Writing For The Web

A 1-day Training Course in Web Content Copy Writing — W4W-01

Writing for the Web TrainingCourse Overview

This writing for the web course aims to provide web content authors and contributors with the fundamental skills and knowledge to express themselves effectively in the web environment.

W4W (Writing for the Web) is not merely different from copywriting in most ‘push technology’ contexts (e.g. print and broadcast). In many cases, it partially reverses the roles of the reader and writer; overturning the cherished maxims and ‘best practices’ of writing for traditional media.

In such cases, it is typically the reader who constructs the narrative, by sampling textual ‘objects’ — provided by writers — and assembling it from multiple sources via hypertext. This kind of reading can be facilitated by writing techniques developed in traditional PR and journalism, — for example — but they need to be tweaked and not, merely, re-purposed.

In addition to highlighting the distinctive features of web audiences, web content, web page structure and web writing styles (registers), this W4W course also addresses the practical tensions, trade-offs and workarounds involved in realising different web writing objectives.

Writing for the Web TrainingCourse Contents

Web writing is very different

  • The Web is ‘Pull’ Technology
    • Few drive-by readers
    • Users need to actively seek your content
    • Users need to find your content
    • Then, they need to navigate to it
    • Users rarely read your narrative
      • They extract sought-after details from it
      • And use extractions to complete actions
    • Findability and scannability are critical
      • Core writing goals — not ‘options’
  • Many different reading contexts
  • Every page contains many texts
  • Audiences tend to be wider and narrower
    • ‘Layered’ pages cater for general …
    • And specialist audiences, simultaneously
    • Hypertext allows branching and confluence
    • Of general and specialist audiences
  • Interactive and user-generated texts
  • Users need and follow paths to texts
  • Users follow different paths within texts
  • Users have different expectations and preferences
    • Expect control over what they see/read
    • Impatient — get what they want and get out
  • Users have clearer objectives
    • Get information, carry out transactions
  • Constraints: web standards
  • Constraints: accessibility legislation
  • Metadata and search engine intermediaries


  • What is scanning and what motivates it?
    • Getting the gist
    • By sampling representative snippets
    • Depends on ‘landmarks’ and emphasis
    • Saves time, narrows focus
    • Separates wood from trees
  • Shortcut/avoid scanning
    • Invert the narrative pyramid
    • Short intro summaries
    • Satisfy scanning goals instantly
  • Writing context-free titles and sub-headings
  • So scanners:
    • Get meaning — without preceding text
    • Know they are in the right place
    • Or that they are on the right path
    • Instantly know where to focus attention
  • Longer headings than print or broadcast
    • Provide the context in headings
    • Buzzwords and landmark text at the start
  • Chunking text
  • Using sub-headings, sections, call-outs, etc. to:
    • Create — ‘at a glance’ — globs and snippets
    • Bitesize, digestable, messages
  • Modularity
  • Every text unit (sentence, para, item, subhead):
    • Make sense, without lots of context
    • Becomes a building block
    • For users to create their own narratives
  • Emphatic text (key words, phrases, and links)
  • Used to:
    • Aid scanning
    • Take users to their point of interest
    • Avoid distracting users from key messages
  • Styling, writing and placing emphatic text
    • Links at end of sentences + paragraphs
    • Connecting text snippets to …
    • Call-outs, list of links, etc.
  • Using list, tables and graphics
  • To simplify or skip narrative
  • Turning narrative sequences or series into lists
  • Structuring documents as ‘Trees of threes’

Reducing Text — Editing Down

  • Web pages don't have to be short
  • But each unit of text should be concise
  • Motivations for shorter, concise, snippets:
    • Say what you mean — and nothing else
    • Aid scannability
    • Save the user mental effort
    • Save your time
    • Avoid stress-inducing complexity
  • Candidates for deletion, e.g.
    • Unnecesary adjectives, qualifications
    • Background, history, potential consequence
  • Splitting paragraphs
  • Using paragraph lead-ins
  • Convert paragraphs into bulletted lists
  • Reduce paragraphs to single sentences
  • How to make every paragraph shorter
    • … and more easily scanned
  • Delete the marketing fluff
  • Use hypertext to move detail elsewhere
  • Relevant — but non-essential — detail
  • Move secondary material to background
  • Move repeating info into tables, charts, graphs
  • Avoid cutting to the point of ambiguity

