How to write great online copy
Digital writing skills are essential to the 21st-century writer. Think how often you use your phone, or tablet, or laptop, to look things up, read the news, find something out. Somebody wrote everything that you read.
Want to sell your words? Your chances of doing so are much greater digitally.
Before the internet, print journalism ruled, but the infinite volume of the web means the balance of online vs offline copy has tipped drastically towards the former, and it’s growing all the time.
Reading online is not the same as reading in print, and writing online is not the same as writing for print. Learning how to do it isn’t rocket science, but like any commercial work, it’s about writing for the market – knowing what’s wanted, and providing it.
Let’s assume you’ve been commissioned to write copy – a news story, a feature article, maybe a blog post – for a website. Think, as a writer, how you read online, and what works for you. What makes you stay on a page? What makes you click through to something else? How will you make your web writing find its readers, and keep them? Read on, and find out...
How do digital readers differ from print readers?
Neuro-scientific research has led to the concept of the ‘bi-literate brain’ to describe the differences between reading in print (deep reading processes) and online (non-linear reading).
• People read up to 25% more slowly online. This is because reading on screen tires the eyes more than reading from a page.
• This means they scan web text looking for useful words (keywords). Writers need to pay attention to SEO (search engine optimisation) and include appropriate keywords.
• Online readers are task-focused and self-absorbed. They probably have a specific objective and want to complete their task quickly. They are looking for information, so put it at the top of the page.
• Readers will go to another site/page if yours isn’t useful/doesn’t provide what they want.
How is writing for the web different from print?
What are you looking for when you read online – reviews of your book, research material to support a plotline, up-to-date news, train tickets, diversionary Buzzfeed quizzes? What are you reading on – your phone? Where are you reading it? All these elements affect the writing.
• Readers often read online for news or entertainment. They are not necessarily looking to be immersed in a reading experience. They may be browsing, or task-focused, but they are not invested in your page until you hook them. The writer has to tempt the reader to stay.
• Web writing is seen on screen. Screens vary from device to device, and readability can be affected by screen size, internet connection, software and download size/speed. Screens are portable. Your reader may be sitting at a bus stop, or standing in a supermarket queue. Writing needs to be immediate, and easy to follow.
• Interactivity is key. Readers are actively looking for sites to read, links to click, threads to follow.
• Reading is not linear. Readers skip about, clicking links and looking for new images and content.
What are the best practice guidelines for web writing?
• Write for the audience. The web is user, not writer, driven. Focus on the reader and what they are going to get out of reading your work.
‘Good web copy is usually, although not always, direct and to the point,’ says Wendy Sloan, senior lecturer in journalism at London Met University and Guardian Masterclass tutor in online copywriting. ‘Unless you are writing for a personal blog that already has lots of followers, it is important to recognise that SEO is mandatory when writing for the web. A flowery beginning that makes no reference to the subject at hand and an obtuse, obscure headline will not get picked up by search engines. People skim the web quickly and are often searching for something specific online. Breaking an article up into short bite-sized pieces with clearly defined sub-headings, bullet points, etc, often makes it a lot easier for people to navigate through articles.’
Even if you’re writing a blog about an aspect of your life, remember to make it appropriate for its readers. If you’re writing a mummy blog, write what will interest other mothers. If you’re writing about how to change a plug, don’t start writing about existentialism. Unless you’re a philosophical genius who’s a dab hand at DIY, in which case you’ve cornered the market.
• Put important info – what’s its about, the crux of the story – at the top of the page. Don’t make the reader have to search for information. You have thirty seconds at most to capture a reader’s attention.
• Be relevant. Present the reader with the information that is most important to them.
• Use simple language. Your content can be read by anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world so unless what you’re writing is truly niche, make it clear and appropriate.
• It goes without saying that all copy must be original. ‘Web copy should be original, and sources quoted should be clearly attributed. There is no excuse for plagiarising other people’s material just because the article is online, as opposed to being in a newspaper or print magazine,’ says Wendy Sloan.
Any advice on writing style?
‘Good writing is all about choosing the right worlds to say precisely what you mean,’ advises former BBC special correspondent and presenter Allan Little online. ‘Simplicity is the key to understanding. The writer should start with a clear understanding of the information he or she is trying to communicate and be clear about what it is the writing is trying to achieve.’
