Writing for Web: Journey to Terra Cognita

In this post, I will try to tell you the story of my first experience with writing for web. This is the first part of my journey that covers the specific reading behavior of Internet users and techniques for satisfying the readers’ needs.

How It All Started

I’ve been working as an information developer for a year now. On my current project, I create a help system for end users of a power systems solution.

One fine day, I was told that the website dedicated to our product was outdated and off-market. However, the budget couldn’t afford the total makeover, and our only option to revive it was with the help of content. The website was pretty dull, consisting mainly of large chunks of boring technical text even I (with a good knowledge of the product) found it difficult to read.

I saw the problem but had no idea how to handle it properly. So I started on my journey for answers.

First source I turned to was MMoS (Microsoft Manual of Style). It had an entire chapter covering the subject. The provided recommendations were clear and precise, and still I felt that I needed more details to understand reasoning behind those rules.

After consulting multiple online sources, I made the following conclusions.

Peculiarities

Target audience for web content is impatient and research-driven. It has a specific reading behavior that should dictate your content strategy. This behavior has the following manifestations:

  • Scanning

Searching the Web, people normally only read about 20 percent of the content of an average page.

  • Quick loss of interest

The heat map of a page demonstrates this. Such map is built based on the amount of gaze time people spend on different parts of a page; and studies show that the further down the page readers get, the less they’re interested.

  • Language command

People are not always native speakers and have different reading levels, but they still should understand your content.

  • F-shaped pattern

People read online content in an F-shaped pattern: start by reading across the top of the page, then moving down the left hand side of the page, and from time to time reading things that stand out.

  • Supporting evidence

People want more detailed information, and they trust authoritative sources.

It may seem that the first two points contradict the last one, though, more detailed doesn’t mean longer. And they all should be considered while writing.

Inverted Pyramid Technique

The most effective technique to deal with the issues mentioned above is so-called inverted pyramid technique or style.

The text written this way starts with the conclusion, and only then goes to the main point. This means that first, you tell which questions the article answers or summarize the main point of the article. The rest of the text expands on this main point or introduces new supporting evidence. This way, each new piece of information contains its own chunk which could easily be removed because the main ideas are at the beginning.

At this point, my mission was clear: write the content in inverted pyramid style and satisfy all online readers’ needs. This mission could be accomplished by following these general recommendations:

  1. Use clear titles and put important information at the top of each article, page, or paragraph.
  2. Make the text scannable by using sign posts, such as headings, subheadings, article summaries, and link text, and format them accordingly to help users scan.
  3. Start each paragraph with the key idea, explaining what the rest of that paragraph is about.
  4. Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs not to bury important information.
    One-concept-per-paragraph approach helps readers jump to the next paragraph without missing the key messages.
  5. Break down your text into lists – they are telegraphic and easier to scan.
  6. Use images that support the story you’re trying to tell, rather than just some random stock photography.
  7. Use links and place them on the most descriptive words in the sentence instead of “Click here” or “More”.
  8. Use search engine optimization (SEO). Make sure that your search engine proposes spelling corrections and displays clear matter descriptions to each piece of content rather than the random snippets from the middle of the page.
  9. Write homepages or summaries for a 5th-grade reading level, majority of your content – 8th-grade, and supporting information – maximum of 11th-grade (in the USA).
    Use readability assessment tools to ensure that your content is written for a suitable grade level.
  10. Make multiple review rounds to remove redundant words and to free concepts. Sometimes you can reduce the amount of text by at least 50 percent.
  11. If possible, use thumbnail images to show people the type of content they should expect and breadcrumb bars to help people work out where they are.
  12. Provide contact details in case people have questions your content does not answer.

These are very general steps and can be further detailed. Also, some recommendations are true for user documentation as well, which is a nice bonus.

Conclusion

It turned out that writing for web is not unknown after all. And knowing all mentioned above made me more confident and eager to venture into new tasks.

To learn more about my journey, stay tuned and read our blog.

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