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How to write for the webAbout a decade ago I lucked into a job as a technology journalist. I had no journalism experience / qualifications, but I could string a sentence together and was madly passionate about ‘the internet’. Still am, for that matter.

I had to learn on the job: it was very much a case of in-at-the-deep end. I remember doing a lot of reading to understand how users read online, and how best to write. A lot of the standards set by the likes of Jakob Nielsen still apply today. 

Nowadays writing is a part of what I do, but it isn’t my whole job. But I still manage writers on a daily basis and wanted to share some of the rules for web writing that I’ve embraced, adapted or created. 

Before we begin I should point out that Yossarian remains my foremost literary hero and rules are always there to be broken. These 23 ‘rules’ are just guidelines that you can adopt if you see fit. They work for me.

STARTING OUT

The Braindump rule

One of the best ways of writing an article is to quickly pour out your thoughts, and then to finesse the finer points once you have a structure for your post. That’s how I’m writing this one: I’ve written out the rules and am now filling in the detail. 

The Write The Opening Paragraph Last rule

I often start an article by writing an introduction, only to completely change it after I’ve finished the piece. Don’t labour over your opening: it will pretty much write itself once you have the bulk of the post in the bag.

WRITING & FORMATTING

The One Comma rule

This is fairly new one. Multiple-comma sentences can often be reworked to just include one comma. Keeps things nice and concise. There are all kinds of exceptions, so this one is certainly not set in stone. 

The Short Sentences rule

Shorter sentences are better than longer ones. If in doubt, use a full stop and move on. That is all.

The Lo-fi Punctuation rule

This follows on from the last rule. Econsultancy is in the business of sharing guidance and ideas and our best practice research needs to be digestible for it to sink in and make a difference to the reader. Excessive punctuation suggests that sentences might be overly-long and complicated, when they need to be to the point and simple. 

The Five-Line Paragraphs Might Be One Line Too Many rule

When I see a page with numerous 15-line unformatted paragraphs my right hand starts to twitch. I subconsciously think about hitting the ‘back’ button. This isn’t about my inability to read a dense paragraph, it is about the writer making it easy for the reader. Aesthetics are so important online: first impressions really matter. Try to break up your articles into bite-sized chunks. Avoid multi-idea sentences and paragraphs. 

The Wiggly Left Margin rule

Some articles need to be longer than others. Pay attention to the formatting of these posts. A long article with all paragraphs lined up neatly, flush to the left margin, is going to be more of a challenge to read than one all broken up. Here’s what you can use to help mess things up a bit, to keep the reader’s eye interested: indents, bullet points, quotes, numbered lists, pictures and videos.

The Sub-Headers FTW rule

Again, these help break up the page and sort your page content into easily-digestible chunks and are great for readers who skim your page before tuning in properly. This article obviously contains 23 of them, which should hopefully help make it more readable.

The Bold As Highlighting Rule

I use bold to highlight certain phrases / words / sentences, particularly in longer articles. It’s about identifying some of the key takeaways, rather than about being rubbish at making my points stand out. It’s not about shouting either: bold is not the bastard child of CAPS LOCK. It just helps readers to make sense of a page when skim reading it, and provides a neat anchor for the eye.

HEADLINE RULES

The Awesome Adjectives In Headlines rule

Headlines that include awesome adjectives tend to attract a lot more interest / clicks / retweets / links than those that avoid them. For example, ’16 bitchin shortcuts and commands for Twitter’ beats ’16 shortcuts and commands for Twitter’. Adjectives can be highly persuasive. Try to incorporate them into your headlines.

The Look Before You Leap Into That Headline rule

Any self-respecting writer will check out Google before deciding on a headline. What do you want to rank well for? What does the competition look like? What’s the search volume looking like for the query you’re aiming to reflect? How can you stand out from the noisy crowd?

The Keyword Phrases rule

I optimise my headlines around keyphrases, rather than individual keywords. Front load keyphrases for maximum impact. 

The One Line Headlines rule

I tend to use maybe six to eight words in a headline, to try to keep it on a single line. Nothing is worse than overdoing it by one word, which appears as an ‘orphan’ on the second line. This is mainly for aesthetic reasons, but think about retweets too (you want to leave 30-40 characters of extra space for the tweeter to add a comment).

The Change Your Headline Once For SEO Uplift rule 

This is a new one that I’ll be experimenting with on a new Wordpress blog. After saving a post as a draft I can change the headline without changing the URL. So it’s possible to write a long keyword-rich headline to start off with, only to chop it down after you’ve saved or published the post. Keyword spamming in the URL structure is not cool, but removing ‘Google’ from a ‘Google Adsense’ headline (to leave the ‘Google’ in the URL) seems perfectly acceptable to me.

