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10 golden rules for writing for the web

This is the second talk I gave at the recent Create Conference (November 2009), which is all about more effective writing for websites. I thought I’d reproduce it here for those who were asking me about it afterwards, and for anyone else for whom this might be useful. You can also view the slides (below) and on Slideshare. There’s nothing really ground-breaking in this presentation, but it’s intended to be a primer for anyone who wants an introduction to writing for online media. It’s also tailored a bit to church websites.

Short version

You can view the slides of the presentation below:

Can’t I just whack the A4 brochure onto the website?

Before we plunge into the 10 golden rules, it’s worth comparing the traditional way of reading with the online way of reading. I’ll look at differences in format and our reading behaviour.

Format

  1. Print tends to be portrait format, whereas reading in a web browser tends to be landscape format; this affects how long our eyes can sustain reading along one horizontal line before fatiguing and getting distracted.
  2. In print, you’re more or less locked into a linear bunch of pages, where one follows another. With web, you can jump all over the place, usually with links. The one different example I can think of is those old Choose your own adventure books I used to read as a kid. They were the web of my childhood!
  3. Printed material rarely has text opening and closing and popping out at you, whereas in the online space, there’s all sorts of dynamic things going on to show and hide text in the context of what it’s there to say.
  4. Online material has the added dimension of time; it takes time to download, it’s not (yet) instant; in print, all the information is already there when you pick it up.
  5. We have some control over its presentation (in web browsers and handsets), e.g. how big or small the text is; with print, the producers have total control.

Behaviour

  1. In print, there’s not much of what psychologists call cognitive load in turning a page. In web, we always stop and think at some level “where will this link go? Will it go where I expect it to go? Do I have time? Will I keep going in this direction? Or another?” and so on.
  2. People are very task-oriented when reading content online, and have diminishing patience the longer they have to read text. People scan rather than read all the text on a screen. This is known as the F-pattern. You can see this F-pattern in action in the heatmap screenshots here.
  3. The increases in download speeds has actually made us jump around websites more, so we’re even more impatient and more fickle than we used to be about staying on one page.

OK, so with these things in mind, let’s jump into some golden rules:

Rule 1: Be clear

Think about why you’re writing in the first place. What do you really want to say? It can be easy to shift into auto-writing mode and churn out the same phrases, but we all appreciate accuracy and clarity. Avoid clichés and phrases that don’t actually mean anything. Avoid acronyms and prioprietary terms that readers may not know what they mean (unless you’re going to explain what they mean). In ‘Christianese’ we have to be careful using words like sermon, worship, grace and parishioner. Even the term ‘non-Christian’ can be pretty alienating.

Rule 2: Be concise

Considering what we know about online reading behaviour – that people scan, rather than read – be ruthless in cutting your text down; be as sharp and brief as possible, without losing meaning and clarity. Use shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs.

Rule 3: Be compelling

Have you thought about what reward there is to your reader for reading your content? Know your audience and decide who you want to grab first. Depending on the nature of what you’re writing, be bold, stake a claim, be exciting and excited, be honest, be real, be confident. Use words that will resonate the most with your intended audience, and not necessarily you. Using keywords that people are actually looking out for as signals to ‘hook’ onto will not only make it a more compelling read, but it will attract more visits to your website through search engine indexing for those keywords.

Rule 4: Be creative

Could there be a new way of presenting your message, rather than three paragraphs and a title? Would starting the content with an intriguing question help? Could it be presented like an IKEA catalog? A chart?

Rule 5: Be current

Replace or remove old content. Update the home page. Update the blog. Leaving outdated content lying around a website is like never cleaning the church. Who’d want to walk through a door and have to brush away the cobwebs? Or brush the crumbs off a chair before sitting down?

