Writing Web Content: The Top 15 Rules for Better Copy

Writing Web Content: The Top 15 Rules for Better Copy

Reading online is quite different from reading in print. For one, a screen causes concentration problems. Text can be difficult to focus on and flashing banners, bright images, and more can distract from the actual blog content. Another very common problem is the fact that anyone can write and publish on the web, many of whom are not well-versed in common grammatical rules. Nothing can cause readability problems more than poor sentence structure and grammatical errors.

Writing Web Content: The Top 15 Rules for Better Copy
Image credit: Brice Ambrosiak

Top 15 Rules for Better Web Copy

The Internet also provides access to millions of websites with more content than can be read in a lifetime. With so much information to take in, most people skim through to find pages that are the most appealing, and completely ignore pages that are too cumbersome to read.

Make sure that your pages and posts are as easy to read as possible by keeping them relatively free of typos and by following web writing techniques that the pros use.

1. Keep Paragraphs Short

Short Paragraph
Image credit: Maha RT

Rather than making posts or pages look like one huge intimidating wall of text, break the content into small chunks. Use short paragraphs and give each a headline, as if you are writing for brochures or other marketing booklets. The idea is the same as in marketing materials: make sure the headline gives your reader a clear idea of what is in the paragraph so that they can quickly find the information they need.

2. Left Justify Paragraphs

Novels and other similar reading materials indent the first line of every paragraph. This is done to separate each paragraph from each other since there are no line breaks in the text. Online, however, this type of formatting does not work. As mentioned before, walls of text will scare away readers. Therefore, left justify every line of text, do not indent the first line of every paragraph, and leave one space in between paragraphs.

3. Avoid Writing Empty Content

Empty
Image credit: Selma90

Give your audience something interesting and informative to read. Filling a page with marketing fluff is unacceptable; visitors will take one look at your site and leave, never to return. Make content or posts helpful and relevant to problems that your audience may have. How-to articles, tips and tricks, and lists of resources will always draw readers and keep them coming back for more.

4. Welcome Responses

Response
Image credit: madcrow

The Internet is made to be interactive. Make sure that your audience knows that you welcome their feedback by opening up comments to the public. Then take the time to respond back to every comment left on your site. If you are worried about spam, then use a spam filter plugin and approve comments before posting them.

5. Use Punctuation Sparingly

Unnecessary punctuation can make your sentences confusing and unappealing. Break up your sentences into smaller ones whenever you can. Extra commas (,) and semi-colons (;) make the page look complicated and may turn off your reader. Plus, you risk using them incorrectly, which can further annoy readers. Instead, transition well from sentence to sentence to create a natural flow. For instance, “Today’s digital world causes continual changes for businesses. These changes can create tension on budgets both large and small. This is why so many companies are turning to Brand Name for help.”

6. Use Relevant Images

Selecting Relevant Images
Image credit: Thomas Hawk

The right images can add to your content, making it richer and more appealing. Overusing images can confuse your audience, so choose only a few photos or graphics wisely. Add captions to make your images even more useful. Studies have shown that images are the first thing that draw the eye on brochures, posters, web content, and really any document that includes both text and images. Also include a caption that causes curiosity, and you will successfully convert many a surfer into a reader.

7. Include Hyperlinks

Sometimes an article needs a little outside enrichment. Use hyperlinks that encourage your readers to check out more information for themselves. These links can simply be other articles that you found helpful in your research of the information, or even links to affiliates’ sites.

Suggestion: Always make sure external links open in a new window so the reader can easily navigate back to your site.

8. Understand Your Audience

Understand
Image credit: PhiNAPHantaSY

Everyone will read content in a different way. If you are aware of your niche audience’s preferences, then you can customize your articles to suit them. For instance, some readers may enjoy the more laid back tone of “you” and contractions such as “they’re.” Others may like a more formal approach, so know your audience’s preferences before writing.

9. Correctly Use “Its” and “It’s”

Do not turn away readers by misusing something as simple as “its” and “it’s.” The word “its” is a possessive pronoun, which means that it is used to show that an object belongs to another object or animal. For instance, “The dog left its bone in the park.”