TONE & VOICE

The Plain English rule

Avoid jargon. Say what you see. Don’t dress things up too much.

The Conversational Tone rule

Not so much a rule as an affliction. I basically write as I think / talk. I think that’s ok for blogs, and maybe ok full stop.

The Humour rule

Sometimes it may not be appropriate, but a little light humour can work wonders, especially when dealing with seemingly dry subject matter.

The Personality rule

It is essential to define your own voice and to allow the reader to get to know you a little bit. It’s a noisy world out there and I prefer to read articles with a bit of verve, rather than straight-down-the-middle news reporting. Try to stand out from the crowd. Dare to be different. Show a little leg. Refer to Yossarian now and again. Whatever it takes…

The Death To PRspeak rule

When digesting a technology press release the first thing you do is strip out all of the bullshit. The very last thing you want to do as a writer is to describe a company as ‘world-leading’. Leave that to the PRs.

WRAPPING IT UP

The Check Yo Facts rule

I’ll often write an article quickly, without worrying too much about the fine print. But before publishing it is wise to tune into the specifics, and to make sure what you’re saying is accurate. Sounds obvious, I know, but it is hugely important. 

The Am I A Dickhead? rule

This follows on from the above fact-checking rule, but also extends to the copy on the page (not just typos / grammar issues, but formatting too). After publishing I self-edit my posts probably five or six times on average. That’s how many mistakes I’ll find. Spellchecker is never enough, folks. The law of irony means that I’ll have no doubt left at least one error in this post…

The Internal Link rule

I try to add at least one internal link per article, and often write articles simply to support other pages on our website. Don’t miss the chance to push readers towards other interesting content. Keep an eye open for linking opportunities before you hit the publish button.

The Invite Feedback rule

I tend to finish articles on a ‘What did I miss?’ or ‘What do you think?’ question, to encourage comments. 

So, with that in mind, what do you think? What works for you?

[Image by dbdrobot via Flickr. Various rights reserved.]

Chris Lake

Published 28 October, 2010 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

Comments (40)

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hanmireddy

Content is king.  too many adjectives in the headline will not be a good idea. I suggest that headline writing should be in active voice invariably.

almost 6 years ago

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Adam

Good post, although being something of a contrary Mary I'd argue that verbs are actually more effective than adjectives are in headlines. '5 ways to refresh your web writing', 'How to write web copy that grabs attention', etc. Adjectives are nice, but they don't evoke or express like a well-chosen verb does.

almost 6 years ago

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Ben Saunders

Brilliant advice. I try to follow in all my posts in my blog site. I believe that even your methods apply to expressive writing. Never test the readers brain, otherwise they'll just leave.

almost 6 years ago

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Joseph v

Great tips and resource for web content writing. Although, I've been doing most of these tips, its serves as a good reminder for me, that I'm on the right track! thanks mate!

almost 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Thanks for the feedback folks. Glad that the tips are useful.

@hanmireddy: Yeah, one adjective is normally plenty. I agree with @Adam about using verbs too. Similar thinking. And I'm totally with you on active voice. There are other editorial rules that I adhere to along those lines, such as writing 'while' and 'among' and never 'whilst' and 'amongst' (both of which sound practically Chaucerian these days).

almost 6 years ago

Paul Gailey

Paul Gailey, Marketing Consultant at Independent

People write, people read, right?

I would like to big up the personality rule and stress those first six characters of the word.

That is: Add a photo of the writer, and a link to their bio, much like Econsultancy do. Unlike a staid TV newsreader I actually want to know the person behind the content also, especially in a blog, which can start with a photo, a bio, supporting social profiles and so on.

Or is this just spider food?

almost 6 years ago

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Seth Jeffery

Why not just go in guns ablazing with full-on verbs, adjectives and interjections? "Zounds! The 23 sexiest tactics to pimp your articles like an awesomeasaurus!" Now there's a headline that'll get some clicks.

almost 6 years ago

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sky

@hanmireddy : This is why all in one seo wordpress plugin is very hand. You can write intriguing title without losing your real targeting keyword.

almost 6 years ago

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Eric

And let us not forget the always-vital link, which in some cases should be the same as the headline and in some cases not.

