writing for the web

This article was originally published as “Writing Online Content for Distracted Humans and Web-Crawling Spiders” in the Association Executives of North Carolina’s Success By Association magazine, November/December 2015 issue.


Remember the days when members read everything you mailed them? Or, at least you thought they did. You never knew for sure, but one thing’s for certain: you didn’t have the competition for their attention like you do today.

Nowadays, media sites, for-profit communities, vendors, consultants, and brands are clamoring like you for the same 15 minutes of your members’ online reading time. Many of these competitors have big budgets to spend on behavioral scientists, marketers, copywriters, and designers to help them deliver attention-grabbing content.

But, you can compete and win if you know the basics of effective online writing.

Capture attention if you want to deliver value.

A few years ago, marketing experts proclaimed, “Content is king.” If you wanted to position your organization as a trusted authority and indispensable source of information, online content was the way to go.

Now, content is in danger of becoming a commodity. Much of the content slung about the web today is irrelevant crap—written in a rush to capture eyeballs and the favor of Google’s search algorithms—those web-crawling spider bots. To deal with the constant stream of content in their inboxes and social streams, readers quickly skim and mercilessly hit the Delete button.

“When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive,” said science historian James Gleick. If you want to deliver value to your members, you must first capture and hold their attention.

Write for skimmers, not readers.

When online readers visit a page of content, eye-tracking studies show that they scan the page in an F-pattern. First, they scan the headline, and the first sentence or two. Then, their eyes glance down the page, scanning subheaders and other bold or bulleted text.

Online readers scan to find out if the content appears to efficiently deliver the promised value, so your content must invite the reader in by looking easy to read. Segment content into short paragraphs interspersed with bold subheaders that summarize the message and guide the reader down the page. With content management systems, you can format subheaders so Google takes notice of any keywords used in them.

Use a parallel structure for subheaders and bullet lists. For example, make each subheader an imperative sentence, like the ones in this article. Bullet lists and indented quotation blocks also provide a target for skimming eyes and the necessary white space to break up a page.

Stick to one font style so the page doesn’t look busy. Use different font sizes for the headline, subheader, and body. Never underline text—only embedded links should be underlined. When using links, never say, “Click here.” Instead use the embedded link text to describe what the reader will get when they click.

Reel in the reader.

Hook your reader with the headline or subject line. Headline writing is an art and science that takes years to master, but a few tips will move you to the front of the class.

  • Promise value.
  • Make it personal.
  • Ask a challenging question.
  • Trigger curiosity.
  • Stoke anxiety.
  • Convey urgency.
  • Make it tweetable.

If you capture readers’ attention with the headline, they’ll read the first sentence. Then keep pulling them in, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Don’t wait for a big reveal at the end of your piece—deliver the value up front before you lose them.

Speak to the reader.

Let your content be personally engaging and conversational, not dry and institutional. Be a real person behind the screen. Address the reader with “you”—the most powerful word in copywriting.

Strive for strong, simple language. Avoid using jargon, clichés, and buzzwords. Use the active, not passive, voice.

In MS Word options, under Proofing, turn on the Readability Statistics tool. After a spell-check, it shows the percentage of passive sentences and the Flesch-Kincaid grade level. The lower the grade level, the easier and quicker your content is to read. The Hemingway Editor is an online tool that identifies complex and passive sentences. Don’t worry, you’re not dumbing down your content, you’re saving time for your readers.

Write for the reader, not Google.

Google’s algorithms have changed over the years to become more attuned to what readers naturally seek. If you write content that readers find valuable, Google will find you too. There’s no need to stuff content with keywords. Write clearly and naturally using the words and phrases that readers use to talk about your topic. Listen to members’ conversations in your online community, social platforms, and elsewhere to understand their language and needs.

Beware “black hat” SEO agencies that guarantee a search ranking. Never try to game Google—you’ll suffer a punishing and, perhaps, permanent loss of ranking. Knowing a few basic search engine optimization (SEO) principles will ensure your content does well in search rankings.

In April 2015, Google announced that websites must be mobile-friendly to earn a decent ranking. Write for the mobile reader:

  • Shorten subject lines.
  • Use appropriate font sizes.
  • Provide plenty of white space on the page.
  • Make links easy to click.

Use your content management system’s SEO tools to create a title tag and meta tag—the page description in Google search results—for every web page. Make sure your image file names include descriptive keywords. Provide explanatory alt text for every image—when images don’t load, readers read the alt text to see what they’re missing.