The word “It’s” is a contraction of the words “it” and “is”. An easy way to remember this is to make a mental note that the apostrophe (‘) shows where a letter was removed to push the two words together.

10. Do Not Mistake “Then” for “Than”

The word “then” is used to indicate an event that happened after another event (We shopped and then went to the park). Or the word “then” is used with the word “if” (If you write well, then readers will pay attention to what you have to say).

The word “than” works with the word “rather” (I would rather go with you than with him; rather than go to the park, I’d like to go to the movies).

11. Spell Check and Proofread

Proofread
Image credit: AstridPhotography

Your spell checker is definitely a must, but it can only pick up misspelled words. Manually look for mistakes the spell checker cannot detect. For instance, check for the proper use of “than” and “then,” “its and it’s,” and “their” “there” and “they’re.” Also, make sure that you only use one space after your periods to make for an easier transition between sentences.

12. Mind Your “There,” “They’re,” and “Their”

These three words can be a little confusing but rather annoying when misused. “There” indicates a place or is simply a non-descriptor pronoun (He works over there today; there is much work to be done).

They’re” is another contraction, as you may have guessed from the apostrophe. Any place that you would use the words “they” and “are,” you can also use “they’re” (They’re not enjoying this movie).

Their” shows plural possession. In other words, it shows that an object belongs to more than one animal or person. For instance, “They are ready for their prizes now.”

13. Write at a 3rd Grade Level

3rd Grade
Image credit: photomachine

Any accomplished writer knows that when writing for a general audience, as opposed to an audience of experts, a 3rd grade level will ensure that almost anyone can understand what you are saying. Even your more intellectual readers will appreciate an easier level. Always explain acronyms at least once at the beginning of your article, except for those that are more widely known, such as FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). Avoid large words and always explain terms that a general audience would not know.

14. Format Headlines Properly

Many bloggers are guilty of only capitalizing the first word in their headlines. Although it can be tempting to lazily write a headline as if it is a sentence (something that I have also been guilty of), take care to use capitalization rules for headlines and keep them as short as possible. Also, write every headline in an article the same way. For instance, in this article, I have begun each headline with an action word.

15. Use the Same “Voice”

One Voice
Image credit: Paige

A writing voice can be a difficult concept to understand. Basically, your voice is the way you write, or how your tone comes across in your writing. Some writers are sarcastic, some are formal, others have an uncanny knack for sounding exactly the way they talk. Some websites use more of a sales pitch voice, such as what you read in brochures or catalogs; others want to take a less obvious approach.

Whatever your voice is, stick with it. Do not try to be something you are not, and don’t change your tone from post to post. Readers will come to know your voice and may even look forward to it every time they visit your site.

Practice Makes Perfect

Your website content and blog posts are what will turn a browsing visitor into a loyal reader. You can never be too careful with your words, nor your assembly of those words. Therefore, always take plenty of time to edit and improve each article before publishing.

Tara Hornor has a degree in English and writes about marketing, advertising, branding, graphic design, and desktop publishing. She works for PrintPlace.com, an online printing company that offers brochures, posters, postcards, business cards, and more printed marketing media. In addition to her writing career, Tara also enjoys spending time with her husband and two children.

Comments

  1. / Reply

    Great article. I think 3 and 13 can hurt companies and the user experience the most. Companies tend to use marketing fluff with their own industry jargon without consideration for what their visitors know or want to see.

    Also, a lot of companies seem to think they need to prove how smart their organization is on the internet, or maybe they try to write how they wrote in college. Users just want it to be as simple as possible.

    I’m sure most companies want their users to feel smart after they visit the company website rather than have them feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Keep it simple and clear and everyone will be happy.

    • steff,
    • January 27, 2011
    / Reply

    Thanks Tara, these are indeed very useful hints. By the way, you might want to check the first image of the post… it doesn’t display right! thanks

      • Aidan,
      • January 29, 2011
      / Reply

      @steff, the first image should be working fine now. Thanks.

  2. / Reply

    Great post, thanks.

    Some really useful tips I will try to use.

    I am trying hard to improve my writing and as you say “practice makes perfect”!

    • Greg Tinker,
    • January 28, 2011
    / Reply

    I was suggesting using humor in your content will make your writing more engaging.

