A friend recently wrote me asking for some help with web content and design issues, and while writing my WAY overenthusiastic and hopefully-not-too-scary response, I wanted to share something I wrote up as an internal resource at work.

I work on one of those sprawling websites that’s maintained not by a specialized team of writers and designers, but by a large and ragtag bunch of people trying hard to get other work done. Several of them had asked me for web writing tips, and I was struggling to find anything approachable. Finally, I decided to write it myself. Here’s what I came up with:

[Obviously, this isn’t exhaustive — the goal wasn’t to create the ultimate guide to web writing, but to provide an opening for non-writers who might find themselves writing for the web. The only aim here was to find a few approachable, concrete suggestions.]

For the past few months, I’ve been having great conversations with colleagues about websites, resources, organization, and content. In those conversations, one question is my absolute favorite:

Do you have any tips about how to write for the web?

This is such a great question, but I haven’t had a worthy answer. I know time is precious, so I hate to send people straight to 300-page books or extensive blogs. Finding the right collection of approachable advice and real depth is hard.

But it’s a question that deserves an answer, so let’s give it another shot.

Let’s try that again: Do you have any tips about how to write for the web?

Yes! I do have tips. So glad you asked. Here they are, in five parts:

1. Think about your reader.

Who will be reading this web page that you’re writing? What are they trying to do? Are they rushed? Stressed? Confused? Excited? Curious?

Ginny Redish talks about web content as conversation in this fantastic presentation (pdf). Web writing isn’t a monologue, it’s a dialogue. Even if you have specific goals for your content and what you want your readers to understand, your chances of accomplishing those goals are much higher if you can meet them halfway to what they want to do, find, or understand.

This will inform both what you write and how you write it. Email marketing company MailChimp (which is renowned for effective web content) has developed a Voice & Tone guide that walks through the thought process behind the writing on their site.

2. Give users context.

When you’re reading a brochure, book, or report in paper form, you usually know what you’re reading: the binding, cover and physicality of the document all tell you what you’re looking at. Plus, you usually know where you got it (if papers are raining onto your desk from the ceiling, that’s a whole different problem).

Online, we’re lacking those material clues, so we have to rely on other elements to figure out where we are and what we’re looking at: design, imagery, addresses, page titles, headers, and language. Each site, page, and paragraph should help readers know what they’re reading, whether it’s the right place for them and what other pages are related.

Think of it this way: if this web page floated down from the ceiling onto an unsuspecting person’s desk, could they figure out what it is or where to file it?

(Elizabeth McGuane and Randall Snare talk about this as coherence and offer some great advice about how to get it in this article.)

3. Be clear, concise, and readable.

Most of good web writing is the same as other effective communication:

  • Use words that people understand, the way that people expect them to be used. Don’t get too fancy.
  • Use active voice.
  • Use verbs.
  • Keep sentences simple. Subclauses get confusing really fast.

4. Make it easy to skim.

People read a little differently online. Web readers tend to read quickly and searchingly —until they find what they need. To help them get to what they’re looking for, here’s what you can do:

  • Use headings to mark sections of the content.
  • Use bulleted lists to make organized content stand out.
  • Keep paragraphs short.
  • When it makes sense, use photography, infographics, or other visuals to illustrate your content.
  • Use hyperlinks. When you need to refer to other documents, detailed policies, or organizations, links are the best way to give readers the depth and context they need without cluttering your page with too many tangents.

5. Get a second pair of eyes.

Everybody needs an editor. Have a colleague review what you write for coherence, clarity, and correctness.

Want more?

Here are a few of my favorite articles, books, and resources on good web content and how to write it:

I wrote this a while ago, so I may be missing some more-recent fabulousness from Contents or one of the other excellent publications that is pumping out phenomenal writing about content at a terrific pace.