• Be concise. ‘Web copy is usually shorter and snappier, to the point and making the most of SEO,’ says Wendy Sloan.
• Write in easily digestible chunks. One idea per sentence. One fact per sentence. No sentence without a fact.
• Write in the active voice, not the passive one. Subject, verb, object (‘John ate all the pies’ not ‘All the pies were eaten by John.’) Direct language will engage your readers.
• Make information accessible. If your subject is complex, clarify it for the reader.
What should I put in the content?
The story comes first. Tell it upfront. BBC web writing guidelines advise telling a story in its essence in the first four paragraphs – around seventy words. Altogether, not in each paragraph. Wendy Sloan recommends reading the online publications you want to write for and emulating their style. ‘Writers should also not think that sloppy journalism is okay because they are writing for the web. High journalistic standards should still apply,’ she says.
• Write objectively. Avoid hyperbole. Stay factual.
• Include context. Remember that a reader may have randomly ‘landed’ on a page. Offer signposts so the reader doesn’t get lost.
• Less text. Short paragraphs. More white space. Remember people read more slowly on screen.
• Provide a call to action. A reader should know something new, or be able to do something, by the end of the piece.
How to draw attention to your copy (in a good way)
Your headline should be bold, relevant and clear, setting out what the reader can expect to find in the piece. Headlines preferably include a verb and should not be ambiguous (no jokes, puns, or plays on words). The introduction should let the reader know why they need to read on. Some web writing experts recommend that for every 1,000 words you include three subheads, two links and a graphic (photo, chart or other visual). Other web writing experts would say 1,000 words is long for web copy.
We recommend you keep it brief and direct without compromising what needs to be included in the piece. Make sure it has a clear heading and subheads, and includes appropriate links and images. If you use images, make sure they are copyright-free.
• Be aware of SEO, not just for the search engines but for the reader’s sake. Use keywords, headline, sub-heads and hyperlinks to get attention. The top-level (ie first) page is where you most need to capture your reader’s attention.
• Use headings, subheads and bullet-point lists (like this one!) to break up information and increase scannability.
• Paragraphs should be short and self-standing – one point per paragraph. This helps readers scan for information.
• Use images. But be sparing and remember download times. You don’t want to lose a reader because they’re on a slow wifi connection and it’s taking ages to download a high-res jpg.
• Readers expect links to take them to a new page. Links should describe what users can expect to find when they click them. Keep link titles short. Don’t use URLs as link titles, and don’t write ‘click here’.
How to draw attention to your copy (in a bad way)
• Avoid long blocks of text. They look monotonous, and you risk losing reader engagement if they have to keep scrolling though an endless paragraph.
• Readers are clued in about being sold to, and turned off by inappropriate marketing blurb and promotional bumf.
• Readers notice typos, factual mistakes, grammatical errors and other inadvertent howlers, and you risk losing not just credibility, but readers. Check everything and then check it again. Remember that, unlike print, you can edit your online writing at any stage. If you find a mistake later, correct it as soon as you can.
• And: NEVER TYPE IN CAPITALS! (or use exclamation marks).
Tech is the writer’s friend
Finally… get tech-savvy. Or as tech-savvy as you need to be. Work on a need-to-know basis. Learn how to write into a website’s admin system, use Wordpress, upload text and images. There will always be new technologies, and new skills for writers to learn. Why do yourself out of writing opportunities because you don’t know which icon to click?
Write a non-fiction piece about the latest developments in a topic that interests you. Include lots of facts. Write to please yourself. Aim for about 1,000 words.
Now write a second piece repurposing the information for the web – no longer than 600 words. Give it an introduction, headings, subheads and bullet-points. Cut it into sections. One fact per sentence. One idea per sentence. Pay attention to keywords. Find a (copyright-free) image to go with it. Put links in.
Compare it with the first piece of writing, and make a mental note of how you changed your writing style to create it. Regard the piece as a valid, readable creation in its own right, and upload it to your blog or website.
Now, for a further challenge, cut it back to 200. What did you have to compromise this time? Does the reader miss out on anything essential or is it simply easier to digest?
*For more writing tips and advice, browse our entire writing advice section today*