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How to write for the web – the Ten Commandments

Still reading? Good – 80% of web users don’t get past the headline so give yourself a pat on the back for making it this far. We’re well on the way then.

Writing online can feel like shouting into the void. There’s no magic wand you can wave to ensure you get people’s attention but there are a few tricks of the trade that should give you a massive head start. OK, without further ado…

1. Use sub headings or bullet points

Fewer than one in six people read online articles word by word – they scan them – so use headings or bullet points to help break things up.

Don’t try and be too clever – readers are looking for simple, efficient headings that will help them navigate the page in the blink of an eye.

And there’s a bonus: If your headings include relevant keywords they will also tell search engines like Google what your article is about. This helps you get found – so do it.

2. Opinion is fine as long as you back it up

Don’t expect everyone to blindly go along with everything you say. That’s fine – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of opinion or personality.

But be careful – if you are being controversial for the sake of it readers will see it coming a mile off. The important thing is you back up what you are saying with reasons.

Research has continuously proven that people are more likely to respond to stories than facts. That’s a fact. Probably should have told a story to be fair.

3. Blog regularly

Ok in the interests of practising what you preach, here’s a story: A year or so ago we started blogging for a client of ours.

We didn’t touch his website, run any advertising campaigns or even manage his social media. We just blogged every week or so – following the very rules you are reading right now.

Within three months visits to his site had gone up by 250% and the phone started ringing off the hook. His client base has already grown by over a third – and this is a business that has been running for over 40 years.

4. Help the reader – it’s nice to be nice

I was a newspaper journalist for years and wrote thousands of articles for various local, regional and national papers – but rarely if ever did I actually help the reader.

I don’t consider myself particularly mean-spirited – others might disagree – it’s just that 99% of the time it was my job to simply report the news.

Online writing tends to be different. There’s more to it than simply regurgitating a story or shoving your agenda down people’s throats.

Readers are actively searching for specific information on a certain topic, so demonstrate value. If they ain’t learning, they ain’t staying. With that in mind…

5. Include links – and mix things up on the page

Links to other relevant sites can back up what you are saying and help the reader so you might want to chuck a few in.

Don’t be afraid to lose some stragglers along the way – if you can demonstrate to people you are helping they are more likely to come back to you in the long run.

Big blocks of text can be a bit overbearing so the occasional video or photo can help too. As if by magic…

example of good blog entry

Videos, links and changes to the layout of the page can help keep readers interested

6. Use keywords and key phrases – but don’t go crazy

Back in the dark ages of the Internet you could fool search engines into thinking your copy was relevant by stuffing it full of certain terms. It’s safe to say Messrs Google, Bing, Yahoo et al are a lot older and wiser these days.

It’s a good idea to brainstorm certain key phrases and use them if appropriate – but never at the expense of the way your article reads.

Search engines can tell how readers get to a web page, how long they stay and where they go. It’s their job to reward pages that engage the reader and they are getting pretty good at it so that should be your No. 1 priority.

7. Don’t waste words

Your words are your currency so use them sparingly. If you can say something in four or five don’t use six or seven.

This doesn’t necessarily mean web articles should be shorter than print stories – though plenty of people will tell you they should be. The great and the good of web writing can’t decide on that one I’m afraid.

All we’d say is: as soon as you start running out of steam, start winding it up. Some articles leave you begging for more after 2,000 words – others look padded out at 200. Give it what it’s worth.

8. Keep your writing simple

Short and snappy paragraphs are easiest on the eye so aim to make your pars 50 words max – and often less than 30.

One or two-sentence pars are a good idea and avoid jargon – there’s nothing wrong with everyday English.

You don’t deposit your rubbish in a waste disposal unit – you stick it in the bin. And that contagious viral upper respiratory tract infection you got a few weeks ago? That was a cold.

9. Start your sentences with a bang

Consider the following:-

(a)    This morning at the Aberystwyth Tea Rooms a fire-breathing dragon wreaked havoc.

(b)   A fire-breathing dragon wreaked havoc at the Aberystwyth Tea Rooms this morning.

These two sentences use exactly the same words and have exactly the same meaning but the second is better because it lures the reader in by focusing on the most exciting part – the fire-breathing dragon.

No offence to the owners of the Aberystwyth Tea Rooms, I’m sure they’re lovely.

And finally last but not least…

10. Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. Then a bit more accuracy please

Incorrect facts, spellings, typos and inconsistencies in style are your sworn enemies and should be avoided like the plague.

Whether you are writing for print or online, the old fundamentals of writing still apply so make your work mistake free and stylistically consistent. That will always be rule No. 1.

And note that’s rule No.1 – not rule number 1, number one, or Number One – well done if you know why. If not, read point No. 6 again and see if you can work it out.

Conclusion – how to write for the web…

Let’s not fool ourselves, this is just a very basic Jack-and-Jill guide to writing on the web – but hopefully it’s a start.

The bottom line is search engines are a lot smarter than they used to be and you can’t trick them into believing your site is relevant by packing your copy full of keywords and crossing your fingers. That’s a one-way ticket to page ten of Google.

However if you play the long game and regularly produce sharp, accurate, relevant copy you can get the ball rolling by establishing a loyal readership base.

Search engines should then rank you higher, which means you’ll be found by more people next time and things might just snowball from there. That’s your mission anyway – should you choose to accept it.

A huge part of this is tagging your pages correctly when you upload them, which is something we’ll discuss in a future blog but I’m sure you’ll agree this is more than enough for now.

You are already a rarity in these days of fast food and short attention spans – 1,262 words and you’ve made it all the way to the end. We hope it helped. Best of luck.