Basic principles of effective web copy - a beginners guide

Writing good web copy isn't easy and it requires skill to get it right. I've compiled a short list to send to your clients when they need basic advice on writing their own web text.

Basic principles of effective web copy - a beginners guide

I'm by no means a writer - I design and I code, but working on the web means that I encounter examples of web copy (both good and bad) on a daily basis. Therefore, although I'm not an "expert" per se, you could say I have some experience in this area.

I regularly try and pass on my knowledge to clients who are coming to write web copy for the first time. To help them (and us) with this I've compiled a short list of principles which serve as a basic guide to writing text for websites.

1. Make Content Easily Scanable

Reading copy online is harder on your eyes than reading from paper based mediums. This is partly due to the relatively low resolution of monitors (eg: 96dpi) compared to print (300dpi+) which means that our eyes/brains have to work harder to decipher the letter-forms.

Research has shown that rather than reading from top to bottom, users tend to scan copy using visual cues to determine what they want to read. Therefore, large chunks of unbroken text simply won't cut it.

Things to do

  • Break text up using descriptive headings.
  • Use lists (bullet points) and short punchy paragraphs to break up copy.
  • Sprinkle copy with visual cues such as occasional emphasis and links to add interest.

2. Get to the point

Considering that it's difficult to read large amounts of copy online it's generally best to use the Inverted Pyramid style of writing. Make your conclusion first and then proceed to provide a few examples to illustrate your point.

The advantage of this approach is that  your users won't have to invest time in reading the whole paragraph before they can decide whether the content is relevant to them or not.

With web users becoming increasing impatient, this style will make you popular with your visitors.

Things to do:

  • Read a few newspaper articles both off and on-line to get a feel for the style.
  • Read Writing Inverted Pyramid by Jacob Nielsen.

3. Be concise

You may have lots of information to convey to your readers but nothing is more frustrating than a paragraph that goes on forever and comes to no conclusion.

Get to the point, fast.

Unless your cater for a specialist market, your users probably only want the essential information about your product/service. You might be an expert with lots to say, but don't overload them with too much information which could be found elsewhere.

As regards length, if we consider that studies have shown that reading on screen is 25% slower than on paper, you probably need to be looking at reducing your word count by at least 50% to make your copy effective.

Things to do:

  • Look for areas where you are saying something that is not crucial information and remove it.
  • Strive to cut out all unnecessary words.
  • Remember: "Get to the point and be concise".

4. Write in "Plain English"

Don't be unnecessarily complicated. Keep your wording and naming conventions simple and unpretentious.

For example, you might have internal naming conventions for your products/services but if these are potentially confusing for your audience then you need to replace them with simpler versions.

Many professional web copy writers advocate aiming your copy at a medium reading level so as to achieve maximum comprehension across a wide section of the public.

Don't dumb it down too much, but don't use terms that are going to confuse your readers either.

Things to do:

  • Avoid internal naming conventions
  • Remove confusing terms or phrases
  • Keep everything simple

5. Make it keyword rich for search

Make no mistake, web copy should be written primarily for humans not machines. However, as long as it doesn't impact on readability there is no harm in trying to include keywords/phrases that will help position yourself in the Google search rankings.

For example if you are a self catering business in Scotland, you might try sprinkling relevant keywords throughout the copy of your website.

eg: "There is a wealth of accommodation in Scotland..."

If you are obeying the points outlined above the keywords should slot naturally into your text, especially in your descriptive headings and internal links.

Things to do:

  • Write primarily for humans not search engines.
  • Research keywords/keyphrases and sprinkle your copy with these.
  • Focus on headings and links.

Final Points

This is by no means a comprehensive review of how to write effective web copy and other authorities on the subject have written far more exhaustive guides. Nonetheless, it should prove useful as a beginners guide.

I'd love to hear if you think I've missed out something crucial. Why not leave a comment below and I'll get back to you with my response.

Write a comment.

Responses. (3)

  1. S T

    Susi

    Thank you so much, you have been very helpful for my assignment. We are writing an online article for Toni&Guy.

  2. D A

    Dapo

    I must say a big thank you to you, Jim. I have been stuck on writing this website text for a whole week, but your article shines the light on what is important, why it is important and how it works. It makes a lot of sense.

  3. J M

    Jim

    Thanks guys - so glad we could help!