Include internal links within your content—links to related content on your website. Check out the SEO starter guides from Google and Moz for more SEO tips.

Neuroscientists say the digital world has rewired our brains. Our attention spans have suffered. We read differently online than we did when print was king. However, we have access to more information now than ever before. Make sure your online content is easy for your members to find and digest.

Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer for technology firms serving the association market. The association community remains her professional home after spending ten years at national and state associations overseeing membership, vendor programs, marketing, publications, chapter relations and more. 

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(Creative Commons licensed photo by Mike Licht after Edouard Manet)

If you’re looking for me, check out my food blog, Grabbing the Gusto. I write several times a week over there.

You can also find me online writing on the blogs of some of the best technology vendors in the association market, but I’m doing that undercover in collaboration with some of the best brains in the industry. I’m also helping them with case studies, white papers, tip sheets and articles.

And now for my exciting news: I just signed a contract with a publisher to write a book about strategies for living in small spaces. This opportunity fell into my lap, or, more accurately, into my inbox. After mulling it over for weeks (okay, maybe months) and seeking advice from author and publisher friends, I decided to go for it. Must live up to my motto and grab the gusto.

And for no particular reason except I really love it, I’m sharing this photo I took last weekend of the pier on Ocean Isle Beach at sunset. I love the way it makes me feel and I hope it makes you feel that way too.

Ocean Isle Beach pier at sunset | Deirdre Reid

Ocean Isle Beach pier at sunset | Deirdre Reid

Last week, I shared tips on writing for the web, or, as I affectionately referred to all of us online readers, writing for online monkey minds. Reading on the web is a different experience than reading the printed page. Online reading is informal, interactive and interruptive; it requires a different style of writing. In my monkey mind post I discussed writing for scanners, not readers, and the importance of headlines and formatting.

No matter the medium, you want to hook the reader and get to the point quickly. On the web, it’s even more critical because we feel less loyalty to a web page than we do to a magazine or book we’ve purchased, so we’re apt to click away as soon as you bore us.

Imagine talking to your reader.

The web feels different than a magazine, newspaper or book. We talk back on the web, get replies and have conversations. When you write for the web, use a more conversational voice than you would for the printed page. It’s okay to write in the first person, whereas that would not usually fly in a printed article.

Pay attention to your voice. Using “you” is fine. When I write blog posts, I imagine I’m giving advice, sharing ideas or having a conversation with a friend or colleague. I use “you” throughout my posts because I’m talking to you. I can’t see you, but I imagine you there, listening. This is perfectly healthy.

For organizations, especially in blog posts, don’t always refer to yourself as “we.” It may be appropriate at times, but “we” can sound awfully impersonal. Some readers may even hear it as a royal “we” if they’re in an unforgiving mood. As a reader, I want to connect with a person, the writer, not to a faceless institution represented by “we.” It’s far too anonymous and nontransparent.

However, I use “we” frequently when I write about topics that concern my community, for example, when I write for the association community about a membership issue. That’s an inclusive “we” in the sense that “we’re all in this together.”

Oh, you think you’re funny?

We might be funny to a few people, maybe. If we’re lucky, a dozen or so might get a chuckle from our brand of humor. Humor works online because it’s informal and conversational. A little humor entertains us and keeps us reading. But if you want to get a point across, don’t go overboard with humor unless you’re a comic genius with a humor blog.

Sarcasm, however, doesn’t always translate. I find sarcasm hard to resist because it’s part of my usual schtick. But in real life we use inflection, stress, timing and facial expressions to make our zingers stick. Online, we only have this:😉 Tread carefully so you don’t unwittingly insult your readers.

I’ve seen writers convey sarcasm by stretching out a word with extra vowels so it reads how it would sound in a sarcastic tone. Others will add a “heh” to their sarcastic remarks, or use sentence fragments to instill the same sense of timing they’d use in real life.

You’re not done yet!

When I’m done with a piece, I use the Find tool to look for instances of passive voice. Passive voice will suck the life out of your writing. I search for the following words (and suffix) and change them where I can: be, was, is, were, are, -ing.

Keep tightening it up. Look for redundancies and unnecessary words and phrases, like “that” or “some.” Does your word order make sense?

When in doubt, look it up. Keep dictionary.com in your bookmark bar so you don’t use the wrong word by mistake. Find grammar resources to help you with those pesky little rules you tend to forget. Don’t worry, this happens to everyone; we forget because our brains are too full.

