How to write for the Internet

Reading time: About 3 minutes

It’s always essential to know the challenges facing your audience. And no where is this more important than when you’re learning how to write for the Internet…

My son is training to become an opera singer. Last week he had his first term recital – he sang Caro Mio Ben and Sea Fever – and as neurotically proud parents, we were in the third row, applauding and enthusing. After the performance my son had a few words with his voice teacher. The verdict? He’d done really well, but he sang too fast.

As soon as those words were out of the teacher’s mouth, I thought back to my public speaking training. “Speak so slowly you fear you might sound moronic,” was the advice I always received. Not because I’m a fast talker — I’m not — but because everyone speeds up in front of an audience.

It may seem like a stretch, but this music-making, public-speaking advice, also applies to writing for the web. People frequently ask me how they should write for the Internet. I always respond: speak slowly so your readers can understand you.

In writing terms, this means focusing on being as easy to read as possible. This is because people read differently at their computers than they do when faced with any printed document.

You may not always be conscious of it but when we’re reading at our computers, a light is shining in our eyes… This is the backlighting from the screen and we usually don’t notice it  — except if we’re sitting on a beach in the sunshine and suddenly discover we can’t read at all.

But there are other challenges with computers. The typefaces we like on paper rarely work on screen. Each letter is represented by square pixels on a grid rather than by lines of ink on paper. This makes them harder to read. As well, our computers have less control over spacing, hyphenation, justification and column width.

Furthermore, the width of a standard column on the Internet is often too wide for the human eye. (When I worked in the newspaper biz, I was always told that you should multiply the point size you used by two to determine what should be the maximum column width in picas. Thus, anything in 9 pt type should be no more than 18 picas wide, or about three inches.) Many Internet sites have columns far wider than three inches!

Bottom line? When you give your readers text on a screen, you’re asking them to work really hard. Thus, it’s more important to “speak slowly” so they understand what you’re trying to say. Here’s what you should do:

  • Use short words. Always prefer one- to two-syllable words over three syllables or more.
  • Use short sentences. Aim for an average of no more than 18 words per sentence. (Key word = average.) This does NOT mean all sentences should be 18 words! Instead, have some one to five word sentences so you can also include a few 30-word ones, too.
  • Use short paragraphs. I’m afraid I can’t define “short” for you because it depends entirely on your column width. But try to avoid having more than three or four lines without a break. Remember, despite what your Grade 10 English teacher probably taught you, the main purpose of paragraphing is not substantive. It’s to give your readers eyes some nice white spaces where they can rest for a bit.
  • Use a full line of blank space between paragraphs, rather than just an indent.
  • Use subheads or small amounts of boldface type to give readers plenty of entry points. Use bullets for the same reason.
  • Run everything you write through readability statistics and aim for a grade 7 ranking. Here’s why. Here’s how.
  • Write headlines that convey the meaning and subject matter of what you’re writing about. I monitor about 75 blogs every week and I see way too many heads like: You Had Me At Hello. Don’t be vague like this! Instead, take the time and trouble to be breathtakingly specific.
  • Use boldface and italics for emphasis only. They are too hard to read for gigantic blocks of text.

Finally, I suggest you put significant effort into finding good photos. The human eye is lured by the image: People more likely to be stopped in their tracks by an arresting picture than by anything you can write. Depressing but true. I find photos for my blog on Flickr, or my own camera.

Writing for the web isn’t hard if you do it slowly enough… Thanks to reader Steve Teare for suggesting this topic.

Do you write for the Internet? What suggestions do you have for other writers? (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

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