Web (or online) readers don’t really read – they scan. They want information and they want it fast. That is why articles written for print media do not work well online.
Here are some tips for effective writing for an online environment.
Be crisp, clear and concise (short sentences, short paragraphs).
An online article or blog should not be more than 300-500 words.
Break your content into small blocks and arrange them hierarchically, frontloading the most important information at the top.
Use paragraph headings or one-line summaries as teasers and make them bold to stand out. Don’t use underlining—web readers expect underlined words to be hyperlinks.
Use bulleted or numbered lists.
Avoid italics—they are hard to read on-screen.
Use short, meaningful labels—headings, page titles, navigation terms.
Take advantage of hyperlinks when structuring your content. Not everyone wants all the detail. Put more in-depth information on a separate page and link to it.
Add images, diagrams, or embed a video to represent ideas in the content visually. Videos and images should reinforce the text on your page.
Include relevant multi-media links to add impact to your web content.
Unlike printed publications, the web reader can read your web pages in any order. So make sure that each page can stand alone—it may be the first page they read!
To make it easy for people to find your article online, it is also important to mention a key word around the subject in the title, the teaser, the URL and the body text. This is also important because people tend to scan Google search results as well.
Be conscious of how you present statistics, numbers and numerals, graphs and images, especially as some may distort on mobile devices.
Think about the “readability level” of your content. It needs to be understandable, comprehendible, and enjoyable, fit to be read and attractive. It is also important to check the legibility of the display on different mobile devices.
Build a style guide for your institution to follow. Specify heading sizes and breaks, image quality, video length, audio clarity, etc. (For example, a sans serif font is easier on the eye when reading online.)
Use this web writing checklist to make sure your online writing will engage your readers.
Each web page can stand alone.
At the page level, the most important information appears first.
Writing style is consistent throughout the website (especially capitalisation, punctuation, tense, person, tone and navigation labels).
Use pronouns. The user is “you” and the university is “we”. This creates a clean sentence structure and approachable content.
Make sure your article is actionable, findable, and shareable.
All text has been edited and proofread.
All hyperlinks work.
All content is current (still valid) and all items have a date indicating when it was published (or last updated).
Underlining is limited to hyperlinks.
Page titles and headings are short and meaningful.
Hyperlinks are descriptive (not ‘click here’ or ‘http://www…).
Each item has social media sharing buttons making it easy for the reader to share and comment on your content via Twitter, Facebook and other similar platforms.
“Remember that search engines always look for and come back to sites that have fresh news stories. Keep the research and science stories on your website updated. Always remember to include relevant metatags if you want to be found. The heading and sub-heading is most important – it should convey the impact of story. Remember to hyperlink to any historical content (for example to other papers or stories on the topic), similar work from other institutions, previous stories covered and any audio-visual material.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at the University of the Witwatersrand
A good way to illustrate the effectiveness of different kinds of online writing is to let people experience and rate it for themselves. You could include a number of links to popular science articles, press releases or science blogs in the practical component of training workshops. Give the participants a limited amount of time – for example three minutes – to look at a specific piece (possibly on a mobile device), and see how much they are able to recall afterwards. Or give them different options to read and then discuss which online style they prefer, and why.
“There is no such thing as an expert in digital media, since it changes all the time, but there is plenty of room for experimenting with digital tools to share research”. Anina Mumm, science communication consultant at ScienceLink, South Africa