When we were taught to write at school we are told that everything needs an introduction, a middle and a conclusion. It’s drummed into us from an early age and that message only gets amplified as we make our way through the education system. It’s for this reason that writing for digital can be a challenge – it goes against everything we’ve been taught. But why?
Because, generally speaking, digital users behave differently. They want to scan digital content quickly for the information they need. Their main goal is to get in and out as quickly as possible – not read pages of information (even if they are beautifully crafted). This can sometimes feel counterintuitive – particularly if you’re used to the ‘traditional’ way of writing and I feel you – as an English Literature grad it took me years to shake the intro/ conclusion habit.
I’ve put together my top tips for writing for digital as making just a few quick changes can really make a difference to your content.
1. Think about the who and why
It sounds obvious but before you start writing anything always remember to think about your audience and why they might be looking at your content. Picture them, think about their motivations, give them a name if this helps. Now think about what you want them to do as a result of reading your content. Do you want to inform, educate or get them to act? Once you’re armed with this information you can choose the best words to meet their needs and yours. Speaking of…
2. Keep it clear
Plain English is always important – but never more so than when you’re writing for digital. There’s loads of great guidance on the Plain English Campaign website but in a nutshell always try to:
- Be human – where possible, use ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’ and if you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it
- Banish jargon, abbreviations or acronyms – if you absolutely have to use an acronym write this in full the first time you use it
- Keep it short – stick to one idea per sentence and try to keep sentences under 20 words where you can
3. Structure your content
When reading information online we tend to scan a page downwards rather than look left to right like we do when we’re reading a book. Make it as easy as possible for your users to read your content by using headings and bulletpoints to break up text. You can also use bold to highlight key words – but do this sparingly. It won’t have the same effect if you use it too much. You might be tempted to use underlines and italic text but shake off that urge – it’s much harder to read, particularly for people with visual impairments.
4. Write to be found
Search engines will rate webpages based on the content they contain. To make sure you’re found for the right things, try to include keywords in your copy. Now before you go keyword crazy, pause, take a breath. Don’t cram your content with keywords – search engines don’t like it (and they will catch you out!). Instead, think about the keywords you’d like to be found for and then try to weave these into your text naturally. It is a bit of a balancing act to get it right but to help I always read my text aloud – if it sounds okay you’ve cracked it. If it feels awkward or forced, take out the keyword or do a rewrite. Search engine optimisation is important but not as important as writing for your audience – prioritise engaging, readable text over keyword stuffing.
5. Make links count
- Include your link in a sentence rather than use ‘click here’ or similar. For example, ‘Read the latest report on cats’ is much better than ‘You can read the latest report on cats by clicking here’. Now if only there were really a report on cats… sorry, I’m getting distracted…
- Be clear about where the link will take you. There’s nothing worse than being propelled off to another site when you weren’t expecting it
- Try not to overuse links – it can look spammy. Make sure any links you provide are to content that’s relevant and useful to your audience