    Anyway, nice tips Tara. I think they are still many common grammar mistakes that bloggers like us make.

    • Freg,
    • January 28, 2011
    / Reply

    If we all write in a 3rd grade level which is 8-9 years old, isnt it a bit too restricted? Wouldn’t it be too dull and boring by those simple words?

    • Karen,
    • January 28, 2011
    / Reply

    Practice Make Perfect

    Your website content and blog posts are what will turn a browsing visitor into a loyal reader. You can never be too careful with your words, nor your assembly of those words. Therefore, always take plenty of time to edit and improve each article before publishing.

    _______________

    Somehow the use of “practice make perfect” invalidated the rest of the insightful article. A shame for the obvious reasons.

  3. / Reply

    Very simple and straightforward tips that we often overlook. Keeping content short and fluff-free will ensure that a reader will come back for more concise and meaningful content.

  4. / Reply

    Spellcheck and proofread = words unknown and apparently absent from most web content writers.

    Always proofread to make sure no words out.

    • Chris,
    • January 28, 2011
    / Reply

    I strongly disagree with your #14. “Sentence caps” is becoming increasingly accepted as a style of writing headlines. Capitalizing every important word in a headline significantly slows reading comprehension as the eye is stopped by each upper-case letter: people are far more used to extracting information from sentences, since that’s the majority of what they see, so the process goes faster and more smoothly.

    To some extent, “title caps”, like underlining, is a relic of the days of typewriters, which did not have many ways of distinguishing levels of importance in content. Headlines on a typewriter could not be larger, so they had to be distinguished using the available repertoire of style variations. Many people who were trained on typewriters still write their headings or subheadings in all caps, for instance, and/or underline them to add emphasis. Today, with much more sophisticated typesetting routinely available in the word processors used by everyone (and of course on the Web) it is much easier to increase type size, add bold or italic style (neither possible on a typewriter) and therefore the older technique of distinguishing headlines by “title caps” is no longer needed. (And on the Web, at least, underlining has a new function: it is rapidly becoming the key that distinguishes links from other text, to the extent that Web style manuals now strongly discourage any other use.)

    A minor consideration also is that sentence-style capitalization removes all agonizing over exactly which words are the “correct” words to capitalize. We all know that “And” is not usually capitalized in title caps, but what about “From” or “In”? With sentence caps the rule is very simple: the first word of the headline and any proper nouns or names.

    • Darlene Limtiaco,
    • January 28, 2011
    / Reply

    I agree with your article, but I do question writing at a 3rd grade level. I thought most newspapers write at an 8th grade level. In general shouldn’t web follow those same practices?

    • Hannah,
    • January 28, 2011
    / Reply

    An issue with #14 –

    “Many bloggers are guilty of only capitalizing the first word in their headlines. Although it can be tempting to lazily write a headline as if it is a sentence (something that I have also been guilty of), take care to use capitalization rules for headlines and keep them as short as possible.”

    Capitalizing only the first word (and proper nouns) in a headline isn’t lazy, it’s correct AP style.

  5. / Reply

    Reminds me of the technical writing classes in college. #13 especially, write for the lowest common denominator. Great tips

    • Katie Moore,
    • January 28, 2011
    / Reply

    I always think that by justify your text evenly allows readers to browse more easily as it will be more neat and professional. Perhaps, it’s my own preference.

    Cheers.

    • Jorge,
    • January 28, 2011
    / Reply

    Nice tips and thanks for sharing! How about I add one more, make use of italic, bold and other colors to beautify the texts sparingly?

    By the way, mind if you divulge which university do you graduated from with a degree in English? Is the university recommended? Thanks!

    • Rana Mukherjee,
    • January 28, 2011
    / Reply

    Nice tips.

  6. / Reply

    Very good tips for those who are learning to write on the Web. Sometimes, we see many mistakes that make the pages almost unintelligible. And these are good signs to solve some problems of legibility on the Web. Thanks for sharing it!

  7. / Reply

    Very good tips, we’re always looking to update the copy on our TNR website and we generally aim to write to the level of a 12 year old child (which in the uk is a media standard). Another tip I would add is getting the most important keywording on the left hand side, using the F format for reading on the web.

