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Writing for the Web: 10 Guidelines for Strengthening Your Site’s Copy

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Are you a publisher or business owner with a Web site that isn’t generating the results you’d like? Current thinking about writing for the Web offers lessons you don’t have to learn the hard way. Some of the most interesting points being made in books, articles, and Internet copy in the Web writing debate are variations on the following:


  • “Web creators need to put money into the writing of their sites, not just the design.”
  • “Much of the text that’s on Web sites today is not serving the mission or audience of the sites very well.”
  • “Traditional copy, such as print brochure text, just doesn’t work on the Web.”
  • “What makes the Web different is that it’s a shared space in which the audience is an active participant.”


So how should you approach writing for this exciting medium? If it’s unlike writing for print (and let’s assume that it is in many ways), what are the major differences in creating Web copy that you’ll want a writer to keep in mind? Since every type of writing has its own rules, which writing rules rule on the Internet?

Here are 10 basic guidelines that will come in handy the next time you get a scribe spinning new copy for your Web site.

#1: Leave the generic “business speak” behind. This is a major point of the current debate on Web writing and it makes a lot of sense. The problem is that straight “business speak” is too cold and authoritarian for the chatty, active audience that loves to roam about the Internet. Business speak uses the wrong tone–one that’s unlikely to trigger positive feelings for your site among visitors or to motivate them to stick around.

#2: Make selecting the right “voice” for your site a priority. A Web site for books and CDs oriented to classical music lovers requires a different tone than one promoting books for homemakers stretching budgets with yard sales, recycling, coupons, handmade items, etc. No matter what your subject is, it’s helpful to consider some key questions before the writing begins. What do you know about the people who are, or will be, using this site? How would these folks talk among themselves? What you want to have is the right conversational quality. Web copy shouldn’t talk down to the site’s audience.

#3: Part of finding a site’s voice is making sure it serves the intended mission. It’s easy to overlook the basics in the rush to put up or revamp a site for your company. However, it’s smarter to invest time and energy in determining what the site’s main mission is (as well as its other purposes). Do you want the site to sell books? To promote a service? To create a community around the subject addressed on the site? What voice will support the site’s goals and resonate with its audience?

#4. Consider making your site a problem-solver. What is it that your customers really need? How can you offer this to them? Often a major goal for a Web site is to establish the book or company it represents as the audience’s main solution provider.

#5. Use Web copy that is clear and uncomplicated. In my articles and talks on writing books, the issue of clarity often comes up. The basic point I make is that if your readers don’t understand the writing in a book, the attempt to communicate will have failed. It’s amazing how often this still happens! Well, the issue of clarity is even more crucial on the Internet. Web readers move fast, usually scanning rather than reading. They also have less patience than book readers and are therefore unlikely to reflect for very long on the meaning of your site’s words. Confuse them and click… they’re gone.

#6. Capture the attention of site visitors with catchy headlines and subheads containing language they use. Headlines and subheads are critical components of Web copy. First, they serve as guideposts for what visitors will find on your site. In addition, they can keep visitors on the site reading and exploring. Also, your headings should highlight the solutions you offer. And while it’s smart to make headings fun to read, don’t sacrifice clarity to cleverness.

#7. Use concise copy. To put it simply, don’t overwrite for the Web. A basic rule is to use about half as much copy as in printed material. Remember that we’re dealing with a short attention span in this medium. So you’ll also want to break the copy into short paragraphs to make it appear to be a faster read. In addition, bulleted lists will help visitors scan your copy quickly.

#8. Involve your visitors. User involvement is another way to keep visitors on your site. And it can help you be more successful in serving them. Ask for your visitors’ opinions and ideas. Find out what your audience really needs and desires.

#9. Don’t overhype. Overselling sticks out on the Internet, coming across as phony. On the other hand, you don’t want to make the mistake of just providing the names of your products; this is a turn-off. Instead of overselling or underplaying, give your visitors the details they’ll want to know about your products. At the same time, remember what you learned when you asked your audience about their needs and desires. And, of course, make buying easy.

#10. Create a Web site that’s easy to navigate. Bysharing ideas for the organization of your site, the Web writer and designer can determine how to make it work best for its visitors. What’s the point of having the best prose on the Internet if visitors get lost and never read it?


With millions of Web sites scattered across the Internet universe, it’s important that the words on your Web pages work as well as possible to keep visitors engaged. So put these 10 guidelines to good use the next time Web writing reaches the top of your “to do” list. They’ll help keep your words on the right track.


For over 10 years, Robin Quinn and her associates at Quinn’s Word for Word have provided professional writing and editing assistance to authors and publishers. Services include ghostwriting, Web writing, media kit creation, substantive editing, and copyediting. Robin and her team specialize in health, psychology, spirituality, and nonfiction “how-to” books in general. For further information or to comment on this article, e-mail quinnrobin@aol.com or call 310/838-7098.

Copyright ã
2002 By Robin Quinn

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