Writing for the Web (for scanners; not readers)

Posted by Jessica Hough on 06/17/2011

Scan the web cartoonWriting for web is different than writing for a magazine or any physical publication.

When people read on paper, they read most everything on the page. When people read on the web, they read the first sentence, maybe the first paragraph, and then scan the rest of the web page for anything that grabs their attention. If it doesn’t, they leave.

It doesn’t matter if you have the best prose on the web, if you don’t grab the user’s attention, they’re gone, and they probably won't be back.

So how do you write for web?

Reading on a screen is hard. People just don’t want to read on a screen. But you need them to read your content. How else will they buy your product or learn about your service?

The solution?

  • Make it easier to read on the screen. Keep your content small and concise, avoid typos and grammar mistakes.
  • Keep your paragraphs short. Seven lines at the absolute maximum.
  • Position your topics at the beginning of the paragraph. Remember people scan, so make sure they get the most important information at the beginning.

So that’s how to get people to read it, now how do you actually write something compelling? Any writer will tell you: Ask questions of your content. Your users will.

People are selfish: they want to know how your product or service will help them. When they read your content they are asking, "What can your product do for me? Why should I care at all? Why should I spend money on your service or product?”

Answer their questions.

Remember grade school, when you learned the 5W1H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.

Who

“Who are you writing for?” This is the most important question you can ask as this determines how you will attract people to your site.

What

“What are you selling?” What is it, what will it do for me?

When

“When will this show results?” Is it a long process, is it a quick process?

Where

“Where will/do I sell my product?” Are you a local upstart? Are you a local, long-time company? Do you do local only, statewide, nationwide, international work?

Why

“Why should I choose you?” This is of course the second most important question. Why should I choose you over all the other choices available out there?

How

“How does my product work?” More importantly, how is it different from my competition.

Here are the questions I ask when I write content:

  • Who am I writing for?
  • Are they older or younger?
  • Are they experts in the same field, or laymen with little or no knowledge of what I'm writing about?
  • What am I selling?
  • Am I selling a specific product and/or promoting my services?
  • How does my product work?
  • Why should others care about my product?
  • What can my product do?
  • What can’t my product do?
  • How quickly will my product show results?
  • If it’s a long process, why is that a good thing?
  • If it’s a short process, why is that a good thing?
  • What’s one major advantage of my product?
  • How is my product different from my competition’s?
  • Why does that difference make my product better?
  • How can people get access to my product?
  • Can they buy it on my site?
  • Can they buy it from a retailer?
Remember, people don’t want to read. They want to be informed. So tell them what they want, tell them in as few words as possible, and don’t leave any questions unanswered.