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"Writing for the web—making the leap from print to online writing"

By Merry Bruns

(Re-use Policy-Do not reproduce without written permission. Linking, with attribution, is appreciated.)

The good news is, if you're already a good writer or editor, you're halfway there.

"Writing for the Web" means adapting our writing skills and learning some new ones. The web is the best tool we have yet for communicating information—any sort of information—to an almost limitless pool of readers. But writing for it requires that we modify our work, both in the way we write, and how we treat the blocks of written text once we're done.

Here are some overall tips to get you started thinking about the process:

1. Focus on your audience.

This means understanding more than just  who they are. You'll need to know what they want  from the material you're writing, and what they intend to do with it. This will drive both the style of your writing, and the way you might  format the material once you're done.

Writing descriptive and labeling text for web content  also means you'll need to know your readers language-the words they'd use to describe things-the words they'll recognize when reading your text.

You'll need to know your audience because you'll need to write to reach them personally, something good writers already understand. It's doubly important on the web, as  you're having a one-on-one experience with each reader.

2. Write more concisely

You've heard it before, but it's still true: write more concisely for the web than you would for print.

What we’re aiming for here is not "dumbed down" text, or turning your prose into headlines, but saying the same thing with fewer words. Again, much depends on the purpose of the material-where it's going on the site-and who it's written for.

Why is concise writing more important for the web? Because no one likes to read lengthy documents on monitors. There are lots of reasons why, but what we're aiming for is getting the reader the information they need while not prolonging the online reading experience.

There's another reason why we write with brevity online: we get our meaning across more quickly, with greater impact, and with better reader retention. Usability tests show dramatic improvements in reader retention and comprehension with shorter text.

3. Format your text for easy reading and scanning.

Formatting text for scannability allows readers to take in the meaning of large volumes on text at a glance.

As we don't have a sense of how long online documents really are, readers need visual clues to work their way quickly through text. Print standby's like bolding, subheads, and bullets help make  your text much more scannable.

But making the choice how to format a written piece also has a lot to do with what it's intended for. Information that's meant to be a linear read can be written that way, but formatted so readers can see what it's about quickly. Information that's strictly practical, such as a how-to manual, should be bulleted for quick use.

4. Understand how to use this medium for communications.

The web environment allows writers a greater degree of flexibility than they've ever had in taking their ideas and organizing them creatively to take advantage of the visual and multimedia options available to them.

Doing this requires some knowledge, not of how to build  a web site, but of the options available to a web writer or editor to enhance content, demonstrate process, or give impact to stories through multimedia and visuals.

No one's born knowing how to do all this. It takes practice, training, and critiquing  online text  to figure out why one site's easy, useful and fun  to read, and another is tedious.

But knowing these techniques, and focusing on your readers, will ensure that you're writing's in demand in the increasingly competitive world of online writing.

Copyright 1997-2012 Merry Bruns
ScienceSites Communications
Washington, DC

All Rights Reserved.