Do you have trouble getting your message across? Do lengthy sentences and rambling paragraphs reduce your impact? This is the Web, and it’s no place for overly-delicate expression. Get to the point and your readers will thank you. Skirt around its edges and they’ll click away.
Sure, the Web has limitations. But there are a range of techniques you can use to optimize your communication over the Internet.
The online environment presents a new range of challenges.
The Web is the medium of the people. These days, when every man and his dog boasts their own Web page, we expect to be well-treated on the Web â€“ like an equal rather than a marketing target. We go online to be entertained, or to find information â€“ and, given that most of us stare at a computer screen from dawn ’til dusk (at least), we expect to be given a break.
The answer? Be welcoming to users, and remember: treat them like a friend, not the village idiot.
- Speed and Interactivity
Users want answers, and they want them now. The Web’s interactivity empowers readers to control their own informational destiny. Provide solid, digestible chunks of information, and glue them together with a navigation that clearly shows users where they can go next. If you don’t, they’ll simply click away.
The answer? Make sure all your content is valuable and easily navigable, and don’t waste users’ time.
Your user has taken a few moments out of their day to navigate to your site by the questionable signposts of search engine and link. And they’ve been good enough to turn their tired, bloodshot eyes over your content. Don’t create any more barriers for these weary travellers.
The answer? Use stylistic and grammatical aids that allow your visitors to understand your message and take away valuable information as easily as possible.
Given these key characteristics, writing for the Web appears to be a minefield. But it’s no more difficult than any other medium. Readability is achievable — use these tools to help readers quickly and easily get your point.
Tools for Meaning
Those bullets above aid scannability. Other tools that can enhance the scannability of your copy include subheadings, and formatting keywords with bold or colored text (where appropriate).
The technique you use will depend upon the type of copy you’re writing, and the audience it attracts. Readers of marketing copy may be sceptical, and wary of getting the ‘hard sell’, so they’re likely to try to scan your content to find only information that relates specifically to them. They want facts, and won’t bother to wade through reams of unbroken text in an effort to find what they want â€“ they’ll simply click off to a competitor’s site.
The audience for an article, on the other hand, will usually read the first sentence or scan the first paragraph, and may glance over your subheadings to assess whether your article warrants their time. Formatted text within the body of your article can really turn some readers off â€“ they’ve come to your article to discover information, not be force-fed opinions. Often, users see keyword highlights as an indication that you’re trying to convince them of something.
"Next, our database will need to be populated with content. To do this, we’ll use a text file called content.txt"
The use of passive sentences (like those above) is characteristic to much offline copy. But these sentence forms can reduce the readability of Web text, and the ease with which your readers comprehend it. Rephrase these types of sentences to minimise extraneous punctuation, and better guide your reader. Try:
"Now, let’s populate the database with content. Use the text file called content.txt"
"Next, use the text file called content.txt to populate your database with content."
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Punctuation enhances readability and helps convey meaning — it can impact heavily on the pace at which your writing is read. Consider this:
"Note that to save a file with a .php extension in Notepad, you’ll need to either select ‘All Files’ as the file type or surround the filename with quotes."
…and compare it to:
"Note that, to save a file with a .php extension in Notepad, you’ll need to either:
- select ‘All Files’ as the file type,
- surround the filename with quotes."
Use punctuation with discretion â€“ those bullets will slow users down. They flag to the reader that this is an important point, and can help audience members grasp your meaning. To replace the bullets with commas would achieve the same result, though perhaps to a lesser degree. Make sure that your punctuation doesn’t slow your readers down in the wrong place. And, if you find that you often use commas and semi-colons, try to rephrase and shorten your sentences.
Contractions are shortened words â€“ they’re often used in conversation, but tend to be frowned upon in offline copy. However, because of their proliferation in dialog, contractions can:
- make your Web copy read in a more auditory style,
- make your tone more accessible to your audience,
- increase the speed with which users read your copy, and
- improve comprehension.
In short, this style can encourage users to feel more comfortable, as it makes your copy read as if you’re talking to them.
For instance, take this sentence:
"You will need to tell MySQL who is an authorized user, and who is not."
It becomes much friendlier and faster when contractions are introduced:
"You’ll need to tell MySQL who is an authorised user, and who’s not."
The more comfortable your readers feel, the more open they’ll be to your message. And this, in turn, makes it easier for them to comprehend your key points.
A conjunction joins two parts of a sentence, and can really improve comprehension. For example, the word ‘that’ represents a conjunction in this sentence:
"They realized that the database was corrupt."
Often, in conversation we might omit ‘that’ from a sentence:
"…and look for the file called my.cnf, containing the following code:"
However, over a 5-page tutorial or a 1000-word article, you’ll want to make it easy for your reader to focus on your message — and make it as easy to comprehend as possible. If you include conjunctions, your message becomes more obvious and easier to grasp:
"…and look for the file called my.cnf that contains the following code:"
There’s a range of other conjunctions that you might want to look out for:
Syllables and Rhythm
A large syllable count can make your sentences seem longer than they are. The syllable count also affects rhythm, which can help or hinder reading speed and comprehension. Consider this sentence:
"Whether you’re running under Windows or Linux or some other operating system, once PHP is installed and the MySQL server is running…"
We can shorten this and up the tempo with a few minor tweaks:
"No matter which operating system you’re running, once you’ve installed PHP and fired up the MySQL server…"
Obviously, the words you choose will make or break your article. But there are a few rules of thumb you can use to perfect your expression:
- avoid repetition â€“ don’t use the same word in adjoining sentences
- make it personal â€“ speak in the first person:
"When I built my first site…"
"You’ll learn how to backup your database…"
- use descriptive verbs â€“ replace ‘get’ and ‘have’ where there are better alternatives. Substitute:
"You’ll have a better chance of getting the top position."
"You’ll have a better chance of achieving the top position."
…"the new version would not have the same ranking as the old one."
"…the new version would not rank as highly as did the old one."
"…the new version would not achieve as high a ranking as did the old one."
Say What You Mean
These techniques don’t just make it easier for your readers to understand your message — they also tend to shorten your sentences and make your writing more direct. And often, the optimization of a piece of writing occurs at the editing stage, so don’t be discouraged if your natural style doesn’t automatically exhibit the characteristics outlined here. Practise makes perfect!
Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and sitepoint.com cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.
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