    Many Thanks for your share.

    • Bill,
    • January 29, 2011
    / Reply

    Great tips and I’ll pass along to screwball/clueless clients but isn’t it “Practice MAKES perfect”?

    bk

  8. / Reply

    @Jonathan Goldford – Thanks for the insight. I completely agree that sometimes writers or companies can get carried away with what they believe to be intelligent writing, only to complicate the content too much. I like the way you put it – simple and clear. Keeping those two aspects of web writing in mind can really help a lot of content writers, including myself!

    @steff – Thanks for the heads up on the image! I’m glad you found these hints helpful.

    @Daniel H Pavey – I certainly do hope that these tips can help! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    @Greg Tinker – I am not always very good at humor myself, but I agree that those who can pull it off should definitely include some humor in writing. It’s a great way to make a connection with readers and keep them coming back for more!

    • Ben,
    • January 29, 2011
    / Reply

    The tips were very helpful. Thanks. For me understanding the audience seems to be the most difficult part of writing. Will try to improve my writing following your tips.

    • lisa,
    • January 29, 2011
    / Reply

    This is so helpful! thanks!
    I always insist on writing short sentences with straight-to-the-point phrases!

  9. / Reply

    @Freg – To reach the largest audience possible, it is best to write at the lowest grade level possible. I agree, however, that it may be impractical for some publications to write at a 3rd grade level. The idea behind aiming at such a low reading level is to aim for the highest clarity and ease of reading as possible. Keep in mind that John Carroll required a series about the poor education of Kentucky called Cheating Our Children to be written at a 3rd grade level, and it won a Pulitzer Prize.

    @Karen – Thank you for pointing out this “shameful” error. I always double and triple edit articles on grammar to avoid such embarrassing mistakes; unfortunately, this title was added and the article published before I had a chance to edit one last time. I’ll correct this error as soon as possible.

    @Tarlan – “Fluff-free” is a great description for online writing goals. Nothing will turn a reader away from your site faster than empty content. I too constantly need to remind myself to keep content “concise and meaningful.”

    @John McDuffie – You are so right! Some writers make the mistake of relying only on spellcheck, but unfortunately spellcheck does not catch words left out, typos such as “you” instead of “your,” or grammatical errors such as using “then” for “than.”

  10. / Reply

    These are some great tips for writing web content. I think the most crucial thing to remember is understanding your audience. Without this any content you write, be it good or bad, will be pretty useless and not relevant.

    The most simple yet probably most overlooked tip is spelling. There is nothing more off putting when reading content than a load of spelling mistakes. It looks unprofessional and reflects this message on the writer / company. It is the easiest thing to correct, just click spellchecker! You can always ask someone to proof read it for you as well to ensure the writing is in the right context.

  11. / Reply

    Copywriting is often overlooked in the web community but I was very keen on giving good advise to our trainees. So will be recommending all Web Design Beginners look at this post!

    Thanks,

    C

  12. / Reply

    @Chris – I can certainly see your point. The use of bold and increased font size definitely does help to distinguish headings and subheadings from body text. In researching further, I have found that even capitalization rules vary slightly from one style authority to the next (MLA, AP, APA), so I can see your point on agonizing over every word. My advice here would be to pick one style to memorize (they all only have a few brief rules) and stick with it.

    It seems that neither sentence caps nor capitalization is right or wrong, so I do apologize for making this a right or wrong point. Yahoo points out that no matter which method you choose, simply keep it consistent throughout your blog posts, website content, and articles you publish on the web.

    Keep in mind that headings and subheadings are not to be confused with the main title. Apparently, highly respected publications still use capitalization for the main titles of articles.

  13. / Reply

    @Darlene Limtiaco – Actually, most newspapers aim for lower than 8th grade. It seems that the average aim for text written for the general public is anywhere from 4th to 7th grade level. In fact, as I pointed out to Freg, a Pulitzer Prize Award winning series was written at a 3rd grade level.

