When writing for the web, ‘age old’ lessons still apply

Way back in 1997 the World Wide Web was just moving out of its Jurassic period. It was in that year that the domain google.com was first registered. It was also the year Titanic, the most overrated movie of the 20th century, was released. (Did I say that out loud?) Yet even in these early days there was recognition that if we wanted to convey written information using the internet, we were going to have to follow new rules.

All these years later, those rules haven't changed. But they are regularly overlooked or ignored. Let's recap some of the advice of Jakob Neilsen, a prominent usability guru since dinosaurs roamed the WWW, from a 1997 article entitled 'Be succinct! (Writing for the Web)'.

(Note that these guidelines relate to all web content – not just blog posts.)

Keep it short

Neilsen's research pointed out that reading from a screen is slower than reading from the printed page. As a result, he suggested we should aim to write at least 50 per cent less text when the words are going to end up on a screen.

Neilsen pointed out in 1997 that this would improve as screen resolutions improved, but I would argue that in the intervening years we have become lazier readers on screen and in print. As a result, keeping it short is more important than ever, whatever the format. My general advice is to keep blog posts and marketing copy to under 600 words per page.

Longer articles are the exception here. Their readability can be improved by making them scannable...

Make it scannable

Some things never change and one of those is the web reader's propensity to scan, rather than read. Neilsen says that very few people read the entire content of a web page. (Test yourself – try and read a webpage from first word to last without skipping anything.)

As this is a given, it makes sense to help your readers out by making your content scannable. That means generous use of subheadings, selective use of bold text and italics, and use of bulleted or numbered lists to break up information.

Another aid to scannability is the use of short paragraphs (target around 60 words), short sentences and short words.

Break it up into chunks

Neilsen argues that it's better to have content broken into meaningful 'nodes', one webpage per node, with links between pages keeping it all together. The structure can be akin to the journalist's 'inverted pyramid': an overview on the first page, with increasing detail the further 'down' the reader goes.

(He specifically exempts long form writing from this guideline as spreading a longer article over a number of pages makes it difficult to print.)

This is still good advice, though things are changing. The increased use of touch screens, especially on smartphones and tablets, is resulting in a shift in web design towards long, scrolling webpages. It's easier to scroll on an iPad than click through to another page. Nevertheless, well designed scrolling pages still have content broken into clearly delineated chunks.

In short, the principles of writing for the web are as relevant today as they were in 1997. In fact, it's better to apply the principles of web writing to printed writing than the other way around. That way you'll make your printed words easier to read as well.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly, via our Facebook page or in the comments below.

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