Reduce the mental effort

  • Don't make me think
  • No matter how specialist the text …
    • The more difficult it is to read or scan;
    • The less useful it is
  • Keep it simple stupid — kiss
  • Put critical conclusions in the first paragraph
  • Put the key conclusion in the first sentence
  • Writing one idea paragraphs — how to
  • Make the point in 1st sentence of every para
    • Eliminate lead-in and lead-out sentences
  • Avoid sub-clauses entirely — if possible
  • If that's not possible …
    • Put necessary context first — and briefly
    • Put caveats last
  • Avoiding noun chains
  • Always prefer active verbs to nominalisation
  • Avoiding unintended double entendres
  • When to use pronouns — and when not to
  • Write actively, recognise+avoid passive mood
  • Write positively
    • Avoid all negatives, epecially the doubles
  • Text length
    • Shorter does not always mean easier
    • Techniques for managing longer texts
  • Scrolling and printing issues

Meaningful menus and links

  • Menu text
    • Rarely a copywriter's responsibility
    • But always a critical concern
    • Determines the findability/usability
    • Of copywriter text
  • Menu labels and headings
  • Should always answer the questions:
    • Where am I — in relation to my goals?
    • Where have I been?
    • Where do I need to go?
    • How do I get there — or, at least, nearer?
  • Menu labels are often too short
    • To meet graphic design criteria
    • Losing meaning/usability for the reader
  • Headings and title phrases should be reused
  • In menu labels, to:
    • Show/confirm navigation paths
    • Support scanning by previewing content
  • Menu labels should be reused in:
    • Titles, sub-headings and summary lists
    • To aid navigation and scanning
  • Make menus narratively meaningful
    • Show when nav broadens/deepens topics
  • Multiple routes to the same info is good …
    • But only if labelling is consistent
    • Repetition vs. synonyms in labelling
  • Inline links
  • Different types of link — link functions
    • Making sure link labels match the function
    • And fulfill it
  • Avoiding ambiguity
    • E.g. if the link label is a person's name …
    • Does it go to their biographical details?
    • Or does it email them a message?
  • Telling the user what they will get from a link
  • Making links the emphatic part of a sentence
  • Emphasising the target's topic
  • Planning link labelling and position
  • … before writing
  • Adding, labelling and positioning inline links
  • … to pre-written texts
  • Using links to advertise content changes
  • Link boxes and sidebars
    • Boxed link labels differ from inline link labels
    • Problems with separate boxes of links
    • When to use them — and when not to
  • Link policy
  • Outbound (offsite) links
    • To make your text more useful
    • To enhance your credibility
  • Maintaining and updating links

Writing for the Web TrainingCourse Schedule

Writing for the Web TrainingFurther Details

Course Objectives

By the end of this course you should be able to:

  • Understand what makes writing for the web so different
  • Write website copy/content which is meets the needs of your users
  • Write different types of web text appropriately
  • Order web copy/content to speed readers to their ultimate goals
  • Structure web content/copy for onsite and offsite readers
  • Write modularised content to share and re-used with minimal duplication
  • Write texts which are differentiated and help user search
  • Write content which lets users access content in the way that suits them best
  • Write easily maintainable and revisable content
  • Minimise confusion among readers
  • Minimise unwanted queries from readers

Target Audience

  • Anyone writing for the web, whether on public websites, private intranets, or web application interfaces.
  • Copywriters
  • Journalists
  • Marketing and communications professionals
  • Public relations (PR) staff
  • Web designers

Training Pre-requisites

  • A reasonably good command of written English is expected
  • Technical knowledge of HTML, XHTML, CSS and other web standards is not required

Training Style

This writing for the web course is quite intensive — i.e. it tries to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short period of time.

Nevertheless, a considerable proportion of the time is devoted to practical exercises, working through real world issues with student's own web texts.

For obvious reasons, most of the texts acually written by students will be comparatively short, but exercises and discussion will definitely cover whole-page and large-text issues in web content copy writing.