Multiple usability studies have proven that today’s online users visit a website for two primary reasons: to get information and/or to accomplish a goal. In general, they are not reading for leisure, nor are they online to appreciate fancy writing or admire complicated graphics. Simply, they want to access content as quickly as possible and interact with the site, as needed.
Studies also show that website users interact differently with a monitor than they do with the printed page. Web users skim content, ignoring our ingrained left-right viewing habits in order to drill down more quickly. They also read about 25% more slowly on screen leading most users to scan a webpage rather than read it word-by-word.
Writers may be tempted to upload the same lengthy content contained in an annual report or firm brochure because they want to communicate as much to the reader as possible. Unfortunately, doing so is a surefire way to lose your online audience. Instead, you must write copy specifically for the digital environment keeping in mind these ten essential rules:
- Know Your User. Identifying your target audience is essential. While this should be fairly obvious, make sure to write for your constituents, not the internal organization itself. All copy should be written at an appropriate level for the audience void of acronyms or jargon that may not be obvious to all target users.
- Be Concise. Get to the point, and remember users are not there to savor your fine writing skills. The general rule is to use approximately half as many words as you would in print. Aim for:
- Short headings: 4 – 8 words
- Short sentences: 8 – 20 words
- Short summaries: 30 – 50 words
- Short paragraphs: 3–10 sentences; 40 – 70 words
- Short pages: 2-3 paragraphs
- Use Headings. Since users skim webpages, they look at headings and subheadings first, then scan for hyperlinks, numerals and keywords. Make sure to use prominent headings and subheadings to partition your content.
- Use Lists. For optimal readability, keep sentences short and use bulleted or numbered lists where possible.
- Put Key Facts First. Begin with the most critical information, including Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Remember, web users are impatient, so you should prioritize your content. If you must include lengthy descriptions or documents, place them deep in the site and provide links where appropriate.
- Be Casual. Always write in first or second person whenever possible. Use “you” and “we” in a more conversational style, as appropriate. Remember, the more formal, the less inviting.
- Use the Active Voice. Never use the passive voice when you can use the active voice. The passive voice creates dull, lifeless content.
- Consider the Site Structure. With a proper website structure, your users should know precisely where they are on your site at all times. Still, it is good practice to write web copy that helps readers understand how each page relates to other content elements.
- Encourage Action. Ultimately, you want your website to encourage action, whether it’s registering for a newsletter, providing contact details, or buying your product or service. Always write copy that incites a call-to-action turning passive readers into active participants.
- Edit, Edit, Edit. A good rule of thumb is to edit your copy by 10% even at its last draft. Ask yourself, “Is my message condensed to as few words as possible?”, “Is my content formatted for easy readability?”, “Is this copy necessary at all?” Make sure to edit your content thoroughly before and after you upload it to your website (pre-launch, of course).