This is a short guide to help you improve your writing online. These techniques can be used by anyone who writes content as part of their job - whether that’s blogs, event copy or educational resources. I’ve applied the tips I’m sharing within this guide, so you can see what it looks like in action.
In today’s digitally fuelled world, we’re all writers. We tag, post, publish and paste text more often than we realise. And a lot of the time, we’re not getting it right. We’re losing out on our readers’ finite attention.
Let’s begin by taking our writing hats off and putting our reading hats on.
We rarely read every word online. Instead, we scan web pages, pulling out information that’s most useful to our needs. And the way we scan isn’t linear. Eye tracking studies have shown that we tend to jump around, scroll and rescan content.
While this knowledge may hurt our writer’s pride, there’s stuff we can do differently to make our writing more effective. Most of these principles are taken from the discipline of content design, a practice that originated from improving the government’s online services. But it’s still applicable in the arts and cultural sector.
This isn’t about making things easy for a lazy, unengaged audience. It’s not about getting rid of creative flair or personality in writing. Really, this is about respecting our readers and writing content to fit their needs.
1. Get straight to the point
‘Front loading’ content means writing the most important pieces of information first. It’s a technique used in journalism and allows your readers to understand the message quickly when scanning. It’s also important because if the most useful information is at the top of the page, readers are more likely to scroll down and read the rest.
For example, if you’re publishing a blog promoting an upcoming season, make sure the first paragraph covers:
- the theme of the season
- when the season starts
- how to buy tickets
The rest of the writing can cover the details - the individual shows, the artists involved, the inspiration for the season and any other practical information.
2. Keep sentences short and language plain
Long, complex sentences put a strain on your reader. The Readability Guidelines suggest making the average sentence length 15 words, and no more than 25.
This isn’t about ‘dumbing down’ your writing. Communicating clearly and simply benefits everyone. That’s academics and experts, as well as people who struggle with reading.
Writing in plain English means:
- using everyday language
- using the active voice
- avoiding jargon
- explaining specialist terms
- avoiding idioms and expressions
Writing in the active voice makes it clear who is doing what. With the passive voice, it’s often unclear who has taken the action. For example, you could say ‘This season was produced in collaboration with ProdArts’. But the active voice would bring more clarity to the sentence: ‘We collaborated with ProdArts to produce this season’. It also feels that little bit more friendly.
Short sentences and plain language can still allow personality to come through in writing. Choice of words, grammar and rhythm are all at your disposal. In his book Make Every Word Count the writing instructor Gary Provost urges his students, ‘Don’t just write words. Write music’. I’d go a step further and encourage you to play the music. Read your words out loud. You’ll get a much better sense of the rhythm and how it feels.
3. Use headings, bullets and bold text
If you’re reading this sentence, you’ll already know what this section is about. In fact, you’ll probably have a general grasp of this whole article already. That’s because, on scanning the page, you read the headings first. And I worked really hard on my headings.
Headings are useful for visually breaking up big chunks of text and conveying fundamental pieces of information.
This is massively important because on average, people only read 20% of text on a page. So that’s likely to be your headings if you’re using them. Work hard on your headings. Try to keep them short and succinct, and make sure they work out of context. For example, ‘Our summer dance workshops are free for under 10s’ is more meaningful than ‘During the hols we’ll keep your little ones on their toes’.
Bulleted lists are useful for the same reasons. They might seem casual or even patronising, but as readers we’re drawn to them because we see them as shortcuts to priority pieces of information. Bullets won’t work for everything and they’re pointless if used too often. Writing about the actions you’re taking to improve access in your venue? Bullets can be your friend. Sharing the artistic vision of your dance company? Maybe not.
And let’s not forget the power of bold text to provide extra shortcuts too. Like bulleted lists, you’ll want to use them sparingly and make sure you’re being consistent with the types of information being pulled out.
4. Break up text with images
The first 3 tips take a bit of work to put into practice. If you’re looking for the quickest way to improve your web writing, it’s this. (And it’s not even about your writing skills).
Images have the power to:
- support your reader’s understanding
- reflect your brand and personality
- break up large walls of text
- make your content more memorable
Free stock photo websites are a good place to start looking for images if you don’t have access to any in-house. Make sure the images that you use are adding value to your content. If they’re not carrying information to support your written content, they should be doing something else meaningful. Like creating a particular atmosphere or communicating your brand personality.
Be genuine with your choices. Avoid cheesy stock photography at all costs. And lastly, don’t forget to provide meaningful alt text for all your images for people that use screen readers.
5. Use links wisely
Links should be used to give your readers more information or to navigate them to a different part of your website to do something. Think of them as little opportunities to take your readers on a journey.
But before you go and scatter your website with links, pause a second. Links can be irresistible to click. They can distract your readers. They are there to send your readers somewhere else. Ask yourself: what journey do I want my user to take? If your links are pushing users to buy tickets for the season you’re writing about, great. If they’re being sent to a partner website before even reading about your season, you might be missing out.
Tips for writing good links:
- Make sure the link text is short and meaningful
- Check the link text works out of context
- Never use ‘Click here’
- Avoid putting too many links mid-sentence or mid-paragraph
- Consider using reading lists at the end of your copy
It’s also useful to do a visual check of your links before publishing. Like bold text and headings, readers will be drawn to links when scanning the page. So all those underlined words will go towards that 20% of text your user is reading.
We hope this has been a useful guide (see below for some additional tools to help get you started). This is the first in a series of posts on content - the next piece will look at brand voice.
And if you’d like more information or have any questions, please just get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tools to get you started:
- Plain english guide
- Plain english readability test
- Hemingway writing tool
- Power thesaurus
- Tips for writing headings
- Tip for presenting bullet lists
- Using imagery
Look for stock images from: