10 Rules of Thumb for Better Web Writing

Posted by Henry Breimhurst on Feb 05, 2013

The REAL key to great web writing, of course, is to have something worth writing. If you don’t have something interesting/funny/insightful to say, no amount of formatting or character-counting or list-making will change that.

Still, every writer I know would agree that web writing offers unique challenges and opportunities. As such, it’s worth trying to quantify ways to optimize.

Three notes: First, the web is not a static thing, and neither are these rules. This list is just ideas that seem like a good starting point to me — a flag in the sand, a place to start the discussion. In a fix, I don’t think these guidelines will steer many writers wrong, but your knowledge of your objective and audience trumps any number of tips I might put to the page.

Second, this list is by no means comprehensive. I actually want to explore other topics related to better web writing in separate posts.

Third, credit to Ann Wylie, writing coach extraordinaire. Many of these tips and statistics I’ve culled from her workshops. Whether her answers are definitive or not, I like that Ann digs through research to try to quantify things. I’ve added my own thoughts, extrapolations and spin, so any misrepresentations are mine, not hers.

Tips 1-5: Write Shorter, Write Tighter

  1. Aim for 400 words per ‘chunk’ of content. What’s a chunk? Whatever you think people need to read to get what you have to say. Research suggests people read, on average, 200 words per minute online and are willing to give 2 minutes to online content. Fuzzy math, but feels reasonable.
  2. Slash the word count by 50 percent online. Take that successful print piece and halve it. Some research says reading online is about 25 percent slower. Multiply that by two to account for distractions and multi-tasking.
  3. Crunch numbers. Check the statistics for your writing. Shoot for averages of 5 characters per word, 14 words per sentence, 2 sentences per paragraph. Again, just guidelines, but if you hit these averages it means you’re being simple and direct and not too dense.
  4. Cut adjectives unless they add something. Many adjectives don’t add to reader comprehension. Cut them. As Ms. Wylie points out in one of her presentations, ‘Cute puppy’ doesn’t say much more than just ‘puppy.’ But ‘brown puppy’ does.
  5. Seek nuanced nouns and verbs. Again, an example paraphrased from Ann Wylie: Instead of ‘walked slowly,’ try ‘ambled’ or ‘trudged.’ Maybe ‘cottage’ or ‘shack’ instead of ‘small house.’ You often save words and at the same time add liveliness and detail.

Tips 6-10: Make it Scannable

  1. Make the first words count. Since people skim in an ‘F’ pattern – running down the left edge and flitting to the right if words catch their eye – make those first words in a link, subhead or new idea meaningful. Avoid starting with a rhetorical question or musing. Start with nouns and verbs.
  2. Put links before descriptions. Again, caters to the skimmer. If “USB dongle” is what you’re selling, make “USB dongle” the link and put it before any marketing speak. And then giggle, because “dongle” is a funny word.
  3. Focus on the headline and deck/subhead/synopsis. These are all that some (many? most?) people will read. Put the drama in the headline; proof or statistics or payoff in the subhead. Readers who walk away after that are at least somewhat wiser.
  4. Tease with pull-quotes. Put your best anecdote, quote or intriguing fact here. After getting the gist of the story from the headline and subhead, this is the next thing many people read. Use it to convince them there’s a reason to read on.
  5. Bake context into headlines. Links and social shares usually feature headlines, and often nothing else. Make sure there’s enough context in them that it makes sense without a picture or subhead. For a breaking news alert, “A Lights-Out Performance” is cute, but “Power Outage at Super Bowl” means something at a glance.

And, for the record, this post? 4.6 characters per word. 11 words per sentence.  And… uh… 4 sentences per paragraph and 726 words. Well, good thing these are just guidelines and I’m such an engaging writer. *cough*

What do you think? Any tips you would add or subtract from this list? Got statistics that contradict these suggestions? We’d love to hear from you.


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