Writing for a website is totally different than writing for printed mediums, and one of the most common mistakes made is to simply “cut and paste” text from existing marketing material (or worse – policy manuals) and dump it into a website page.
In the real world someone reading your message has made a conscious decision to set aside the time necessary to discern it based on an initial glance of the contents length and purpose. It doesn’t matter how well its written or how much text you provide as long as the messages contained within are outlined in a heading or opening paragraph.
On the Internet however, your content is one of many possible search results waiting to be explored with a single click of the back button. Your opposition is no longer a 20-minute drive down the road, but the next best choice in an endless list of possible solutions.
So how can we make our text more readable? The answer to that lies in an understanding of your reader’s intentions and habits, and fortunately for us there has been a lot of research done on this topic. Some highlights of their findings are:
They haven’t chosen your website because you are the best or most obvious choice, but because they have something they need to do and you are one of the many possible routes to their research solution. They will initially approach your site with a totally impersonal scepticism, and it’s up to your sites design and usability to make them feel welcome.
The easiest way to describe this situation is to visualise the user as an impersonal critic (with a heavy time restriction) that holds a scorecard with the number zero on it. Everything you do right earns you points, and everything that is unexpected or unprofessional loses you points. Different aspects of your site carry a heavier score and two or more negatives in a row will result in the user leaving immediately. What constitutes a negative or positive score is a study in itself (called website usability) and too in-depth to include here, except for the obvious implication – if a user can’t find their way to the solutions they seek, then they will find those answers elsewhere.
In order to create a website that is easy to read we first need to organise our content into obvious blocks that flow into each other, separated by informative headings. The pages themselves need to be organised behind a navigation structure (called “menus”) that make it even easier to quickly “jump-ahead” to the subject matter of most interest to the user.
Since we know that users “scan” those headings, we can safely assume that the user will scan your navigation looking for a section heading that relates best to their needs and then scan the resulting page’s headings to find the paragraph text that is most likely to have the information sought. Hiding content behind ambiguous section names (like “services”) or inside large amounts of page text without headings to break them up is the easiest way to frustrate a site visitor because you are forcing them to take the time to understand how you subdivide information instead of how the concepts logically separate themselves.
If a page contains enough text that vertical scrolling is required, it is a good idea to include a page specific “mini-nav” list at the top that links to articles further down the page (which in turn contain a “back to top” link after the article that jumps the user back to the top).
Some helpful tips to speed up page scanning:
Having delivered our user quickly and smoothly to the actual text paragraph, we now need to make the text itself engaging enough that they will take the time to read through it. This is the area where lessons from qualified writers can be most helpful, when combined with your knowledge of the terminology that your users are likely to relate to.
The best writing style for your text is to incorporate words that your users will use to describe your business. This will provide the added benefit of increasing your rankings in the search engines for keywords that they are likely to type when looking for you.
When content is filled with spelling and grammar mistakes, or if the text doesn’t flow well, the user will soon get tired of trying to understand the page. The best way to check for these types of error is to have work colleagues and friends proofread your final draft.
This refers to the concept of starting a large block of text with the conclusions to be drawn from reading further. Since we know that our users are only interested in the solutions they seek, we can save them the task of reading through large amounts of content by summarising the content in the first paragraph. This is viewed as helpful and will earn your site positive points in the minds of your users. It is also helpful to highlight (using the bold attribute) the concept words in this paragraph so that even this introductory paragraph can be quickly scanned.
For all remaining text blocks (paragraphs), try to keep the number of main concepts (or points) that are covered to one per paragraph. Since our user is looking for a specific solution, they will stop reading a paragraph as soon as they realise it isn’t relevant – effectively missing any new points introduced later. Try to keep the concepts covered complete in their own block (or separate out into multiple blocks with a heading) – if a user finds a paragraph is talking about concepts that have already been half covered, then they are forced to read back up the page to locate the starting point.