Writing Readable Content for the Web

People just don’t read like they used to.

As we have moved from a paper-based society to a screen-based society, the way we read, digest, and process information has changed. The movement from tactile paper to electronic bits, bytes and pixels has had an impact on the way we take in content.

When reading online, whether on our computers or our phones, we are inundated with information and ideas that we tend to spend less time with any one source. Instead, our eyes dart around the page while our fingers click down rabbit holes of links. In this scattered approach, our brains work twice as hard to piece together new information.

Learning to Write Again

Why must we write to be readable? Our attention spans are shorter, we have more competing demands, information is abundant. According to web skeptic Nicolas Carr, the Internet serves to “scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”

  • Be succinct
    When we write content for the web, we need to remember that we are writing for this audience –one that is highly distracted and operating on a limited time budget. Strunk and White’s repetitive chant comes back to me, “Omit Needless Words.” Never has this refrain been more relevant than in today’s Internet age.
  • Be credible
    When we exist in a world where anyone can create content, credibility matters. Well sourced material, links to research, and high quality multimedia all lend credibility to your content. When we write content for the web, it needs to be current, relevant, and well researched.
  • Be clear
    Headings make it easy to scan bodies of text and quickly locate relevant information. Headings should be obvious, bold, and have meaning. Bulleted lists are also a great way to deliver quick punches of information.

What Good Web Writing Looks Like: NPR

A great example of web content done well is this piece from Anya Kamentz, 5 Ways Elite-College Admissions Shut Out Poor Kids. The article is succinct and going into it we know we will take away five key points. The content is broken up into short, easy to read paragraphs. The author links out to research to support each of her key points. There is plenty of white space on the page to allow the reader’s eyes to rest. Finally, the key points are easily identified in a numbered list, with a bold, descriptive heading for each point.


Poor Web Content: Parents Magazine

In contrast is an article from Parents magazine exploring the same topic, titled I Won’t Push My Kids to Follow My Path to Harvard. The article is choppy and difficult to read. The parents logo consumes valuable screen space, even as you scroll through the content. Additional screen space is consumed by distracting and animated ads that pop up at the bottom of the screen. The text is dense, lacking paragraph breaks. When breaks do come, they are in the form of unrelated image advertisements and links to additional articles, taking you off this page.  The links that are embedded within the text of the article take the reader to completely unrelated articles, which is distracting for the reader.





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