Here are a few to check out:

Finally, read it out loud. Or at a whisper. How does it sound? Any awkward spots? Jargon? Corporate-speak? Are you bored? You’ll be amazed how well this technique works.

I heard someone say recently on a Twitter chat: “Perfection is the enemy of good.” So true. There’s always something to edit in that final draft. But summon your strength and make it the final final. Click Publish and move on unless you’re chasing a Pulitzer.

writing blogging web online

Click it! Click it now!

Next time I’ll get into comments, trolls, copyright, fair use and all that good stuff.

Writing for the Web series

Does this sound familiar? You settle in to read something online. You first scan the screen, and then begin reading a long paragraph of text. Soon you realize you’re no longer reading; instead you’re thinking about dinner or your draft picks. Click, close tab.

We all do this. Reading on the web is informal, interactive and interruptive.

  • Informal – our family and friends are here, anything goes.
  • Interactive – we are used to ‘talking’ back via comments or feedback buttons.
  • Interruptive – we are easily distracted by email alerts, links, instant messaging, social networks and open tabs.

If we write our online content the same way we write for the printed page, we’ll lose our readers, except for our mothers and a few diehard fans.

Write for scanners, not readers.

We read differently online. I think we all know this intuitively, but it’s also been proven in studies. We scan. In eye-tracking tests 79 percent of users scan any new page they come across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.

We scan in an F-shape: first, horizontally across the top, then horizontally a little lower, and finally vertically down the left side. The photo below shows results of web usability eye-tracking tests. The redder portions are the ‘hot spots’ where most eyeballs land.

Why is this important? If you want to hold your reader’s attention, format your text and write in a way that will do that.

writing for the web online reading freelance raleigh

F-shape online reading pattern

Hook them with headlines.

Headline writing is a skill coveted by print and online writers. Do a Google search on “writing headlines” and you’ll see how much advice is out there on writing headlines for blog posts, articles and marketing copy.

Amidst all the online noise and distractions, we want our headline to hook the reader and draw them into our content. A good headline needs to give a sense of what the reader will get for their time. It provides an ‘information scent.’ It also helps if it’s clever, controversial or promising. If you want to improve your headlines, Copyblogger has oodles of posts on the subject.

Break up your text.

Readers like lists and bullets. They break up the visual monotony of one paragraph after another and make the content more alluring to read.

Lists posts are by far the most popular posts on many blogs. Check out the titles of the most popular articles on Copyblogger’s home page:

  • 8 Bad Habits that Crush Your Creativity
  • Do You Make These 7 Mistakes When You Write?
  • 10 Effective Ways to Get More Blog Subscribers.

List posts like these promise takeaways in an easy to read package. An uncommitted visitor can scan and digest before deciding to settle in and read.

Readers also like bold subheadings. Subheadings tell the reader what to expect within the text and visually break up the page.

Use short paragraphs and sentences.

Aim for paragraphs that are five lines maximum. It might not always happen, but it’s an ideal to keep in mind.

Keep your sentences short. Use limited punctuation. Parentheses, especially, can cause a break in reader attention.

And my favorite: sentence fragments are okay.

Does it sound like we’re dumbing down writing? Possibly, but what we’re trying to do is appeal to the distracted web reader by making the text visually appealing and conversational – an enjoyable online reading experience.

A few more formatting tips

Left justify your text. Don’t use indented paragraphs.

All of you who grew up with typewriters, stop using two spaces after a period. A period is followed by only one space. Using two spaces is a dead give-away that you’re older and perhaps haven’t kept up with the times. And before you accuse me of ageism, just know that I too had a college prep typing class in my senior year of high school. I adjusted, you can too.

If you have a few lines of quoted text, set them off from the rest of text in block quotes. If you want to add more visual relief, italicize the block quote.

Break up your text with photos or graphics but only where it won’t interrupt the reading flow. Graphics sometimes take longer to load so don’t overdo it or your reader will leave before they even arrive.

Next time, I’ll share guidance on voice, links, trolls, copyright and more.

Do you have any other tips to add?

Writing for the Web series

When I first decided to have an at-home retreat week, I had in mind the relaxed yet energizing experience of my stays at Red Mountain Spa. But how would I replicate that experience without morning hikes in southern Utah’s glorious red rock landscape, frequent massages, fitness and wellness classes and a dining room serving delicious and healthy food?