The link has to be well-written and demonstrate value if it's going to earn that click and, thus, get readers.

almost 6 years ago

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Steen, soalive.dk

Thanks for sharing. Writing is not that difficult, but writing effectively requires skills. You have provided a fine check list.

almost 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Thanks for the positive feedback. Glad the tips are useful.

Keep the ideas coming! 

almost 6 years ago

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John Lufadeju

Very good useful tips here. I will add making your post scannable. The use of sub-headers, bullet points and paragraphs to make content more readable.

almost 6 years ago

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John Armstrong

Your 23 useful rules are great. I just wish I had thought them up earlier, and as well and as witilly as you have.

almost 6 years ago

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Rachel Buck

Nice post. Totally agree with keeping things pecise and also with the comment about making it scanable. I very rarely read every word in a post, I scan it to pull out the key points relevant to me.

almost 6 years ago

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Lori Oliver

You had me at "Show a little leg." Actually, you had me well before that. Thank you, I will never forget the expression. In fact, I fully plan to steal it and use.

Uh-oh, you blinked. Consider it stolen.

almost 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Lori - Consider it a gift. Thanks!

almost 6 years ago

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ismabera

hi great & useful article - thanks. Well, as I am not native English speaking, I am 'forced' to use Spellchecker cheers from Slovenia

almost 6 years ago

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Russell

Nice work sir; a whole batch of, useful, inspired, advice that (or is it "which"?) command a place on my bookmarks list. Sincerely - nicely done!

(Was that too many commas?)

8-)

almost 6 years ago

Alec Kinnear

Alec Kinnear, Creative Director at Foliovision

To follow up on your comment, Craig.

Context and target audience.

ArsTechnica is one group, Tom's Hardware is another as is PC Gamer.

The Economist is one group, Huffington Post another and Fox News something else altogether.

almost 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Craig - totally agree. Many newspapers tell journalists to "write for an intelligent 11-year old", but I think that's unsuitable for our audience. No need to use big words just for the hell of it. That said, we're dealing with relatively complicated subject matter so it is important to communicate it clearly. Knowing your audience (and not patronising them) is key. 

almost 6 years ago

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Michelle Carvill

Great post Chris - I wrote a piece some time ago titled: Are you writing for the web? And it pretty much covers most of what you've cited - but there were definitely a few more in yours - so thanks, I'll like that post to this post for reference to readers that find it via my blog.  One piece of advice I received was to write the headline imagining that the user won’t even see the article. So the headline has to grab attention and totally tell the story.   

almost 6 years ago

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Michelle Carvill

Tell me Chris, what's the job spec for Director of Innovation at EConsultancy? sounds like a blast...;)

almost 6 years ago

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Emmeline Faust, Director/Owner at Jack Media London

Really good advice. I like the one about changing the url on Wordpress after the draft! I write my own blog and I try and do most of what you mentioned though there are defo some good new suggestions that I will be trying out. I also like the bit about internal linking and making sure that you push readers to previous content, otherwise its can just be wasted which is such a shame.

almost 6 years ago

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Smivey

A friend of mine sent this article to me. It's interesting. But some of your rules are pretty ridiculous.

No more than one comma per sentence? What about when you're writing about a series of things? What about the comedy of threes?

Wiggly margins? How did you come up with this? Breaking up your story with quotes and indents simply for the sake of not having everything flush left is crazy. It's much more important to break up your copy into simple, bite-size morsels. Long paragraphs scare away readers. Save the indents for when you actually need them.

Using bold copy in paragraphs? Bad idea. When people see copy that's a different colour or bolder than the rest of the copy, they're going to assume it's a link and try to click on it. Most hyperlinks these days are not underlined.

Granted, I don't write articles for the Web. But I do write for a living.

almost 6 years ago

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ali

Thanks for this! I can't tell you how incredibly helpful posts like this are for newbs like me. I've started and abandoned so many blogs in my adult life, and I'm finally trying to start a serious one; so I'm reading as much info on how to do it well as possible. I defintely break the comma rule, going to have to address that! This is a quick and easy to understand post with a lot of important points. Much appreciated!

almost 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Smivey - The one comma rule came about having realised that writers often use two or more commas, when the sentence could be rearranged to include just one (or none). It's just about asking yourself whether you can a) lose a few words while b) saying the exact same thing. 

You know:

"Captain Beefheart, the American psychedelic rock legend, today announced that blah blah"

...could be rewritten as:

"American psychedelic rock legend Captain Beefheart today said...". 

No commas required, but you say the same thing. It's about going for punchier sentences. I break the one comma rule all of the time (and mentioned that it wasn't remotely set in stone). 

