How to write for the web

Yesterday I was having coffee with a friend who has been very successful in growing a technology business based on training and SharePoint consulting. During the conversation she revealed that she rarely, if ever read business books to completion.

“There is no time”.

Life for working professionals is just too busy to read articles at leisure, whether you are a “solopreneur”, an entrepreneur or even if you are working for an established company. I could relate to what she said next – “when reading a article on the web I rarely get past the third paragraph”!

Me too!

It is a known fact that in the midst of the information revolution, attention spans are decreasing. People are simply faced with too many distractions in their lives to invest mental energy and time into reading articles – unless the article solves a very specific need at that precise moment. When you are reading on the web you are scanning several articles per minute and maybe lingering on a good article for 2 minutes or so.

Copy writers will understand that the goal of the title is to get the reader to read the first paragraph. And the first paragraph has as its goal to get the reader to the second; and so on. At some stage however, unless the information is laser targeted and relevant the reader will start scanning quickly from that point on to consume the article as quickly as possible in order to get the point and move on to the next thing.

When writing for the web or any online media you can make use of several techniques to increase the number of readers that actually make it to the finish line:

Shorter is always better

The famous blogger Seth Godin has built his entire personal brand through very condensed blog posts, sometimes no more than one or two sentences. A typical article on the web will lose most readers after 600 words. This is a lesson for me – my articles are frequently over 1500 words!

Use headings

The purpose of headings is to get the reader to scan the text efficiently and get the “summarised version”.

Use bullet points and numbered lists

By numbering your points and using lists, readers get a sense of progress as they move through the article.

Use short sentences

Many writing tools now days have built in readability metrics that help you keep your sentences short and readable. For example for bloggers, WordPress has several plug-ins in this regard – I use Yoast.

Stick to one point per article

The days of long academic style articles with highly condensed scientific and engineering information are over. When last did you complete reading an academic paper, let alone a complete business book? Perhaps if you are studying or out of the office in training – but rarely otherwise.

Break down text into short paragraphs

Unless you are writing fiction, long paragraphs create reader fatigue.

Structure your content

Chose a subject that is

  • realistic to cover in an article;
  • focussed;
  • and that your rationale can support in less than 600 words.

If your subject is too complex, break up the content into several articles.

Consider alternative media

If your message is simply too much to convey in written articles then consider alternatives such as:

Podcasts (audio) – podcasts offer an unprecedented opportunity to get  the “readers” attention for up to 30 minutes or even an hour while exercising or commuting etc.

Video – short videos between 3 and 5 minutes are likely to retain audience participation once they press play.  You can’t scan video content the way you can gloss over text.

Online Training courses – a mix of media formats with activities designed to increase engagement such as quizzes etc is probably the most effective for conveying complex subjects.


The digital natives

The next generation of professionals is entering the marketplace. These people have less time than any previous generation for reading long articles. Your message is increasingly being crowded out. A combination of laser targeting, short well written content, the right media and a structured approach will serve to get your message across.

Image by Chris Devers - Creative Commons Non Commercial Licence