Carefully chosen words: Web writing matters

Short. To the point. Write the necessary information.

That’s the goal of web content writers. We are not out to write the Great American Novel (OK, well, some of us are, but we do that on our own time). We write content that readers can scan quickly, then determine if they should click to the next page for the more detailed information.

We synthesize and summarize.

It might seem like some of the newer pages on the Health Science Center’s site are written at Dick and Jane reader-level, rather than Ulysses-reader level. There is a method to our madness.

More than two decades of research is available that show how readers interact with text on print, Web, smartphone and tablet platforms. The Poynter Institute — a professional development institute dedicated to teaching journalists and media leaders — released its first eyetrack study in 1991, when the Internet was a mere Gopher-linked protocol for instant messages and chat rooms.

In its most recent eyetrack research, the data has stayed consistent cross-platform: Readers scan top-level pages for information. If a reader wants more information, he or she will click through to the details.

That means website copy must be well-written and concise. Shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs and bullet points are key to keeping eyeballs on the screen.

This is not a new idea. In 1920, William Strunk, Jr., and  E.B. White, authors of the writing handbook The Elements of Style adamantly endorsed that fewer words written well would convey the point more accurately than many words written poorly.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but he make every word tell.

—”Elementary Principles of Composition,” The Elements of Style

 Strunk and White were content writers ahead of their time.

Strunk and White’s sentiment is backed by research: According to the Poynter Eyetrack research, 98 percent of readers will read webpage text 1 to 4 inches long.

That number drops to 80 percent if text is 5 to 7 inches long. If text is 12 inches long, you lose 34 percent of your readership before the final sentence. The numbers drop even more dramatically for tablet readers.

Concise, clear sentences are a must for engaging content that will keep people reading.

The good news: People will read more text on the screen than they will in print. Only 73 percent of print readers read to the end of the 1- to 4-inch printed text.

Strunk and White were prophets for the web content world. Nearly 100 years later, The Yahoo! Style Guide and Content Everywhere: Strategy and Structure for Future-Ready Content, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher, champion the same strategies: Be short. Be to the point. Write what the reader needs to know, and write no more.”

Article Categories: Content Strategy

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>