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Keys to writing for the net

November 26, 2003

It’s easy to take written materials you may have laying around and get them up on your Web site or blog. But not modified for the Internet, the fact is no one is going to read your content. In addition, users will not to return to your site because of the unpleasant experience they had trying to read what may have been helpful information.

You must keep three principals in mind when writing for the Internet:

  • Be succinct, no more than 50% of what you would use in print publication
  • Write for ‘scannability’
  • Don’t require users to read long blocks
  • Use short paragraphs, subheadings and bulleted lists
  • Use hypertext links to split up long information into multiple pages

Why? Users of the Internet read 25% slower than print text. In addition users feel unpleasant reading on the net even if they do not know they are reading slower.


Users of the Internet tend not to read streams of text; they pick out key words, sentences, or paragraphs of interest. Structure your information with two or even three headlines using a general page heading plus sub headings and when necessary sub subheadings.

Cute or glib headings should be dead on arrival. A heading or title must tell the user what the section is about. It’s too painful to read body text to find out.

Bulleted headings and similar design elements should be used to break the flow of uniform text blocks. Use highlighting & bold emphasis to make important words catch the users eye.

Use plain language. You are not writing for The New Yorker or a law review. Humor and opinion are good at times but be careful as skimming users may not know when you are kidding or editorializing.

‘Page chunking’ by hypertext

Divide one Web page into multiple pages where appropriate. This way you allow users to select those topics they care about and only read or print those pages. Do this by splitting the content you present into multiple sections by hypertext link.

Distinguish though between navigation and destination pages. Users will not scroll navigation pages. They expect the necessary links to be on their screen or ‘above the fold’ so they can explore their various options. Be careful though not to make users click too many times to get what they want.

If possible, do not use hypertext to break one long destination piece into multiple pages. Where users find information interesting or important to their lives, users will scroll through a few screens if the first screen looks promising. HTML does provide the ability to offer an ‘in page link.’ But such links confuse users who expect to jump to a different page.

Use the inverted pyramid

We all probably learned this in high school but it is worth repeating.

Start with a short conclusion so users get the gist even if they do not read it all. Users should be able to tell in a glance what this page is about and what it will do for them. Then gradually add detail expanding the pyramid. The most important information goes up front. The guiding principal is that the user may stop at anytime and have read the most important stuff.

Share one idea per paragraph using simple sentence structure. Users may decide to read only one sentence.

Page titles are hugely important

For people doing a search on the net or within your site, your Web site content exists only in the form of page titles. You must specify a good page title that tells people what they will find. Page titles are also used in browsers for bookmarks/favorites lists and history lists.

Law firms invariably do not handle titles correctly. Think of how often you have done a search that retrieved page titles reciting gibberish such as “lawyer, attorney, divorce, Washington etc.” Even Martindale’s retrieves Web sites it creates and hosts by etc. without clearly defining the name of the firm, where they are and what they do.

Though page titles need to describe the page they should be limited to four to eight words comprised of 40 to 60 characters.

Each page needs to have its own title. This is because of search engines and for users adding a page to their favorites list.

Optimize each title by moving the important words to the front. The classic mistakes is “Welcome to the Smith Law Firm.? Use “Smith Law Firm, Orlando estate planning for 20 years.” Also eliminate “The,’ ‘A’ or ‘An’ from the beginning of the title, they are just extra words ignored by the search engines and which push your keywords back.

Match up keywords in page titles to the content on the page and vice versa. Search optimization demands this.

Writing Headlines

Writing headlines for the Internet is much different than for print. Headlines will be displayed out of context when pulled up in search engines and stored as favorites or in the history by Web browsers.

The headlines will also be pulled up out of context when the title is retrieved by navigation elements of your site. For example if you are asking your site to retrieve all articles written by a lawyer for display on her biography page, you want each title and headline to tell what the article is about.

You only have a limited amount of text surrounding the headline to make it understandable. Clearly explain what the article is about. Use plain language and avoid teasers.


It should go without saying all content should be legible. There should be a high contrast between the text and background. My personal opinion is that other than side bar highlights or navigation elements there is no reason to use anything other than black on white. When was the last time you read a magazine article or book printed white on red?

Text should be left justified. The font needs to big enough to easily read. The font should stand still and not be moving around. Sans serif (letters without little feet) is more readable than other fonts. All capitals should never be used.

Proof Read

Proofreading is a must. Run everything through a spell and grammar check after each change you make. Nothing is more embarrassing than reading your own typos. In addition proof read for brevity, proper titles, headlines, linking and bulleting.

Assuming you do not employ copy people, have a couple people on the staff read through content before and after it is online. Often you will not see opportunities to shorten text, bullet items or to use hypertext until after the piece is on the site.

Do not expect the world over night. You are not going to like everything you write at first. Writing for the net is a learned skill. Take your time, have some fun and understand that by helping your Web site viewers you are helping yourself.

** For more information on writing for the Web, please see my resource for the above – Jacob Nielsen’s book, Designing Web Usability.

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