Why Web Writing Must Get to the Point

It's not just how short you write, it's how much information you can pack into just a few words. Follow these six steps to great Web content.
Author:
Publish date:

Many Web writers cut too much while saying too little. For Web writing (and editing), short is not the point. Rather, making your point is the point.

The best-known rule about Web writing is that it should be very short—only half as long as a comparable print presentation. This notion traces back to an influential March 1997 article written by Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen, who instructed Web writers to "Write no more than 50 percent of the text you would have used in a hardcopy publication." (See www.useit.com/alertbox/9703b.html).

Nielsen based his advice on studies of how people used the Web—especially how people read online. At the time, usability studies showed that most people read text from computer screens about 25 percent slower than from a printed page. Visual obstacles such as screen resolution and refresh rates made the Web a relatively hostile reading environment.

Today, five years after Nielsen wrote his article, many of those barriers remain. Reading from computer screens is simply harder on the eyes. This doesn't mean, however, that people want less information from the Web. Actually, Web users often expect more information to be available online than in print.

Consequently, the true goal for Web writers is not to provide ultrashort content. Rather, Web writers should clearly state their most important points right at the top, and make the rest of the content easy to read and navigate. This allows readers to instantly grasp your basic message and also get additional information.

Yet one of the Web's great strengths is that you're not limited by space. If you really should provide a 10,000-word report or 50 pages of bibliographical citations, you can do that. Some online audiences truly want picky details or lots of background—as long as it's easy to reach.

Tight writing counts

It's always a mistake to publish sloppy, unfocused writing. It doesn't matter whether you're creating a printed brochure, an e-mail newsletter or a Web site—if your writing isn't tight, you'll lose your readers.

And, Nielsen's 50 percent rule can get put into practice in ways that actually diminish the quality of Web writing.

For instance, a rambling Web page about Grateful Dead history or about a company's warranty policy and procedures could easily be halved just by dropping lots of details. But this approach wouldn't necessarily serve the audience's needs: Grateful Dead fans are notoriously ravenous for information about that legendary rock band, and customers usually want to know exactly what their warranty covers and how to obtain replacement products. Plus, if the shortened text still features convoluted sentences and vague explanations, cutting details is pointless.

Six steps to great content

Here are some nonscientific but practical guidelines that may be more useful than the 50 percent rule:

  1. Understand your audience. You can't make your point if you don't know your audience. Before you write or edit any Web content, learn which groups comprise your target audience, and why they might be interested in what you have to say. Consider how much detail or context they will want or expect. Also keep in mind the tone or approach your audience considers appropriate.
  2. Hook your readers in three seconds or less. Craft a headline and first sentence that are explanatory without being dull. At first glance, readers should grasp what the page is about, and why it's relevant to them. Make your most important point immediately. Give people a solid reason to read the whole article.
  3. Inform your readers in 15 seconds or less. After your headline and lead, the first two paragraphs should provide an overview of the most important information and context contained in that page (or section). Consider this your "executive summary," a quick guide for people who might not read the rest of your content.
  4. Define your scope. Think carefully about which information your readers will realistically want. Reader feedback may help you decide which content should be added, removed or modified after initial publication.
  5. Organize intuitively. After your lead, structure the content so that one section flows easily into the next, or so that it's easy for readers to find what interests them. Work carefully with your Web designer to make sure that navigation devices and design elements make instant sense to your audience. Also, put the least scrolling or fewest clicks between your readers and whatever details they need.
  6. Tighten it up! Of course, all of your content, from start to finish, should be tightly edited. Before publishing online, navigate through your content the way a typical reader might. Does it make sense? Are there holes? Does it drag? Is it redundant? Can you find what you need easily?

This approach, while not as simple as the 50 percent rule, makes more sense in the real world of Web writing.

This article appears in the December 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.

Stephanie Dray: On Writing Women's Legacies

Stephanie Dray: On Writing Women's Legacies

Bestselling and award-winning author Stephanie Dray shares how she selects the historical figures that she features in her novels and how she came to see the whole of her character's legacies.

From Script

Taking Note of the Structure of WandaVision and Breaking in Outside of Hollywood (From Script)

In this week’s round-up from ScriptMag.com, learn about the storytelling techniques used in the nine-part Disney+ series "WandaVision," outlining tips for writing a horror script, and breaking in outside of Hollywood as a writer and filmmaker.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 10

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a get blank poem.

take two 3 mistakes writers make in act i

Take Two: 3 Mistakes Writers Make in Act I

Without a solid foundation, our stories flounder. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares insights into the three mistakes writers make when creating the first act.

David Jackson Ambrose: On Balancing Magic and Practicality

David Jackson Ambrose: On Balancing Magic and Practicality

Novelist David Jackson Ambrose discusses the initial themes he wanted to explore in his latest novel, A Blind Eye, what the editing process was like, and how his books always surprise him in the end.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Knowing When to Shelve a Project

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Knowing When to Shelve a Project

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not knowing when to shelve a project.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 9

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a persona poem (for an inanimate object).

4 Tips for Writing Engaging Frenemies

4 Tips for Writing Engaging Frenemies

No matter what genre you write, if you're planning to write characters as frenemies, you'll need to know how to do it well. Bestselling romance author Lorraine Heath shares her top tips.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Placing Blame

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Placing Blame

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, make a character place blame on someone.