How to Write for the Web: Part 1
Looking for a career in writing or journalism? Starting a blog is a good way to show off your skills to a future employer. That is, if you’re doing it correctly. Writing for the Web isn’t like any other kind of writing, so learning a few basic skills can really help you stand out in the right way.
The problem with much of the writing on the Internet is most people don’t have any experience writing anything other than their school term papers. Your English classes taught you how to write a research paper, but what about a blog post or an email?
People read differently on the Internet. You don’t read a novel the same way you read a newspaper article or a textbook or text message or an instruction manual or a menu. Therefore, the way you write in each of these scenarios should reflect the way people expect to read.
There are actually many different ways to write on the Internet as well — depending on whether you’re writing a Craig’s List ad or a Twitter post or a listicle for Buzzfeed — but there are a few basic rules you can apply across the board.
Use the ‘Inverted Pyramid’
Much of what you read on the Internet is informative in some way. Whether it’s the latest gossip, a clever life hack or a Wikipedia rabbit hole, most of the time we spend on the Internet is to collect some specific bit of information. This is where the rules of journalism can help you.
The ‘inverted pyramid’ is an old school journalism term referring to a style of writing articles. Essentially, you start broad, then narrow your focus as you write, just like… that’s right, an upside down pyramid. Good job.
The point is to allow a reader to stop reading at any point and still get the gist of what you’re talking about. That’s basically the opposite of what you’re told to do as a creative writer, but this isn’t the same type of writing. People read articles on the Internet to get specific information. So get to the point, then flesh out the details later.
Write in Short Paragraphs
Also, use short paragraphs. Who are you trying to impress, anyway? Nobody wants to read some big block of text. If you look at any article in any newspaper, the paragraphs are rarely longer than a sentence or two. And the sentences are rarely longer than a dozen words or so.
Every time I see a big, monolithic paragraph staring back at me, my eyes glaze over and I get exhausted just looking at it. Stop it. Advertising legend David Ogilvy (you can think of him as the real-life Don Draper if it helps) says,
Honestly, you should take all of his advice. I’m repeating a lot of what he has already said here.
Make Your Writing Easily Scannable
Articles on the Internet are rarely read, they’re used. And there’s nothing more useful than a well organized article.
Back in middle school, my friends and I had this trick we would do in history class. When Ms. Flemming assigned chapter outlines for homework, instead of reading the full chapter, we would just read the headings and subheadings and then skim the paragraphs. Then we would create our outlines from that. Little did we know, we weren’t getting away with anything, because that was exactly the intention of the textbook writers. They made the textbook easily scannable for lazy students.
Wikipedia is a perfect example of a well organized webpage. It begins with a succinct intro telling you everything you need to know. Then the rest of the content is organized under headings and subheadings, and every paragraph is written in such a way that you don’t need to read any other paragraphs to understand the content. Everything is broken down into small, easy to digest chunks. Just like a baby bird.
Never Publish on the Same Day You Write
Here’s another little tip from my man David Ogilvy:
All right, nobody is sending letters or memos anymore, but it’s still a good rule for any kind of writing. Particularly on the Web. Never publish on the same day that you write.
When you write your piece, set it aside for a day, then come back to it and read it over again. If everything is perfect — it won’t be, but let’s say it might be — then you can publish. But if still needs edits, then you need to put of publishing one more day. If you read it again and you need to fix a typo, then put off publishing one more day.
The point is to make sure your post is perfect 2 days in a row, because their is no better fodder for Internet trolls than mixing up ‘there’ and their’.
Of course, this is only a basic overview of writing on the Internet. Depending on what genre you’re writing in (Facebook post, eBay item, etc.) or depending on your understanding of Web design, there are many different constraints you may want to consider. But taking the above advice should help set you down the right path.