I’d have to dial back my expectations. I decided to focus on my writing business, specifically planning, marketing and learning. Yet I also wanted to include retreat-like activities and lots of reading. On Monday morning, the first day of my retreat, I put together a schedule that would keep me on that productive track. It was ambitious.

  • Morning walks in good weather
  • Daily yoga and meditation
  • Read four excellent books – details below
  • Set goals for the rest of the year
  • Develop a marketing plan
  • Work on a few other business planning, educational and organizational projects
  • Create a visionboard illustrating the life I want to create for myself
  • Read dozens of RSS feeds and other resources about marketing, writing and other freelancer concerns.

Things don’t always go as planned.

After making my schedule I went shopping for the week’s groceries so I could truly retreat from the world. And then, a fantastic massage from Shannon at Spa Neo in Clayton, NC. It was a retreat, after all!

When I got home, feeling very juicy, that’s yoga talk, I enjoyed a delicious dinner with a few glasses of wine. Enlightenment came down upon me. “I haven’t had any lengthy time off this year and I won’t until August. What do I really want this week to be? What do I need for me?”

I started crossing items off the schedule.

Instead of doing what I should do, keeping up with my usual professional reading and all those other habitual activities, I decided to:

Let. It. All. Go.

I unplugged — no emails, no Twitter. I focused on reading my books, writing in my journal — most of it prompted by what I was reading, working on my visionboard — which involved lots of flipping through old cooking and fashion magazines and cutting out pictures, walking, yoga, meditating and just plain thinking.

blogger writer raleigh freelance copywriting writing

photo by Eryn Vorn

On Tuesday I worked on my goals for the year because that’s a whole life activity, not strictly professional. I adapted the method that Sherman Hu shared on Sarah Robinson’s Escaping Mediocrity blog.

But habits are tough to break.

Unfortunately it took me until late Wednesday to break my RSS habit — translation: reading dozens of blog subscriptions in Google Reader. I rationalized it by only reading from my writing and growth folders but I kept clicking on other posts, things I NEEDED TO KNOW.

I made the decision to stop being busy. I sought stillness. I let go my compulsion to keep up and be in the know. I didn’t watch the news and hardly read the paper. Since Jim and his daughter were away for the week, I was alone in my house. I was a bit like a monk on a silent retreat, except this monk talks to herself, the cat and the dog. And you know what? I loved it. I wasn’t lonely at all. I felt very fulfilled by what I was doing.

Here are some considerations if you’re thinking about an at-home retreat.

Do you like to cook? Do you want to? You may not, even if you usually love cooking like me. Plan ahead by having leftovers or easy-to-prepare meals and snacks in the frig or freezer. Don’t forget about snacks; remember, at the spa the dining room is always open.

Music? Silence? I enjoyed both. When my house is quiet, I’m lucky enough to be serenaded by birds, frogs and other woodland creatures. On Thursday I discovered some “spa” stations on Pandora that contributed to my relaxed attitude.

15-20 minute naps are sooo good and rejuvenating, take them whenever your energy lulls a bit. With my work lifestyle I suppose I could nap every afternoon but I’m still brainwashed by decades in the “real world.” I took a nap today; it did wonders for my late afternoon energy level.

writing blogging copywriting freelance writer blogger Raleigh case studies

Red Mountain Spa & Resort

Your reading selection will set the tone for your retreat so choose wisely. My four books echoed each other throughout the week. I found myself gasping at the synchronicities. Maybe it’s not so surprising since they’re all essentially about authenticity, joy, growth and creativity.

My friend Kiki wrote recently about finding “whitespace.” When we live our lives the way most people do, the acceptable way, the normal way, it’s difficult to claim the whitespace we need to reflect, play and grow. Because I have complete control over my life now (wait, haven’t I always?), I can make the time to do something like this.

But to do it, I had to plan well ahead. I had to make sure all my work was done, in its absolutely final state, and delivered to clients ahead of time. I kept my fingers crossed that no last-minute work would come my way that I would be tempted to take. I took the week off from my blogs. I kept my calendar clear. I was ready.

I’m doing it again if I can manage it work-wise, even if it’s only for a few days, hopefully in six months or so, maybe the next time Jim leaves town for a conference. Next time I’ll be able to slip into real retreat mode much more quickly.

Even though I didn’t do any “professional” activities during my week, I came out of it with new approaches to my day and lots of ideas. Plus I feel incredibly refreshed and relaxed. I’m reading books more now than I had before my retreat. I’m practicing yoga and meditating almost daily. It’s like I went to a spa!

