30 May 2014
Writing for web - some tips and resources
Writing for web doesn't have to be tricky. There are lots of websites out there that can guide you. We thought we'd share own favourite tips.
Done properly and approached in the right way, writing for the web will repay the energy and time put into it many times over. Below we'll cover structure, language, formatting links, accessibility and of course give some useful links as further reading.
Online vs Offline
Research has shown that people don't read online material at the same speed as they do offline. They also won't read as much online and tend to scan web pages rather than read them through in detail. People can also be very impatient and give up on a webpage if it doesn't obviously meet their needs so keep things simple. Short and sweet is the way to go.
The first paragraph of your page should summarise the content on the page. You can then elaborate on more details further down the page. People make decisions about whether to stay on a page very quickly so make sure you grab their attention at the beginning.
Keep sentences short - 15 words or less - and make it compelling. I find it really helpful to follow the guidance from the plain English campaign.
Having read your brilliant, compelling content, what do you want someone to do? Make sure that there is a clear call to action (CTA) for everything. If you're providing resources then there might not be something for someone to do but you can always point them towards something else that might be of interest. Some of this will be incorporated into your site design, especially on key pages on the site - for example, 'book now' buttons on an event page. However, there may be times where you need to include them in the copy on a page as well.
Avoid using jargon. This can slip in very easily if you're not careful. There will be acronyms, words and phrases that you use within your organisation or your industry on a daily basis that don't mean anything to an outsider so drop them or explain them clearly. A good example of this in the arts and cultural world would be the difference between events, exhibitions, activities and performances.
It's worth reviewing your navigation to make sure no jargon or obscure titles appear in there. Whilst it can be appealing to do something funky with your navigation don't forget why it's there. The content within each section should be immediately obvious to your users from the wording that you use.
Wherever possible, use the active voice when you're writing. It's more engaging and easier to read so it'll help a wider range of people access your content and understand what you're about.
Have a think about what keywords and phrases are relevant for each page and include them in your copy. In case you get stuck, here are some tools to help you identify your keywords. For some arts organisations it's great to include a mention of where you're based as people seem to look for things in a particular location.
Don't use caps lock in the body of your text. This is widely interpreted as shouting and it also makes it much harder for those with visual impairments to read. We tend not to read every letter in each word and often use the shape of a word to guide us.
A lot of sites use underlining to indicate hyperlinks and people have come to expect that underlined words will be links. Use bold or italics to draw attention to particular words; use them sparingly though as it can have a similar effect as using caps making copy harder to read. If large chunks of copy are written in bold or italics it also reduces the impact of what you're saying.
Make good use of the header styles that are set in the WYSIWYG controls on your site. They act as useful guides for readers as they skim through a page. Correct use of headers will also help with your SEO as these header styles are identified in the code on your site.
If you can convey your point using a bullet point, or numbered, list then go for it. They're much quicker to read than blocks of text.
Proof read your writing! Check your spelling and grammar. Be careful with your spelling, especially if you have drafted it in Word – make sure you are using the British English spelling and not an Americanised version (unless you want to!).
Speaking of formatting - if you copy and paste content into your CMS from software like Microsoft Word you might find some strange things happen. You can either use the 'paste from Word' function in the WYSIWYG controls or strip out all of the software's formatting by pasting into a plain text editor first. Word especially does weird things like change punctuation and add paragraph breaks where you don't necessarily want them. Just something to be aware of.
Make sure you get the most out of the hyperlinks on your site. Do not use 'click here' for your link text (known as anchor text). The reason for this is twofold. Some of the screen readers in common use can be used to scan through a webpage by only reading out the anchor text. If your site is full of 'click here' and 'here' then you will make your content useless to any website visitor using these tools. The anchor text should clearly identify where it's going to take the website visitor.
Anchor text is also used by search engines so another way to use this to your advantage is to incorporate keywords and phrases into the anchor text. This won't always be possible without making a sentence really clunky. Avoid clunky. Do whatever feels most natural and appropriate.
There is are some other, less content-y things to bear in mind as well on this one. It's generally advised that you shouldn't open a new window without letting the visitor know. At the same time, you don't necessarily want your visitor to wander off into the ether and never return. As a result, it's accepted now that links to other pages on your own site should open in the same window but links off to other sites should open in a new window. You can set this up when you add the hyperlink.
No, I know you're not writing these but there are some little bits to be aware of here.
- Alt text - when you upload images in your CMS you will have a title and/or alt text field to fill in. Make sure you do as this text will be used by screenreaders and search engines.
- Don't embed text in images - neither screenreaders nor search engines will be able to read it or index it.
- Make sure your images are cropped to the correct size before you upload them. This reduces the chances of you uploading large images which slow down your loading times. We provide all our clients with a content guide which outlines image sizes both in terms of dimensions and file size.
In almost every brief we receive from clients and prospects we are asked to build sites to meet W3C compliance standards. We do what we can behind the scenes but when it comes to uploading content it's over to you. Make sure you take the time to add alt text and write useful anchor text to meet compliance standards.
- GOV.UK's Writing for Web Guide
- Quick tips for planning and writing copy from Keith John Lewis
- 23 Useful rules for writing for the web from Econsultancy
- 5 top content tips from Mashable
- 14 safety precautions for inexperienced content writers
- Free guides from the plain English Campaign - there are some helpful downloads to help you revise grammar and punctuation as much as anything else!
Further Reading - Culture Hive
Culture Hive is a free resource library run by the good people at the AMA (Arts Marketing Association). It's full of reports, guides and training events to help you deliver best practice across your marketing, sales and fundraising. We recommend you spend some time having a look through and bookmark the website. In the meantime, here are some of their copywriting resources: