The quickest way to improve your web writing is to focus on structure – not style, language or grammar. Clear structure is a sign of clear thinking.
People think that if you can’t “write”, you can’t write. But writing’s real value is in channelling your ideas into a single, coherent message. Good writing is mostly about structuring your thoughts, and it’s easier than you think.
This is a guide to a simple structure for writing content pages. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re ever asked to write a web page it might just be useful.
The headline says it all
The headline should tell the reader what they’re about to read. That’s it.
It has the biggest text on the page, so it’s your biggest chance to hook a reader. Say clearly what you’re writing about – if this doesn’t sound compelling, maybe it’s not worth writing about. Remember that it will get used as link text from other sites, especially Facebook and Twitter, so make sure that users get what they are expecting from these links. Otherwise they’ll leave.
Don’t be too clever. Avoid jargon. And recognise that if your headline is saying two different things, you should probably write two different pages.
Open with the conclusion
Your opening paragraph should summarise the whole text. In 25-ish words. Don’t set the scene. Don’t write a whimsical introduction. Above all, don’t start with the start. Instead, tell your reader what the page is about and let them judge whether they’re interested (readers do this anyway, so help them out).
Think of the headline and opening paragraph as an inseparable couple walking arm in arm across the web – alone on your page, with their friends in your listing pages and with their enemies in the Google search results. Give them the love they need to survive in all contexts.
Subheadings are the new body text
People read subheadings first. Sometimes that’s all they read, so use them to tell your story too. Ginny Redish put me up on the four ways to write them:
- Statements – ‘Subheadings Are The New Body Text’
The clearest, most useful type of subheading. They are difficult to write, but it gets easier. If you struggle then maybe your ideas are not yet clear enough.
- Instructions – 'Create Subheadings That Tell A Story’
Great for writing instructions or talking someone through a process. Begin with the verb, either imperative ('create’) or gerund ('creating’) and don’t mix.
- Questions – 'How Many Ways Can I Write Subheadings?’
This puts you in the user’s shoes and is a fantastic way to get started (list and answer all possible questions). But you risk answering things that no one asks.
- Nouns – 'Subheadings’
Simple nouns work well as short, descriptive labels for navigation – but they’re not great for subheadings as they carry no extra information. Avoid.
Micro structures matter too
Edward Tufte talks about using macro and micro to your advantage in information design. This applies to writing too. Your individual paragraphs (micro) should be structured just as carefully as your overall page (macro).
Start every paragraph with its main idea. People skim the starts of paragraphs like they scan subheadings. Anticipating this behaviour will help your readers and get your message across.
Use single sentence paragraphs to add emphasis.
Break lists of items into lists. But be careful. Lists stop working when there are too many on a page and they break if you put too many items inside them. Theway to get the balance right is to write out your text and read it back (critically).
Formatting is not acceptable
Lazy writers use bold and italic to emphasise their key points. Great writers use placement (as in starting a paragraph with its main idea), sequence (like putting the best ideas high on the page) and grouping (using lists and subheadings).
Avoid bold and italic. Try using your text flow and structure to provide the emphasis you need. Of all the techniques here, this is the one that can improve your writing most in the shortest space of time.
Links go at the rnd
Just because you can link to any page on the web doesn’t mean you should.
Web writing is a hand-crafted experience. You are taking your reader on a journey through your text – whether they’re reading every word, skimming paragraphs or scanning subheadings. Interrupting that experience with links to other sites is a great way to undo all your hard work.
Place your links at the end of your page. Make it clear why they are worth following. Take the time to really think about what you include.
Break all the rules
These techniques are not hard and fast rules. There are great writers who use clever headlines, whimsical openings, nonexistent subheadings and heavily linked text. And there is terrible writing that follows all of the above guidelines.
But sometimes it helps to learn a simple structure first. It certainly helped me.
I’d love to hear what you think. Have you got anything to add? Let me know on @myddelton. And if you want to improve your writing for the web, the best thing you can do is to read Letting Go Of The Words by Ginny Redish.