Writing for the Web

Strapped firmly on the Internet roller coaster, web consultant and writer Christina Sng ponders the general failure of online content and finds that writing for the web is a vastly different animal altogether

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In the last millennium, revolutionaries like Bill Gates predicted that the web would replace print newspapers and magazines in the 21st century. Now that we are here, print media has never been stronger and web content has been severely dwindling, both from lack of funds and the inability to sustain interest.

Since the fall of the mighty web, content providers have been scratching their heads at why their business models failed and lamenting how users fled, without an iota of loyalty, to their competitors a mere mouse-click away.

However, looking at the successful few that have made it, the reason becomes clear: delivery. Their content is broken down into sections; paragraphs are short; their prose is simple, straightforward and to the point.

The Problems with Existing Web Content

Essentially, the web is a totally different medium from print. They scan for headlines, easily passing over an endless stream of words.

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With scarce branding, user loyalty is almost nil. Give them messy, hard-to-read information and they’ll look for it elsewhere, giving the there-are-much-more-fish-in-the-sea analogy a whole new meaning. After all, we’re talking about information here.

What distinguishes the meat from the fat is the way the information is presented — cut, concise and organised, something many Content Managers and Front End Developers have neglected to apply. It is no wonder it is a gargantuan task trying to “capture eyeballs”, as some marketing terminologist so aptly put it, when the material is raw and unpalatable.

Branding notwithstanding (I’ll examine this in another article), how do you take a print article and put it on the web? The answer: not wholesale. Let’s start dissecting.

Reading on the Web

Print articles have a tendency to consist of long sentences. That’s fine, since it is usually printed against a grey or a matte white background, which you can put down as you wish and move on to the next.

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That doesn’t happen with web articles. First of all, most are delivered black text on white and with the glare from the monitor constantly in your eyes, you get tired and dry eyes after a while, not to mention carpal tunnel syndrome from moving page to page.

It is hard enough to read a long article on print and not drift off. Translate that to your computer screen and it is even easier to doze or shift your attention elsewhere. Psychologists have a million reasons why this happens but I’ll break it down to four simple reasons.

  1. First, our attention is solely focused on the article in question (most people have short attention spans — it is the information age after all and most users have learned to sift through the drivel). If it is poorly delivered, there are a million competitors out there vying to offer your user the same information possibly better delivered.
  2. Second, people expect quick-loading and concise information from the Internet (and free, of course). Keep the lengthy articles to downloadable PDFs or other document files for interested parties to print out and read at their own leisure.
  3. Third, monitor glare reduces the time your user will sit and read your content. Therefore, you have less time to bring your points across.
  4. Finally, there is the time factor. To read another article (or sometimes the same article), you have to click onto another page and wait for it to load. For the approximately 80% of people in the world still on dial-up, it means precious personal and bandwidth time is wasted.

Okay, enough about logistics. Let’s talk about how the structure should be constructed.

Structural Design for the Web

As mentioned before, people tend to have a short attention span (a self-perpetuating cycle?), particularly on the Internet. Therefore, they scan through articles instead of reading them. Long sentences lose them after a while, as does an unending river of black words flowing down a white web page.

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What we need to do, is to break them up into bite-sized pieces. You still here? Good. Let’s go:

1. Remove all unimportant information

Take out the marketing language, the flowery prose, the addendums and leave only the bones. People who surf are generally more impatient and busy than those who have the time and luxury to sit and read a print article. Hence you have to break down the content to palatable bites, sieving off the pretty language that belong only on advertisements.

Instead of: Our multiple award-winning products have long been the staples of this very fine community of kind souls.

Use: Our rice products have provided for this community since 1900.

Save the awards information for the About Us page where you write: Awards won since 1900 and list them. They speak for themselves.

2. Keep your sentences short

We all hate run-on sentences, especially on the web. Remove all bombastic words, complicated and ambiguous words (remember this is a worldwide audience and some words may have double meanings to different cultures), adjectives and long lists.

Instead of: We comprehended his extenuating reasons by way of his unparalleled volition why he had the mother of his ten children executed.

Use this: We understood why he killed his wife.

3. Keep your paragraphs short. Make your point, lead on to the next

Keep paragraphs no more than 4 sentences (use rules 1 and 2). Long paragraphs are hard to follow on print and much harder on the web even with the mouse as a pointer.

4. Add in headlines to break down sections but make sure that they represent the text forthcoming

Break your article into sections for easier reading. Use sub headers to indicate what the paragraph is about. It will help your readers scan through and read the parts that interest them.

You may say, hey, then they may be missing the important points. To which I reply, but they will be reading the points that are important to them.

5. Keep your text concise but interesting

The key here is to be sparing and to the point, but not boring. Simple can be interesting.

Instead of: Over the past 20 years, we have achieved this: built 20 plants around the world, discovered the use of rubies in our special laser cutters, produced 2 Nobel-prize winners, and our staff has grown from 2 to 200,000.

Use this: We found that 2 has been our lucky number in the last 20 years: 20 plants, 2 Nobels, staff count from 2 to 200,000, and totally unrelated, built ruby lasers.

Or else…

6. Use tables and lists

It is easier at one glance to see this:

In 20 years:

20 plants

2 Nobels

Staff: 2 to 200,000

Built ruby lasers

Than to read the above concise statement in (5).

7. Summarise your key points at the end

As with print articles, conclusions summarise the key points. This both for refreshing the reader’s memory of what the article was about and for lazy readers like me who just want the gist of it.


Key points: keep your article short, concise, sectioned and interesting.

The end.

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How Users Read on the Web, Jacob Nielson, Nielson Norman Group,

Why Web Users Scan Instead of Reading, Jacob Nielson, Nielson Norman Group,

This article first appeared in IT Courses Now, Malaysia in November 2002.

Poet, artist, essayist, animal activist, mama | Author of Bram Stoker Award winner A Collection of Nightmares |

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