    Even though many publications may not be able to write at a third grade level, most would do well to aim for this level, since 50% of Americans read below an 8th grade level and 20% below a 5th grade level. The website http://education-portal.com/articles/Illiteracy:_The_Downfall_of_American_Society.html is just one of the many sites online that give some sad facts about the illiteracy of American public. Wikipedia also has a great article on Readability (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readability) that lists a number of studies done with some shocking results, such as ⅓ of Americans read at the 2nd through 6th grade level, ⅓ at the 7th – 12th grade level, and ⅓ at 13th and above.

    @Hannah – Actually, “correct AP style” can be either way, depending on the publication’s desire and as long as the publication is consistent in its use. But I do apologize for not addressing this style. I failed to fully research this point, since I was only taught to use full capitalization rules for titles and headings. I will point out, though, that most publications still use capitalization for main titles and stick to the sentence caps for subheadings.

    @Barry La Vette – My favorite class in college was Advanced Grammar, which is why I enjoy writing articles on the subject. Glad you enjoyed the tips!

    @Katie Moore – I agree with you, Katie, that justified text can make for a much neater appearance and easier reading. This is why left justification is always used online, rather than the print version of indenting the first line of each paragraph.

    However, fully justified, in which text also lines up evenly on the right side or end of the line, can create problems. Sometimes a fully justified document can hinder the flow of reading because words are interrupted at the end of a line by hyphens. Some type programs try to solve this problem by placing extra spaces in a line of text to avoid the use of hyphens, but this can also slow down reading considerably.

    @Jorge – “Sparingly” is the key word in your advice. I’m sure you do a great job of using just the right amount of colors and other styles in your text, but some do not know when they have overused different colors, bolding, etc. I always like to limit myself to only two or three colors and two or three font styles.

    I graduated from a very small private college (accredited), in which I had some wonderful English professors, so yes I would definitely recommend it!

    @Rana Mukherjee – Glad you enjoyed the tips!

    @Leonardo Chaves – This is so true! All too often I run across articles, blog posts, or even website content with so many errors and typos as to render the text unreadable. I do hope that articles such as this one can help others improve their writing, since mistakes in text can turn off readers faster than nearly anything else. I am also grateful to others’ writing tips, as I can always improve my work as well.

    @Penny Joyner – Thanks for the extra tips, Penny! Keyword advice is always helpful. I’m curious – what is the reasoning behind placing important keywording on the left hand side?

    @Bill – Glad you can use the tips for your clients! Yes, how embarrassing! Thanks for pointing out this unfortunate error.

    @Ben – Audience is a tricky one, for sure. Probably your best bet is to do some research on your readers. I hope that these tips help!

    @lisa – I myself struggle the most with short sentences, and this along with to the point phrases go hand in hand. In my research, the shorter the sentences and more precise the language, the lower the grade level of the writing, so kudos to you on this goal!

    @Hannah Hurst – Yes, you are probably right in that audience is one of the crucial aspects of writing, and unfortunately it can be the most elusive aspects as well. I agree about spelling, but I think the reason why this is often overlooked is because writers rely too much on spellchecker. Proofreading a document is so important since spellchecker does not catch misused words or other similar errors.

    @Carl – You’re welcome! I hope these tips greatly help your beginners!

    1. / Reply

      Hi Tara,

      Thank you for your reply. There have been many studies made on reading behaviour online, for an interesting article please refer to:

      http://blueprintds.com/2009/07/14/our-f-shape-reading-behavior-online/

      We have definitely tried to adopt this F format within our own website.

      Many thanks

      Penny

      1. / Reply

        @Penny – Thanks for sharing this resource! The F shaped pattern of reading mentioned in this article is a very interesting idea. I would be interested to see before and after results of using this method. Have you noticed a difference in your own site?

  14. / Reply

    All the above are perfectly true in writing content for a website.
    I would love to share a incident which happened with one of our clients.
    The client had sent me a .doc file for about page where, he had said
    “Our business has a hole range of bottles,…..”, and so on, but actually he meant to say this
    “Our business has a whole range of bottles,….”.

    Oh my god what a great moment of laugh for all of our staff.

    1. / Reply

      @laxmi – Your incident with the client is the perfect example of why no one can simply rely on spell check. “Hole” is a perfectly legit word, just not in context of that sentence. I bet you did have a good laugh about that one!

