Photograph of an antique typewriter

The advice of essayist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, “murder your darlings” is not a call to infanticide, but a command to cull cleverness from written sentences. This is especially true when writing for the web, due to the fact that most visitors read less than 20% of web page content. Rather than reading word-by-word, users scan web page text for useful or interesting information, ignoring content that is too complex. Web content is experienced differently from books or magazine, which means that body copy for the web has to be written in a different manner.

Writing for the web is made more difficult by the need to target search engines while optimizing delivery on mobile devices. These demands have to be balanced with the expectations of the client and the expected literacy levels of users.

Key concepts in writing effective web body copy are:

  • Write concisely. Long pages have a greater likelihood of being skipped or ignored. Text on the web should be roughly half the length of a printed version: ideally, your sentences should consist of no more than 20 words each, and paragraphs six sentences or less.
  • If you cannot avoid writing long pages, make sure that you have an effective print stylesheet, and that the page is ready for Instapaper/Readability services.
  • Write backwards. Rather than trying to lead your reader to a conclusion, start with a summary, filling in details later in the body. This makes it much easier for readers to understand what you’re talking about, and for those in a rush to retain your central point.
  • Use “news style” when writing, dividing your page content into “chunks”:
    • Hed: A headline, usually written as a concise sentence.
    • Dek: A phrase near the hed that works as an article teaser.
    • Lede: The article’s opening sentence; the most important sentence in the piece.
    • Nut graph: a few brief paragraphs that summarize the important points of the story, often presented as a bullet list and/or pulled to the side of the article.
  • Ideally, record each of these “chunks” in a CMS, for use in different media formats (a Facebook post of the page would receive just the hed and dek, for example).
  • When formatting your text, try to keep the number of characters per line to a level that is comfortable to read: 60 – 70 characters per measure.
  • Use headings and subheadings to clearly identify concepts.
  • Insert ordered and unordered lists to drive key points home.
  • If possible, highlight key words and concepts throughout the body copy.
  • Link to relevant resources. If you’re writing copy for a glass company that mentions shower doors, link the words “shower doors” to the relevant page on the site. Not only does this add SEO value, but it also avoids diverting the user’s attention from the body text to the site navigation. Don't be anxious about linking to resources outside your own site: if your work is good, visitors will return.
  • Don’t use directional writing. Content changes and the principles of responsive web design makes it unlikely that directional statements in body copy – “see the map to the left” – will remain true.
  • Make sure your spelling and grammar are correct by setting your type in a word processor before including it on a web page. Spelling errors make your work (and by association the site and/or company) appear rushed, ignorant, or inattentive.
  • Target your sentences to the reader's literacy level. Unexpected or unknown words will distract and confuse most readers.* Write to personas from your expected audience. You may wish to use a literacy level service such as Readability Score to test your final body copy before placing it on the page.
  • Define acronyms by using the <abbr> tag. Use abbreviations sparingly, as they can confuse users.
  • Use images to retain interest. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is especially true on the web. Careful use of images gains the interest of younger readers while illustrating the text content. Avoid using clipart or stock images, which tend to look cheap and forced.
  • Avoid “marketing-speak”. Users will distrust language that is obviously trying to sell a product or service.
  • Use mixed case. Do not use UPPERCASE for more than a few words on a page. Multiple instances of uppercase text used in extended prose drastically reduces readability.
  • Write as if you have only six exclamation points to use in your entire life.
  • Place a “call to action” in the text. Inspire the user to respond to the piece: fill out a poll, place an order, comment on an article, etc. Do not abuse this: too many requests to “Add me on Facebook!” may make your work appear craven.

Finally, keep the text on the page updated. If information changes, alter the body copy. Displaying relevant, up-to-date information will instill a sense of trust and gain greater value in search engine listings: remember to include an indication of when the page was last changed.

* This is probably the rule I find hardest to follow: I love language, and find it extremely difficult to write or talk down to anyone. To me, every conversation – including the web – should be an occasion to extend one’s vocabulary.

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