This quote from Proust in Meditations from the Mat speaks to me now: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”


(This post includes Amazon affiliate links. I receive a small commission if you click on a link and purchase the product.)

Joe Pulizzi at Junta42 shares a great idea for many organizations that’s also a natural fit for associations, and more imperative than ever since many have been losing traction in this area — Starting a News Service for Your Industry. Chief Content Officer? What a cool job that would be!

Social media can be a catalyst for positive organizational change. In this fascinating interview with Arthur L. Hue, author of Social Media at Work: How Networking Tools Propel Organizational Performance, at Thomas Clifford’s blog, we learn how using social media can foster staff engagement and motivation. Hue also believes it will be the key to recruiting and retaining Millennials.

Maggie McGary at Mizz Information is one of my favorite bloggers because she cuts through the bull, asks tough questions and gives solid advice. Her recent guest post on Socialfish is an example of what I mean — Five Reasons Why Facebook Will Never Replace Your Website.

An interesting article by Neal Gabler, Everyone’s a Critic Now, is another in a recent flurry of writing about the state of criticism, including a blog post from me. Gabler writes about the strange critical consensus on 2010’s Top Ten lists and the battles between high and popular culture. Be sure to spend some time reading the responses from critics. The whole argument about cultural elitism has really struck a nerve with me lately. I love being part of the “age of cultural populism” that Gabler describes, but I really detest the way some populists disdain the tastes of others, and vice versa.

Thanks to Adam Haslett’s recent article, The Art of Good Writing, I’ve added yet another book to my wish list — How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Haslett’s article itself is a treat for literature and word lovers.

My Greensboro pal, Danielle Hatfield at Experience Farm, shared a good post with her Twitter friends by Kathryn Williams, Working from Home: A Survivor’s Guide. Kathryn obviously knows the benefits and downfalls of a home office. Yes, I’m in yoga clothes right now but that’s because I plan to roll out the mat soon. Really.

If you’re an art lover who doesn’t have a big travel budget, you’ll love the Google Art Project. You can browse through 17 major art museums, including the Met, Frick, MoMA, Tate Britain, Rijksmuseum, Uffizi, Hermitage, Reina Sofia and Alte Nationalgalerie. Wow, studying art history is nothing like it used to be!

content social media criticism writing art

Glad she's safe! ~ flickr photo by Paul Mannix

Clay Shirky’s Foreign Affairs article, The Political Power of Social Media (registration required), is a fascinating read that rebuts and shreds Malcolm Gladwell’s view about the power of social media to facilitate change. Shirky doesn’t like our Administration’s “instrumental” approach — social media used as short-term action-oriented political tools with the focus on computers rather than phones — because it “overestimates the value of broadcast media while underestimating the value of media that allow citizens to communicate privately among themselves.” He prefers an “environmental” approach using social media as “long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere,” a role that media has played throughout history — providing access to conversation. His discussion of the conservative’s dilemma, formerly known as the dictator’s dilemma, reminds me of the fear of loss of control that many organization leaders have about social media.

Why not give Malcolm Gladwell a share of the spotlight too? In this 2-1/2 minute video (transcript provided) on Big Think, he discusses the creative urge to collect and consume what we come across, to not edit the chaos, but to embrace it. For who knows what nuggets of inspiration might lie within?

I would love to see organizations take to heart Soren Gordhamer’s Five New Paradigms for a Socially Engaged Company. Creating the organizational culture that will bring about these changes? That’s the challenge. Take for instance #2, Mindset. Yes, it would be great if staff had the right mindset for innovation. But how can an organization facilitate that when an employee is juggling a to-do list that’s three pages long. Nevertheless, these are important cultural concepts that must be absorbed.

My pal Jeff Hurt, a prolific writer and brain, explains Why People Join Social Networking Sites. Oh, you thought you already knew? Well, you might be half right, but let Jeff take you a little deeper to the root causes – motivation you need to consider when developing your community strategy.

I have a feeling that Josip Petrusa’s post, Attracting Millennials to Your Event and Why You’re Failing at It, will be the seed of one of my future blog posts. His reasoning applies to more than only events, think organizations too. Boomers may not like reading this, but his perspective is good medicine and rings a bit too true.

social media networking political millennials membership events creativity

Manila protest January 2001 ~ flickr photo by M.a.c.a.r.o.n.i.