How Much Has Web Writing Really Changed?
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How Much Has Web Writing Really Changed?

Laptop, tablet and smartphone

“Writing for the Web.” That was the name of a conference, offered by Shel Holtz, that I attended in San Francisco more than 10 years ago. At the time, I was a news editor for SAIC’s corporate intranet, and I was frustrated that internal customers kept sending in long Word docs with the note, “Put this on the web as is.” ~sigh~

I already had knowledge of web writing by this time. I’d worked for a media company where I’d written headlines that tantalized, monitored message boards that goaded users, and created slideshows that acted as click-bait.

The SAIC intranet was a different beast. The goal wasn’t to increase page views to keep advertisers happy. Instead, we wrote content that people needed to read to do their jobs, sign up for healthcare on time, and take required training, for example.  But the basic principles of web writing were the same.

The SAIC web team embraced Jakob Nielsen’s principles of usability, which extended to writing content that’s easy to read. Because – drum roll, please – nobody reads everything we write. Nielsen had conducted studies on how much time users spend on a page before moving on. It was a matter of seconds if the content didn’t deliver what it promised. This article on web writing, published in 1997, is still a popular article on his website.

Armed with Nielsen’s research and Shel Holtz’s presentation, I created a 30-minute PowerPoint and invited the intranet’s most frequent customers to attend a webinar, so I could show them that the web team (and the news editor) weren’t a bunch of web Nazis, as some employees apparently called us. We actually had the data to back up best practices in usability and web writing.

Web writing best practices we espoused

It’s no mystery, really. It’s common sense. Users scan online, much more than they do when reading print. It’s part of looking at a screen. It makes your eyeballs tired. Plus, in our case, we were dealing with employees who came to the intranet not to be amused, but to find information they needed and then get back to work. So what I told internal customers about writing web content was this:

  • Use bullet points. if you have a list of things. It’s easier to read than putting it into a paragraph with semicolons.
  • Use bold sparingly. If you want someone to notice a due or registration date, make it bold.
  • Make paragraphs shorter. They’re easier to scan.
  • Use headings. This allows the user to scan the page and discover the information they need, such as where to submit a form or how to contact someone.
  • Make headings intuitive. That’s right. If it’s serious content, like information about your 401(k), don’t get clever, or users will get ticked off.
  • Put the most important information at the top. Yes, this is journalism’s inverted pyramid, but it applies to web writing, too, because you can’t trust people to read to the very end. If they exit the page early, at least they got the gist of the message.
  • Write helpful metadata descriptions. Even then, it was necessary to write proper page titles and descriptions that would show up in search and to provide keywords. Consider this early search engine optimization (SEO).

Changes in technology, but the writing? Not so much

We all know that the technology that supports the internet has made huge advances. We now use smartphones and tablets (requiring responsive design), and data is stored in the cloud. We use apps, not just web pages, to access information.

In terms of content, there’s an entire industry surrounding SEO and search engine marketing. Social media allows us to express ourselves online as never before. Still, Google is the dominant search engine, and when it changes its algorithms, it’s often to help ensure good content rises to the top.

And when it comes to writing and formatting that content, look at that bulleted list above and keep it in mind as you read online or access apps. Yes, images play an even bigger role than before. Content has become shorter, especially for apps. But everything else? I don’t think that much has changed. Do you?

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Bonnie Nicholls
Bonnie Nicholls is a freelance writer specializing in thought leadership content: case studies, articles, white papers/ebooks and blog posts. She supports industries such as Agile/Scrum, defense and leadership training.