  15. / Reply

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to place the article on the Wide Web o’ de World thingy.

    Egad… I am too lazy to go back looking.

    It might have been in the comments above, perhaps not, that mentioned acronyms.

    Or was it the other page o’ de Web.

    I just get so flustered in my feeble-mindedness as age and its relentless grip drags me towards the abyss of eternal eternalness.

    Sniff.

    Anyway. Acronyms.

    A local auto repair shop has TV commercials (that are not inexpensive) boasting that when the customers’ ABS light comes on to hie off to their shop where THEY will repair your car’s “Analog Brake System”!!!!!!!!!!

    The ad has been airing for several weeks.

    Well, I would never ever take my vehicle to that repair shop; ABS is an acronym for “anti-lock braking system.”

    And that IS what the ABS acronym means.

    An “analog” brake system, if there IS such a critter, would be the type found on cars in the “old days.”

    Heck, great-grandpa’s 1920s Model T or A or whatever had “analog” brakes… the use of hydraulics to exert force from point A to point B. In the instance of brakes to use the brake pedal to exert pressure upon the brake pads that will come into contact with the proper part of the wheel.

    I wonder how much business that car repair shop will lose when knowledgeable potential customers will be shown, proven that the firm advertising are buffoons?

    Oh well.

    A squall line approaching.

    May have embedded tornadoes and it is night so the pesky critters can sneak up on one so I am gonna’ go hide under my bed.

    • Jose,
    • June 12, 2011
    / Reply

    Thaks, this article pushed me to write my first article in Enlish.

    1. / Reply

      @Jose – I’m so glad that this article helped!

    • Joseph,
    • July 7, 2011
    / Reply

    Is this not a tad basic? I was looking for something more in depth. I mean, know your it’s and its?! How is that one of the top 15 rules for writing website copy. It should go without saying! Perhaps should have been 10 rules. Fair play for putting it together though.

    1. / Reply

      @Joseph – I understand that this article is pretty basic for experienced English speaking writers, but my target audience is beginning web writers, beginning writers in general, and ESL writers. There are so many rules to cover, that I just focused on some of the most common mistakes that beginners make. I’m sorry that you didn’t find it helpful.

      1. / Reply

        @Tara and Joseph
        this article was published quite a while ago, but that’s OK, just a quick note:
        I agree with Tara, common grammar and spelling mistakes can be very annoying – lose/loose is another example.

        Joseph’s comment makes sense – I think that if one of the tips had a title, “Avoid common mistakes” or something like that, and just listed them all instead of adding each as a separate tip, it would be fine.

        I like your article, Tara, and I posted a link on my Facebook business page.

    • Joseph,
    • July 8, 2011
    / Reply

    Can’t please everyone! I didn’t realise it was aimed at beginners and ESL writers. Apologies, I was desperately digging for some information against the backdrop of a looming deadline…! Keep up the good work!

    1. / Reply

      No worries! :)

    • bubbly,
    • July 28, 2012
    / Reply

    Thanks Tara, I enjoyed reading the post…..it was quite insightful for beginners like me.

    • Mo_C,
    • October 11, 2012
    / Reply

    A couple of additional points…

    Your most important information, or ‘hooks’, should be visible immediately visitors land on the page… so in the first paragraph or two. If it’s not there, you’ll lose them (they won’t scroll down to try to find it).

    And re. point 7; using hyperlinks …make sure any external links open in a new tab or window – so your page remains open beneath… meaning it will still be there when they’ve finished looking at the site you linked to.

    You’ll hate my punctuation – but hey; this is how 12 year old’s write!

    Mo :)

  16. / Reply

    Never considered punctuation affecting perceived level of complexity. Good tip, thanks.

    • Tessfu Getye,
    • January 10, 2013
    / Reply

    it is fine article, i like it !!! and if possible please attach sample work

  17. / Reply

    Developing content for a website is more about planning and branding than text itself. Hence, it requires dedicated efforts from a copy writer that is aware about industry nuances & branding requirements. this is nice article. Thanks Tara Hornor

  18. / Reply

    After selecting topic, start visualizing to find out what visitors actually want from this subject. Let them connected through your writings. It always matters. Thanks Tara for your nice and effective tips.

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