‘Writing’ for the web

Web readers tend to scan text online, according to usability expert, Jacob Nielsen.
Users don’t typically read in the Western tradition of top left to bottom right on a computer screen. –They scan for keywords. The flicker of monitors can be hard on the eyes, and therefore difficult to read onscreen for long periods of time. Although this trend is slowly changing …

Here are a few guidelines to accommodate scanning text online:

1. Write for scanning
Guide the reader by highlighting salient points. Use relevant and meaningful headings and bulleted lists, where possible.
Jakob Nielsen found that websites that employ these methods scored 47% higher in readability, in his seminal study.

2. Use typographical emphasis, such as bold and italic lettering. Use ALL CAPS sparingly as it is considered to be like ‘yelling’ onscreen, and it impedes readability, like italic.

3. Do not undermine your content. Readers want to be informed and they are looking to you to provide them with information. Your readers won’t mind reading a long article, if the information is relevant, comprehensive, useful, interesting and/or informative. However, if the article is very long, consider providing a downloadable print version in PDF or CSS for print.

Jacob Nielsen also first introduced the concept of ‘readability,’ which refers to the ease with which a reader can read a passage.

Summarize first

Put your main idea in the first paragraph, and any other secondary ideas near the top, so that your readers don’t miss your message.

This model of writing is known as the “inverted pyramid principle,” or as paragraph style, and is used commonly in print media. It began with the telegraph, when it was uncertain how long a connection would last. The idea of the inverted pyramid principle is that you begin with your conclusion first, followed by the most important supporting information, and then provide supplementary background information. Don’t bury your message so deep in a passage of writing that your typical reader will not see it, when scanning.

Remember to keep important information “at the top of the fold.” (Patrick Lynch article, Are your pages upside down?) All critical navigation elements and headings should appear within the first one-third of the screen, near the top of the page.

When using the ‘principle style of writing,’ the first two lines are called, “the lead.” They summarize the gist of the story, in a nutshell. Any supporting details are added in order of importance.

For example:

Climate Change:
Global Warming Explained

Public interest in global warming tends to rise during unseasonably warm weather, or during flashpoint moments like droughts or the collapse of a piece of Antarctic ice shelf in 2006. But the everyday reality of the trend is perhaps even more startling: Eleven of the highest average global annual temperatures recorded since 1861 have come in the past 12 years.

(CBC News, Feb. 21, 2007)

To add panache to your writing, I’ve provided below some fun tips!

• Create a conceptual twist with words. Use puns, play on words, double-entendres or tongue-twisters
E.g. Lettuce/ let us

• Use similes and/ or metaphors
E.g. Poor as a church mouse.
strong as an ox,
cute as a button,
smart as a fox.

thin as a toothpick,
white as a ghost,
fit as a fiddle,
dumb as a post.

bald as an eagle,
neat as a pin,
proud as a peacock,
ugly as sin.

When people are talking
you know what they’ll say
as soon as they say it in a cliché.

• Use dictionary definitions
E.g. Intrigue (n.): The plot of a play or romance; a complicated scheme of
designs, actions, and events.

• Use word connotations
E.g. writing/ scribbling

• Use word associations
• E.g. laugh/ joke

• Add meaning with descriptions (Use adjectives to evoke a feeling.)
E.g. rotten tomatoes

• Use cliché
E.g. Think ‘outside the box!’


The “inverted pyramid” is attributed to Edwin Stanton’s report on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War (1865), Universal Principles of Design, p. 116 – 117.

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