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Writing for Online Readers: The Most Important Rules


… by Dave Copeland

I have less than 30 seconds to capture your attention with this post, so here goes: if you read some, most or all of the next 750 words or so, you will know how to write Web copy that is more useful to readers of your blog.

Online Readers Are Different

Seems pretty obvious, right? But the fact is, many of us still write the same way online as we do for books, magazine articles and other long-form and traditional print mediums. The fact is, recent research shows that online readers use vastly different sections of the brain than offline readers. In short, the brain is conditioned to skip around when online reading, as clicking on a link that will reward the brain with new images and content.

With offline readers, we can take our time and develop points with long blocks of text and narrative, and with fewer visual elements. Offline reading rewards the brain that slips into a state of deeper concentration.

In Plain English, Please

Your writing – offline or online – is effective when readers take away your message. Writing effectively online doesn’t mean that every reader reads every single word that you write. It means they can quickly and efficiently get the information that is most important to them and move on.

People who read our blog posts come from all over, and from a wide range of backgrounds. The reason they choose to read a particular post will vary from reader to reader. Your job as the writer is to make sure they can find the information that is most important to them and move on to using that information.

Best Practices

I’ve spent a good portion of the past year researching reading habits of online readers and have been sharing that with writers, bloggers and journalists, as I did during my presentation at BlogWorld East in May and through a series of free, online Webinars.

I can talk for hours on the subject, but if asked for the most effective ways to get online readers to read what you write, I would offer these strategies as the most important:

  1. Write compelling but clear headlines: Don’t get cute. Online and in print, the headline is almost always the first thing readers look at. Make sure it is clear and gives a good idea of what the post is about, while still leaving the reader wanting more.
  2. Write in the active voice: Effective online writing is all about getting to the point, and on a line-by-line basis, the most effective way to do that is to use the active voice, which naturally lends a sense of urgency to your writing. The easiest way to do that is to start each sentence with the subject, immediately follow that with a strong, active verb, and then follow that with the direct object. Avoid adverbs: they’re a telling sign that you chose the wrong verb.
  3. Online writing is visual: Long, dense paragraphs turn off online readers. Create white space in your copy by keeping paragraphs short and using bulleted lists when appropriate. Use bold text to accent key information and use block or pull quotes to draw readers into the copy.
  4. One main idea per sentence: Keep sentences on point. Avoid multiple clauses and phrases, and lots of information stops and commas. Make sure each sentence has one idea, and not much more than that.
  5. No sentence without a fact: Every line you write needs to move the story forward. If a sentence doesn’t have a fact, cut it.

How long should it be?

I hate this question and always offer a smart-ass answer: as long as it needs to be. If every sentence has a main idea and no sentence is without a fact, keep going. I do, however, recommend the 3-2-1 formula. For every 1,000 or so words that you write in an online article or blog post, be sure to include:

  • Three subheads: Subheads are bold, one-line headlines that break up long chunks of text and organize information. Keep the same headline-writing rules in mind when you write subheads.
  • Two links: Links offer additional information for readers who want to go deeper, and they also give your post authenticity and transparency about where you information came from without getting into long, narrative attributions.
  • One graphical element: A photo, a chart or anything else visual helps readers. Whatever you use, make sure it advances the story: don’t just put a photo in the post for the sake of posting a photo.

Dave Copeland is an award-winning writer and journalist, and a communications studies professor. He blogs on writing, journalism and other stuff at Cut Off At The Salad Bar and tweets at @bloodandvolume. He is available for corporate and small group training on a wide range of writing subjects

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