Rule 6: Mind your spelling and grammar

It is worth it, it does matter, people do notice, and it does reflect better on you and your church/organisation. Why? In his book Don’t make me think, one of Steve Krug’s lessons is to remove the points of friction between your message and people’s understanding. Every error or poorly constructed sentence we have to read makes us stop and think, which distracts us from the actual goal of the writing. So mind your apostrophes and ellipses, learn about sentence fragments and clauses and use commas correctly and so on. Try to use active voice where you can. Separate your ideas and statements so that there’s one idea per paragraph. But having said that, know when you can break the rules of grammar a bit, to add colour and interest to your writing.

Rule 7: Arrange your content for scanning

Remembering that people scan online content, there’s lots of things we can do to maximise the scannability of our content:

  • Use plenty of subtitles
  • Short paragraphs
  • Bulleted lists
  • Think about the priority of your messages. If people only took one thing away from your web page, what would it be? What’s the most important message? Make sure this is most prominent, and so on.
  • Use magazines as inspiration to see how they move your eye around the page. Think about the various chunks of information they present that help scanning. Think about how you can chunk your content into a title, a primary area with, say, one leading paragraph, and a couple of associated content areas.

Rule 8: Adapt your writing for the right type of website

Writing will be different depending on whether it’s a ‘location and directions’ page on your church website, or on a blog, or on Twitter. Here are some applications:

Twitter

  • Make those 140 characters count! Hone your skills in clear concise text.
  • If including links, it’s good to include a punchy lead-in for the link, but even better to make it personal and different, e.g. “This blog post changed how I pray! [Link]
  • Remember to use link shorteners, like bit.ly and clicky.me
  • Leave room in those 140 characters for others to retweet
  • use hashtags, like #create09

Blogs

For blogs, I’ll focus on the headings. According to top copywriters, there’s a 50/50 rule of headlines, where they say you should spend half the time it takes to write an article just on the headline. Here’s where we can apply our rules 3 and 4 (being compelling and creative), e.g.:

  • Read this, or the puppy gets it!
  • How to design better church handouts (or How to anything, really)
  • Top 10 reasons… 10 Golden Rules… (you get the idea)
  • What I didn’t know about Jesus

Marketing and advertising companies know that on average, 8/10 people read headline copy, but only 2/10 will read the rest. That’s why it’s important to invest time in a killer heading. To be effective, try to make it useful, convey a sense of urgency, and convey a unique benefit.

You can also use subheadings within your blog posts to tell the story of the post:

  • “I used to mock Christians”
  • “Then He turned up”
  • “Now by God’s grace I’m planting my third church”

Another tip for blogging: front-load your post. Start with the conclusion. You can then include the rest of the vital details, and then off you go. Next time you read a newspaper article, just tick off how many of the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story are dealt with in the headline and first paragraph.

Rule 9: Don’t let the experts write your web pages

By this I mean, just because you’re super knowledgeable and passionate about your subject, you may not be the best person to write the web page. If it is going to be you who writes the content, I hope these sorts of rules help. But delegate and share the load if you can, and if you think it’s appropriate. Here’s some ideas on how you can do that:

  • Assign one person to take charge of gathering all the content from everyone who has the content. They might be the writer, or they might just be someone who is champion of the website, or tends to be the person who just gets things done.
  • Ministers and pastors, endorse this person to your congregation or organisation, give them support and authority to gather the content and ask people’s time to interview them.
  • Define a content workflow: for each page, or content type, who writes, reviews, edits, approves and publishes? Think about a publishing schedule: change the home page once a month? One blog post a month? A few tweets a week? That sort of thing.

Rule 10: Use content templates

Make it easy on yourself, and others tasked with content on your website, and come up with some templates. These are a big help for people you need to get the information from, and it makes it much easier to know what ‘boxes to fill in’ rather than giving them a ‘blank canvas’. For example, a template about a church event could look a bit like this:

  1. Title
  2. Short description, mentioning purpose and selling benefit
  3. Where is it
  4. When is it (date and time)
  5. Cost
  6. Contact information
  7. RSVP date
  8. Full description
  9. Quote from previous event?
  10. Photo from previous event, or a generic ‘event’ photo?

Well that wraps up the 10 golden rules. I hope you found them helpful. Are there any areas that have particularly helped you in your writing? Do you have any other ideas that have helped you?

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