If there's one thing everybody knows about the Web by now, it's that people read differently online than they do on paper.
Why, then, do so many business websites (perhaps even yours) still read like books, brochures, or reports -- and often badly written ones at that?
In part, it's because digital documents usually get far less scrutiny than their hard-copy counterparts. Typically, overworked Web teams put them online quickly, probably with a manager's approval, but without serious editing or copyediting. After all, one of the Web's greatest strengths is its capacity for limitless corrections, revisions, and updates.
But good writing -- online or off --- involves much more than fixing typos or tweaking awkward phrases after the fact. It starts at the point of creation. And in larger part, that's the problem's source. Too many wordsmiths still write for the Web as if they're writing for paper, generating page after page of densely packed content that frustrates, confuses, or alienates readers.
Try two experiments. First, jump online and visit a handful of business websites. Sooner or later, you'll hit one with content so impenetrable that you get tired just looking at it. Then take a hard look at your own Web pages. Try seeing them as if for the first time. Would you want to read them? Or would you decide they're not worth the effort?
The good news: You can easily improve your Web writing, making the content enjoyable, maybe even desirable, to read. Even better news: Doing so won't cost a cent.
To a certain extent, good writing is good writing in any medium.
But Web readers do have specific expectations. Think about how you use the Web yourself. If you're like most Web users, you don't read word for word. You scan. Even then, according to classic research by Web guru Jakob Nielsen and others, you read digital pages more slowly than paper ones, and ultimately you read less online than you do in print.
Also, you're probably in a hurry. You're looking for something specific, and you don't want to hunt through screen after screen of text to find it. Finally, you may want to do something with the content: print it out, request information, make a purchase, contact a human rep. But you won't bother if it's a struggle.
So to provide a high-quality experience for like-minded Web users visiting your site, offer content that's easy to locate, easy to read, and easy to use.
The best way to do that: Apply the "three S's."
1. Keep content scannable. Write in the "inverted pyramid" style, putting the most important information at the top of each document. Consider identifying documents with brief "executive summaries."
Avoid: Extensive use of hard-to-read italics, mixing too many fonts, and using underlines for anything except links.
2. Keep content short. Do your readers a favor; don't contribute to information overload. Instead:
3. Keep content segmented. Take advantage of what the Web does well by layering information. Split long material into smaller chunks of varying lengths, linking them to the original document and to each other. Consider presenting some information as:
Bottom line: Write Web content you'd like to read yourself, and present it the way you'd like to read it. Chances are your Web readers will view it the same way.
These best practices haven't changed in generations:
Web Writing That Works, www.webwritingthatworks.com
Companion site to Hot Text guide (see "Books"). Advice on targeting content, working with documents, and similar topics. Some info may be too "techie" for marketers and writers.
Sun Microsystems Web-Writing Guide, www.sun.com/980713/webwriting/
Classic Web-writing site still offers valuable information; easy-to-use format is a good model for Web presentation.
E-Writing Online, www.ewriteonline.com/newsletter/
Free e-mail newsletter and online articles on variety of Web-writing topics.
Good Documents, www.gooddocuments.com
Dan Bricklin's guide to business writing for the Web, particularly for intranets.
Jakob Nielsen's "Web usability" site, www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/
Research (some dated, but still useful) on how Web users read online.
I-Copywriting Discussion List, www.marketingwonk.com/lists/icopywriting
E-mail discussion list; paid subscription required.
Web Editors Discussion List, www.topica.com/lists/webeditors
Hot Text: Web Writing That Works, by Jonathan and Lisa Price (New Riders Publishing, 2002).
Net Words: Creating High-Impact Online Copy, by Nick Usborne (McGraw Hill, 2001).
The Web Content Style Guide: An Essential Reference for Online Writers, Editors and Managers, by Gerry McGovern, Rob Norton, and Catherine O'Dowd (Prentice-Hall/Financial Times, 2002).
Web Word Wizardry: A Guide to Writing for the Web and Intranet, by Rachel McAlpine (Ten Speed Press, 2001).