Writing for the web: the art of writing for people who aren’t reading
Writing for the web
My book, Writing for mobile, is a comprehensive guide to writing content for reading on small screens. The article below includes some of the information in Chapter 3 of Writing for Mobile. Find out more.
People don’t read – they scan *
* “scan” = to glance at, survey or read quickly.
When writing for the web or mobile, it’s best to assume people WON’T READ what you write. When reading on a screen, people mostly scan the page rather than read every word.
A few kind souls (aka obsessive readers) will read every word. They’re the minority. The rest will read ONLY text that stands out and attracts their attention.
Most guides will tell you to reduce the amount of text. All well and good. But what if you have a lot of useful content that you don’t want to dummy down? Breaking it up into several pages is not always the best option. Instead, make each page easier to read.
Principles of writing for the web
The #1 goal: Easy to scan. Forget the rest.
The web writer’s #1 goal should be to make every page as easy to scan as possible. Forget everything you ever learnt about ideal lengths for words, sentences or paragraphs.
Sure, short sentences are nice to read. But sometimes you’ll need longer ones. It doesn’t matter so long as it’s easy to scan. If it’s scannable, it’s readable.
Short paragraphs matter. Forget the old rules for paragraphs. Keep them short.
Your new best friends
- bold text
And maybe also…
- digits instead of spelling out numbers
Designers might not like it
Using – and yes, “overusing” – subheadlines, chunking and different font sizes and weights will make texts look messy. Layout designers may not like it.
They are trained to balance images, text blocks and white space harmoniously. If they are used to working with print, they like text blocks in tidy, even rectangles that fit neatly into grids.
Think of the user. ONLY the user.
Forget tidy grids and traditional design rules. Users will thank you for helping them save time by reading faster.
Writing for the web – How to do it
- summarise the text that follows, so the reader can skip the text but still get the general message
- or signal what is in the text, so the reader can decide if they want to read it.
Chunking is a method which splits concepts into small pieces or “chunks” of information to make reading and understanding faster and easier. Break information into:
- short paragraphs, even 1-sentence paragraphs
- short sentences*
- inline tables and graphics.
* Short sentences are great, but remember that long sentences are not necessarily hard to read and understand; it depends on the content – and on layout and punctuation.
Bullets and numbered lists
- the mind immediately adapts, understanding that these are connected ideas
- each item stands out and is easy to read
- the white space helps the reader to scan
- each key phrase in bold text stands out more.
Digits are easier to read and quicker for the brain to process. Almost every style guide tells you to spell out numbers in running text. Don’t. Here’s why.
Tables are a visual aid that help the brain get a quick overview of pieces of related information. They make it easy to scan information.
Exception: If you finish with a table, maybe you don’t need a checklist.