
house. Add the growing mania for speed (“This #%&* site is
taking 20 seconds to load!”), and it's clear that web writing has
to pick up the pace.
To make copy easier to scan, I break it up with multiple
subheads. They act as visual skipping stones—an eye-friendly break
from blocks of copy.
Ideally, the subheads can also convey the main points of the
story all by themselves, so they can't be too cute. And they must
speak to the general reader, with no insider terminology that would
cut the conversation short.
That little horizontal line is probably the most useful form of
punctuation on the web. Commas, semicolons and colons don't do a
good job of visually breaking up information, and they're hard to
see on the screen. Parentheses have to be used carefully, because
the words they enclose are understood to be less important than the
rest of the sentence.
But the mighty em-dash is easy to see, and democratic in the way
it treats words on either side of it. As with everything, you don't
want to overuse Mr. Em. (You'll note that he doesn't make an
appearance in these two paragraphs.) But he is the strongman of the
longer web sentence.
When I founded my business, Crawford Kilian had just published
the first edition of his indispensable guide, Writing
for the Web (1999, Self-Counsel Press). One of his
virtually unbreakable rules is that no paragraph should be longer
than 60 words. But I've parted ways with him on the issue of bullet
Kilian saw them as the standard eye-friendly solution for
sentences that contain multiple statistics, goals, activities and
so forth. Up to a point, I agree. But bullet points that march down
the page like buttons on a jacket are tiring to read. Back-to-back
bulleted lists are visually numbing.
When I bullet information, I try to organize it so that there
are no more than seven points. (Graphic designers have taught me
that odd numbers are more reader-friendly.) Often, though, I prefer
to write sentences that group the items into logical clusters.
Topped with a subhead, these “chunks” are easier to read because
their rhythm is flowing, not staccato.
My first newspaper editor told me that I should pitch my writing
to someone with eighth-grade reading skills. But as a lifelong
bookworm, I was proud of my extensive vocabulary. With the
assurance of youth, I protested that I didn't want my ideas dumbed
Years later, a piece I wrote for an early information portal
(about how to seek a second medical opinion) was rejected because
it wasn't written for the “average” user. I still hadn't
Eventually, it dawned on me that conveying complex ideas in
simple terms is actually a skill—one that I was proud to finally
Today, I'm comfortable with the idea that writing for the web
generally means using only words that are widely understood. It's
not only a question of education. Many websites are intended to
reach an international audience unfamiliar with typically American
Voice is another big issue. As many commentators have noted,
writing for the web works best when it speaks directly to the user.
That's why websites are ideally written in the first (“we”) and
second person (“you”).
This approach has made my writing much friendlier. Stripped of
big words, complex phrases and unnecessary adjectives, copy becomes
increasingly transparent—spare and frill-free. Lacking the
distracting imposition of a writer's ego, copy becomes a more
powerful tool of persuasion.
As my web writing grew more compact, it felt as though a
spotlight shone on every word. I started reading my copy out loud
to catch unintended repetition and awkward phrases. I also began
using a larger font to keep my eyes from skating mindlessly over
the words I'd written on the screen.
Even so, I've always found it necessary to print out every page.
Whether due to my near-sightedness or sheer force of habit, editing
copy with any degree of precision requires the crisp contrast and
tactile immediacy of a hard copy.
Writing a news story or essay involves placing facts or opinions
in a logical sequence. But a reader-friendly website is organized
in a visually logical way. This concept was new to me.
“Think like a user” may be a web cliché, but it is the key to
producing effective writing in any medium. Much of what I learned
about hierarchy came from paying attention to my own
navigation—bumpy or smooth—through content-heavy websites written
by other people.
Eventually, I took issue with the expectation that a web
writer's role was simply to add content to predetermined slots.
From the outset of a web project, I began suggesting that illogical
or unwieldy aspects of the site's architecture be modified. The
resulting back-and-forth with designers and developers has led to
an increased awareness of how people process information.
I also learned that turf battles can be reduced by making a
sincere effort to understand and accommodate the technical issues
faced by other web specialists—another version of “thinking like a
By now it might seem that everyone can see the benefits of a
plain-spoken, streamlined approach. Unfortunately that's not
Some clients expect a swirl of adjectives around each product.
Others believe in perpetuating the empty boasts and vague promises
of the traditional “mission statement.” People in certain fields
tend to worry about leaving out the less important details of a
complex program or procedure.
Trying to effectively counter these objections and explain how
the web works best has been a challenge. But—as with all the other
aspects of writing for the web—it has made me better at what I
Photo credit:72 Pencils,
George W. Hart
Michael Donovan and Nancye Green are recognized as 2014 AIGA Medalists for setting new standards in the design of environments and experiences and leading the profession in the ever-expanding dimensions of communication, entrepreneurship and strategy.
Section: Inspiration -
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