The wiggly margins thing is a preference I have as a reader. I've got away without doing it in this post because I've used 23 sub-headers, but imagine it without those in place. It could look a bit repetitive. Totally agree with you about bite-sized morsels, but 23 three-line paragraphs in a neat full-width column layout might be overkill for many readers.

Without indents and formatting in play you have no anchor for the eye, and maybe it's that tiny bit harder to find your place if you glance away from the screen for a second. None of this is make or break, as far as the content goes, but I think it eases digestibility. It really depends on the type and length of the article.

This business about anchoring the eye is why I like the use of bold, as well as links (and once the reader sees a link coloured blue, I think they'll see what I'm trying to do with the bold thing). 

almost 6 years ago

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Mr.Ven

Formating is more important especially for search engines. and too formatting the phrases with keywords is good to again search engines attention.

Simply formatted content which solves the visitor problem is the best web content, what do you say ?

Thanks.

almost 6 years ago

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Byron Bay Accommodation

Chris this is a fantastic post, not only for web writing, but for authors in general. All your tips apply to any kind of writing. I especially like the "check if I'm a dickhead" tip - it's all too easy to pontificate rather than share.

almost 6 years ago

Nico Koepke

Nico Koepke, CEO at KODIME LtdSmall Business

Thank you Chris for this post, very useful.

almost 6 years ago

Corrie Davidson

Corrie Davidson, Social Media Manager at Sisarina, Inc

Great post! Nice to have all these points in one spot. I love your o=comment that bold is not caps locks' bastard child! I am also a big fan of using bold to highlight key terms for scanning. And Sub-Tiitles FTW iindeed!!!

over 5 years ago

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Lea

Has this been picked up yet: 'This is fairly new one.'?

Great post - I enjoyed it thanks!

over 5 years ago

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PammyPam

i HATE to agree with everything you've said but i fear you are right. as an academic cum blogger i've learned a thing or three on the way. the point we have in common, though, is writing the intro (and conclusion) last. cuz invariably, when you write the intro first, it doesnt "go" with the body. it's like putting earrings and lipstick on after you've chosen an outfit. it completes the look.

over 5 years ago

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Jessica McDonald

Thanks for the advice. This post answered a lot of the questions as I have been starting to blog. Especially information about paragraph length and your SEO Uplift Rule.

over 5 years ago

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stephband

The Awesome Adjectives rule - yeah. Contentious. I rarely click on articles that use awesome adjectives in their headline. Generally they are less informative and more opinionated than real information.

over 5 years ago

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Charleen Larson

Jeepers Mr. Wizard, you make writing sound hard. If I hadn't been doing it for the last 15 years I doubt I'd start now.

(and I really want to go back and put a comma after "Jeepers")

Looking forward to the glorious day when the word "awesome" is outlawed.

about 5 years ago

Simon Bergenroth

Simon Bergenroth, Account Director at The Lane Agency

Very solid post Chris. Keen to start writing more for the agency blog so will keep this bookmarked. I find adding personality into my writing the biggest challenge, although this is completely the opposite when I'm actually speaking to someone...I know, I know - I can already hear you say 'practice makes perfect'.

Thanks.

almost 5 years ago

Alexander Velky

Alexander Velky, Copywriter at Freelance

I realize I'm a little after the fact in pointing this out, but perhaps Pam's description of herself as an "academic cum blogger" highlights the pitfalls of under-punctuating, which are often deeper than those associated with over-punctuating. (Sorry.)

over 4 years ago

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Wedding blog

Great article actually - I went on a blogging course last year with one of the top Design bloggers who gets thousand and thousands of readers a day and she gave a lot of tips similar to these. I took these on hand and my blog went from 200 readers a month to 20K - these tips really do work. And good to see a few extra new ones - thanks

over 4 years ago

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Melitta

Great post Chris, thanks!

Though I have to agree with Smivey about the bold text. Personally I find it distracting. If you have a strong headline followed by a punchy, well-written paragraph then you don't need bold text as well.

almost 4 years ago

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Robin Mcewen, content manager at RSTO

Some good ideas here, but, and this might just be me, if i was to consider every one of these actions and undertake them for every piece i wrote, i'd still be finishing the first piece i ever started.

But some good advice if you're writing for the first time. I do think that one day, we'll go back to writing by impulse rather than this obsession we have now with 'controlling' the reader. The trouble is that too many people think they can make a living out of writing on the web and it's creating a sub-culture of dos and dont's. most of which would get short shrift with an old-school editor over the age of 50.

about 3 years ago

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