Writing for the Web

Quite a lot the time, the best you can do under the circumstances is the best you can do. Even if writing is your forte, you might be in a rush, and you just need to get something out there: create a new web page, publish, and move on to the next thing.

Writing for the Web, and / or Search Engine Marketing specifically, isn’t natural to most people. But if it’s saying something crucial about you, your business, or project, there are always things you can do to improve your content: to misquote W H Auden, a webpage is never finished, only abandoned.

Once you hit publish, go make yourself a cup of tea, freshen up your mind, come back and re-read the page. Be honest with yourself: have you done the same things that would exasperate you in any one else’s website?

Repurpose means re-context

Copy-pasting text from one context to another is a quick way to feel like you’ve ticked something off of a todo list. But if you’re actually hoping to drive engagement — persuade a reader to do something — you could easily be driving visitors away instead. A magazine article, a press release, notes for a talk or presentation, will all need at least lightly editing: it’s amazing how many web pages lack self-awareness:

  • More about the Black Widow movie https://www.marvel.com/movies/black-widow
    should become something like:
  • Black Widow was released in July 2021.

because no-one is going to type out that web address (URL), and they don’t need to: make it a link. If that URL is to something really important (a merch or booking page) you may have just lost a sale.

Remember that most Web users (including you!) don’t have much patience: a multifarious volume of text, in arbitrary sizes, colours, weights, and typefaces, risks becoming effectively invisible. Pad that out with poor photos — off topic, badly composed, lacking focus — and you’re as good as turning visitors away. In worst-case scenarios, a visitor can be so immediately overwhelmed that they don’t even try to read the page.

Think about who you’re writing for

Settle into a tone of voice: be clear about who you’d like to be talking to, and what level of knowledge you hope they arrive with. Let’s say you’re aiming for a specialist readership, like Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) superfans. In that case, your lead article could leap right in to listing the easter eggs in the Black Widow movie. To a complete nerd-culture newbie, you may need to define what a jargon term like “easter egg” means; a superfan would find that condescending. If you want to cater for both extremes, think carefully about where you’re going to sit on the inclusive-exclusive language spectrum. Have a strategy for terms and definitions.

Be clear at all times what your objective is

Once you’ve decided who your audience is, structuring your site becomes a step easier because you now have something to test your micro-decisions against. On my fictional Marvel fan site, I’m offering three things: breaking news, a character encyclopaedia, and merchandise. The merch is the way that I make money: this will affect the way I structure the site, to get people to make purchases; at all times I’ll be asking myself, how does a content decision improve the likelihood of a purchase? By contrast the official Marvel website, although covering the exact same topic, has very different objectives: they need visitors to buy cinema tickets and Disney+ subscriptions. They will be uniformly positive; I’m free to critique.

Go from the most general to the more specific

This holds good for any webpage, but especially your homepage. The first thing you should do is introduce the page, then give the user a reason to read further. Think in terms of a question that you can help progress, if not answer. Your opening statement is couched in terms of which user-problem(s) you purport to answer, with at least one action towards its resolution.

Every subsequent link the user clicks on should result in a page that opens with a summary of what it’s about: a sort of TL;DR paragraph. In an article, tell the user what you’re going to tell them in as few words as possible, expand on that, sum up at the end, and point them to follow-up information: give them a reason to stay on your site.

In as few words as possible

You likely have no more than two seconds of an arbitrary visitors attention, enough for them to decide whether a given page extends their query or not. Don’t be afraid to strike out any and all padding; remember tone of voice, keep your jargon minimal: offer links to explanatory articles if you can. Can’t write one yourself? Link to someone else: another specialist in your field, or even Wikipedia. In an article, 300-500 words is a comfortable target. Got more to say? Think about my theoretical film review, below: break your article down into sections that can be read in any order.

At all stages offer sensible jumping off points for more detail

On my hypothetical Black Widow movie page, I would start by being clear that it is a review of the 2021 film, including references to meta-information about who it stars, who it was directed by, and how it sits in the MCU narrative context. The review itself would be bogged down by these sorts of tangents: summaries of actor Scarlett Johanssen’s or director Cate Shortland’s careers are likely of secondary relevance, but it would benefit the page to present links that expand those topics. Note that all of these meta-topics should be slightly circular: a link to Cate Shortland’s page will include a link back to the Black Widow page, for example. This is why a user might stay on my site, because its deliberately slightly circular. If I need to send them elsewhere, it’s because their question is out-of-scope.

What do you see when you scan-read your own page?

Literally just glance over the page: what things stand out? Many people are just skimming over the text, looking for a granular fact or a lead onward. Are your headings clearly worded? Links are the elements that are going to get a visitor to the payoff: on a scan they’re probably the things that will catch my eye. Rewrite a line to make the link itself a clear call to action. Replace:

• You can buy Marvel merchandise here.

With something like:

• You can buy Marvel merchandise from our store.

Always remember that someone can land on your website at any page

The visitor could be searching Google for something that was a bit of throwaway content from your point of view, but meets a niche interest for lots of people. Imagine for example, that on my MCU fan site I find that a review of Under The Skin, which stars Scarlett Johanssen, is very popular. I could think about how to introduce the site’s objective to that niche visitor; how can I steer them towards my merch?

Is every element is worth its weight in gold?

Imagine that every word on your page is worth a tiny amount of solid gold. Everything you add should be considered a cost against engagement, where the price for getting it wrong is the unnecessary loss of a visitor.

And moving quickly on…

We’ve looked at the main pitfalls in building a new webpage, most of which are fueled by needing to publish content quickly, reducing labour by repurposing existing content. I’m making the case that the extra “housekeeping” effort put in increase the likelihood of engagement.

So, having put all that effort into your text, remember that it’s quite possibly a photo that will make a visitor click an onward link. Pictures really do paint a thousand words … except if we’re choosing sh*t photos.

Style guides

If you do a lot of writing or editing, I recommend keeping a copy of either the Oxford Style Manual, or the Chicago Manual of Style to hand.