Writing Articles for Web Readers:
Tips For Adapting Your Style To The Internet
Synopsis: When writing or adapting articles for online readers, you should plan for scanning, take avantage of linking and use graphic elements effectively.
Guide Your Readers with Headings
Reading on a computer screen is slow. Computer monitors are much lower resolution than a printed page, so readers of online articles tend to scan until they what they are interested in.
Use frequent headings in your article. Headings help readers find the pieces of information that are useful or interesting to them.
Headings should be short, descriptive and unique. Ideally, they should be no longer than a single line of text and contain keywords or words your readers are looking for.
For longer articles, you should have at least one heading or subheading visible every screen.
Get Paragraphs "Just Right"
Paragraphs are the "main course" of your article, but even these should be adapted for online readers.
Keep your paragraphs short and to the point. If your paragraph is longer than 5-6 lines, remove some of your supporting points, or try to break the main idea into more than one.
Put your most important points at the beginning of your paragraphs. Readers who are scanning your article will glance at only the first line or so and then move on if they are not interested.
Paragraphs that fill more than one screen (approximately 200 words) tend to "turn off" readers. They become bored or intimdated and will generally go somewhere else without finishing your article.
Using Graphic Elements Effectively
The web is often touted as a "graphic medium" but that's overstating the case. The web is no more or less "graphic" than printed media and rules for included graphic elements in print are generally true for the web as well.
Graphic elements such as drawings and photographs can be helpful in making ideas and concepts clear to your readers. Graphics are powerful memory tools and attention grabbers.
Another use for graphics to break up the text so it doesn't seem so dense or intimidating to readers. "White space" is also used to do this.
Online readers expect graphics, but a little goes a long way. Other than site logos, you should try to include at least one pertinent illustration on every screen just to break up large sequences of text, but don't go overboard to the point where the text looks like it's "breaking up the graphics!"
Links Give Your Readers Someplace to Go
Linking is the biggest difference between an online document and a printed one.
You can think of a link as sort of a cross between a reference and a footnote. Use links to send your readers to other online sources of additional information, or use them to cite another author's work.
Including links, especially to other sites, increases your perceived reliability. In essence, it makes you look as though you've done your homework.
On the other hand, since linked text is visually different, too many links can interrupt the flow of your writing and imply to have nothing original to add on the subject.
These are some basics of online writing. There are many sites (and books) devoted to writing for the web, including Jakob Neilsen's useit.com, which includes articles and studies on how online readers read.
Return to Articles & ImagesLast updated 1 January 2009. Article copyright 2007 by A.G. Lindsay. Any concerns or problems about this site, please contact Rimfire.