writing for the web

16 ways to focus your content formatting on results

Writing for the web: we only scan read web content so help your readers become more engaged by following these 16 formatting tips.

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Postal services used to charge by the number of pages and the size of the paper. This practice forced many letter writers to cram line upon line of tiny handwriting onto each page, filling the margins and even writing around the page. The internet has freed us from the tyranny of column inches and numbers of pages

Writing for the web

Writing for the web: Letters used to be charged by the post office per page and by the size of paper. The web has removed us from the tyranny of pagination but brings with it new issues.

Today, as content producers, we have newer problems preventing our words from being read on the web.

8 second attention span

A 2015 Microsoft report shows that people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds. This highlights the effects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.

Attention spans have dwindled this century falling 4 seconds from 12 seconds in 2000. It doesn’t mean that, as consumers, we’re too busy to read content. It does mean that there is now more competition for our attention than ever before.

Competition for attention

“Every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003”, Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, Inc – Google’s parent company told Techonomy delegates back in 2010.

Much of this information is content created by you and me via blogs, Facebook posts, likes and shares, Tweets and retweets and LinkedIn comments.

Make content relevant; structure well

But it’s quality not quantity which stops your target audience from reading your online content.“When a customer says they are too busy to interact with the company, that’s a euphemism. What they really mean, but rarely say, is that what you have put in front of them is simply not RELEVANT enough.” Says digital marketing expert, Jay Baer.

We scan webpages for understanding

Only 16% of us read word-by-word from the screen. 79% of us always scan any new page we come across according to Jakob Nielsen’s seminal web usability study.

Here are 16 tips to help your online content be shown in the best light for your target readers.

Headline

Headlines are your blog post’s first impression. They affect search rankings, email open rates and social sharing writes Andy Crestodina.

Headlines encourage your readers to click through to your story. Optimising headlines with keywords helps your story appear higher in search engine rankings.

At its most basic a headline makes a promise. Your story delivers that promise.

Effective headlines enjoy four common traits:

  1. Benefit led - They make a promise which entices the reader to click through to find out more. Writers of effective headlines understand the psychological contract existing between writer and reader. Effective headlines promise a form of benefit or reward in exchange for attention.
  2. Appeal to a specific audience - You can’t please all people all of the time so don’t try to. Instead concentrate on delighting only one specific audience.
  3. Include keywords for SEO purposes - BUT they’re written by humans for humans
  4. Make good on their promise - Effective headlines are commensurate with the content they’re promoting. If people don’t believe you can deliver on your promise, they won’t bother reading further, and your over-the-top headline fails.

Use white space

We don’t communicate with each other for the sake of communication. But rather to influence. To form or change opinions. To alter behaviours. To help achieve this the design of each of our webpages must be readable, easy to understand, and easy to like.

White space is the area between graphics, columns, images, text, margins and other elements.

It’s not dead space or negative space. White space helps your readers’ eyes focus on your words. It helps de-clutter the page. Good use of white space helps your words breathe on the screen.

Line length

Maximise reader understanding by keeping the line length of your body text to around 13 words per line. This means keeping line length to around 60-65 characters. Social media expert, Derek Halpern, argues line length should be even shorter:

“The problem is, to ensure maximum comprehension and the appearance of simplicity, the perfect line length ranges between 40 and 55 characters per line, or in other words, a content column that varies between 250-350 pixels wide (it depends on font size and choice).”

Short sentences

The shorter your sentences, the more your readers will understand. Check sentences with more than 25 words to see if you can split them for clarity.

A survey by the American Press Institute found:

  • Readers understood 100% of a story when the average sentence length was seven words or fewer.
  • At 14 words, readers could comprehend more than 90%.
  • Comprehension dropped below 10% on sentences of 43 words or more

Font type

Use clear sans serif fonts. The little serifs can easily blur together on screen, making it harder to read.

Font size

Use large type. Many say 16-point size is best for body copy. “[16 pixels] is not big. It’s the text size browsers display by default. It’s the text size browsers were intended to display… “It looks big at first, but once you use it you quickly realize why all browser makers chose this as the default text size” - says usability expert Oliver Reichenstein says in The 100% Easy-2-Read Standard.

I use 18pt for body copy. I know, crazy, right? No, my readers vary in age. They read my blog on many different sized screens. I don’t want to turn them into squinters.

Increase the leading

Increase the space between each line. Cramming lines of text together forces the eye to try to read both the line before and the line after instead of focusing on the middle line. It tires the eye.

Don’t be tempted to increase the leading too much. Giving the reader extra wide spacing between lines is also tiring. For body type on screen, 140% leading is a good benchmark.

Short paragraphs

Feature one idea per paragraph. Keep paragraph lengths to three or four lines. But, don’t be afraid of the one-line paragraph.

Sub headings

Solid subheads keep readers engaged and moving down the screen through your content.Make subheadings informative so that skim readers can get the jist of what you’re writing. Consider making sub headers intriguing, too. That way readers will want to read more closely.

Copyblogger, the content marketing expert, suggests you write your headline and subheads first.

Subheadings should signpost the different points addressed within your article or webpage and break up the text into manageable chunks.

Images

Use images throughout your content to break up the text and to help your readers better understand what you’re writing.

Having at least one image in your post leads to more Facebook shares, too. Twice as many people share posts with at least one image in the post.This underscores the importance of having visual elements mixed in with bodies of text as this graph from marketing site, OKDork shows.

Average Shares for Articles with or without images’ width=

But, do yourself - and more importantly, your readers - a favour. Stay clear of stock photos and don’t steal copyrighted images, either. Turn to sites such as:

  • Unsplash
  • Pixaby
  • Death of Stock photo
  • Flickr
  • Foter
  • Stocksnap.io

Bullet points and numbered lists

Bullet points work three times harder than body text for you.

  1. Providing a visual break for your reader
  2. Helping scan-readers grasp each point quickly
  3. Creating more white space on the screen

Bold, underscore, italics

Italics, bold, and underlining are tools in the same way bullet points are tools. These formats are all useful for:

  • Emphasising specific portions of text
  • Adding clarity
  • Making text easier to scan

Internal linking

Internal links (i.e. hyperlinks to other webpages on your site) are important when writing for the web. Without internal links each page exists in isolation and your readers won’t know about all the other useful articles you’ve written.

Internal links:

  • Help your readers find your other relevant, or related, content.
  • Signpost your content making it easier for Google to crawl your site.
  • Helps you keep focussed on writing about one topic per post whilst allowing you to help readers learn more about the subject by linking through to deeper information elsewhere on your site

External linking

Google webmasters encourage linking out. This practice might seem counter intuitive. After all why would you want your reader to click away from site?

External linking adds authority and credibility to your writing. It shows you’ve done your research on the subject. It shows you want to highlight other experts.

Linking to experts gives gravitas to your argument. it’s a good idea to include quotes, data points, graphs, etc. from reliable sources.

Pro tip

Ensure you use keywords you want to be known for as anchor text.

Include a byline

Include a byline at the beginning of every post, and a bio at the end to make your content look trustworthy. The author’s name adds validity to the information.

About the Author Scott Guthrie

Scott Guthrie works with companies to drive business growth in the social age through strategic insight and technical know-how. That’s not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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