Reader-Friendly Writing for the Web

So search engines find you and you have well-written, valuable information, but is your insightful article easy on the eyes?

Writing for the web has been described as a balancing act of writing content to capture the interest of the search engines (SEO) and writing to keep the reader’s interest. It’s really more than that. Because you are also writing to the screen, you have to write in a way that is visually divisible to give the tired screen-scanner some optical breathing room. So essentially you have three audiences:

  • The search engine - so the right readers find you
  • The reader’s brain - so the reader is persuaded, informed, etc.
  • The reader’s eyes - so they don’t slow down and shut down

If you just said that taking care of the reader’s eyes is the web designers job, you’re half right. The web designer controls line spacing, font type, font size and a bunch of other little, yet essential, style concerns. But the writer has to meet the designer half way. The writer has to provide her with stuff she can make into readable web content.

The writer shares responsibility for the visual impact of the web content.

A great way to give a visual break to the reader, a way that magazines also use extensively is the callout. A splash of visually impactful text that highlights a main point from the article. It also works as a teaser to get the attention of the reader who is just scanning the article. It’s effective. It’s informative. And we article scanners have come to expect it.

The first callout is of course your title. It’s both a teaser and a promise. The rest of the article makes good on that promise. Unfortunately, so many titles fail to deliver on their promise, that many web readers have taken to scanning the article for more promises before engaging in a full-on reading experience.

Callouts are a writer's gift to the designer and the reader.

Another great visual that functions like a callout is the list. This can be a bullet (unordered) list or a numbered (ordered) list. Readers who are scanning articles will often stop to read a bullet list and use it as a decision point about whether to read the entire article. Lists are, as you might imagine, a great organizational tool to lead the reader through the article.

When the writer has failed to include callouts, the designer has to decide what to use. This can lead to a situation where the callout is not the strongest selling point of the story. It can also mislead the reader when the chosen callout taken out of context doesn’t adequately represent the story. I personally dislike seeing a callout in the wrong place in the story because it was a “good place for a visual.”

As a writer, you need to understand not only the impact of your words on the readers mind, but the impact on their eyes. Before you post your prose on the web take a hard look at how they layout on the page. Do your words meet the following visual needs:

  • Offer visual variety as the reader scans down the page
  • Provide callouts that illuminate key concepts
  • Make use of lists and block quotes whenever possible
  • Keep paragraphs short and meaningful

Engage in some skill building exercises to help you improve your web writing.

  1. Notice how you read web articles. As a writer, you should be reading more than most. Never trust a man who’s written more than he’s read. As an avid reader, you have developed reading habits that allow you to quickly move through lots of lines of text. Observe your own habits. Notice places where you slow down and where you speed up. These are places where you may be having eye trouble.
  2. Practice Execu-Reading. This is the kind of reading executives do. It’s similar to the way executives can look at you while you’re speaking but only hear the statements that included their name. Try scanning an article only paying attention to first sentences, callouts and sentences labeled “In conclusion.” Then read the article again to see how badly you misunderstood it. This exercise will help you understand how to communicate with readers who don’t really read. Avoid taking the next step and writing a business memo based on your misunderstanding and false assumptions.
  3. Before you write your article, list the most important topic and three things that matter to your reader. Work these into your callouts. These contain the promise of your article.
  4. Write an article that delivers on the promise of your callouts. Customers (a.k.a. readers) love when you deliver on your promise. Compare the content of your article to your callouts and look for disconnects. If you have access to an honest reviewer like a good friend or spouse, have them read your article and your callout materials and ask if you delivered on your promise.

I’ve only covered one small bit of writing for the web. It needs to be combined with good search engine content, also known as relevant content, and good, old-fashioned writing – the kind still taught at some of the better universities.