Writing for the web is completely different than writing for printed materials like brochures, books, or even essays. Because folks are reading on a computer of some kind, the context in which they encounter your writing sets different expectations for them.
When a person picks up a book or magazine article, they are devoting their attention to what they’re reading, but when they open your website, they most likely were in the middle of scrolling through Facebook or some other kind of feed. Their attention is already divided, and they’re not likely to be concentrating their full attention on your content.
This is true whether they are browsing shortform content on your website, such as a designed home page, or longform content, such as an article or blog post. Shortform content is naturally broken up with images, headings, and whitespace, and there are ways you can optimize those layouts for folks who read on the web, but we will consider that in a different blog post.
In this post, we are going to focus on longform content and look at four things you can do to help readers digest what you’ve written.
As a writer, I have an intrinsic desire to make each word carry immense meaning. I want to refine what I’ve written until they’re art and every phrase is loaded with intentionality and nuance. But people who read online don’t read that deeply. They don’t pore over every word.
The three most common ways people found your article are these:
In all of these scenarios, the task of reading your content is not a side-task – it’s not their primary focus. Because of this, we have to present our content differently when we’re writing for the web than we do when we’re writing for other formats.
The people who encounter our content are usually skimming, rather than reading, what we’ve written. They have come to our website expecting (or hoping) to find something particular – an answer to a question, or an insight, or a reinforcement of their preconceptions – and scan through our content looking for that particular information.
The reality that our readers are skimming leads us to some tangible ways we can communicate effectively through longform content.
Good headings can take be the difference between a bland, unengaging post, and a post that captures attention. They do this in two ways:
On the web, headings are typically styled differently than standard text. They are usually bigger, bolder, a different font, or capture special attention in some other way.
When a reader is skimming your post, their eyes are naturally attracted to headings because they want it to give them a preview of what the following paragraphs will discuss. The best headings, then, aren’t just creative or attention-grabbing phrases, but actually communicate important information. When someone is skimming and sees a heading relevant to them, they can stop skimming and read the text to learn more.
You can use headings in just about any word processor, from Microsoft Word to WordPress, and usually there are several different types of headings available to use, numbered from “Heading 1” to “Heading 5” or “Heading 6.”
If you look at the different levels of headings, you’ll notice that usually Heading 1 is the largest and boldest, and they get gradually smaller as you count up. There is more to these labels than font size, though – they actually provide structure to your content in the same way that a traditional outline would, where Heading 1 is your primary point, Heading 2 is a sub-point underneath it, Heading 3 is a sub-point under that, and so on. If we were to diagram headings into an outline format, it would look like this:
Many casual readers don’t know this connection between headings and structure – at least not overtly – but they tend to understand it intuitively when they’re reading, and it helps them recognize when sections of your post are related to one another. This understanding helps readers feel a sense of orientation, and it helps skimmers find the information that is relevant to them.
One important, technical note about headings on the web: Heading 1 is typically reserved for the title of your page. In the case of a blog post, the Heading 1 is the name of your blog post at the top of the page. So the highest level of heading used in the body of your blog post should be a Heading 2.
Most readers of online content do not read lengthy paragraphs. In fact, if they open your post and the first thing they see is a wall of text, they tend to think the post will be tedious to read, and will often close your site to return to what they were doing before.
We can reduce this tendency by making sure our writing has ample whitespace and by varying the types of formatting we use.
A simple example of this is to mix up the lengths of the paragraphs we write. When you’re writing for the web, most paragraphs should be 3-5 sentences long, and each sentence should be as straightforward as possible. Usually you want a paragraph to be no longer than 5 lines as the reader sees it on their screen (that rule of thumb will obviously be different for folks reading it on a mobile device).
Sometimes you may need a longer paragraph, and that’s fine – but make sure you follow it up with a short paragraph or two, so that when the reader finishes the long, tedious one, they immediately see that the next paragraph will be an easy one. This keeps the reader from being overwhelmed by the formatting of your content.
If you have a really important sentence or idea, it’s okay to make that its own paragraph.
Such a short paragraph encourages readers to pause on it for a moment, particularly if it comes between larger paragraphs.
Using in-paragraph formatting can be another way to help readers focus on important details, but ought to be used in moderation. I often see posts that seem to have bolds or italics in every sentence, and this frequency actually dilutes the impact. By asking readers to focus in so many places, you’re actually discouraging them from focusing anywhere.
When you make text bold, you indicate that it’s a strong, noteworthy idea. It can be used to draw attention to important details, such as the date of an event or the name of a speaker, or it can be used to help people identify the key related concepts in a list.
Italics provide a more subtle form of emphasis, in addition to its traditional use to designate things like book titles. When used in a sentence, readers typically read italicized text similar to the way they would hear a vocal inflection to give a little additional weight to individual words.
On the internet, underlined text is usually used as an indication that the text is a link, so we should avoid using it in other ways. It can be disorienting for readers to see underlined text on the web that is not a link – they often pause to question whether the text is a link or not.
Another way to provide variety in your content is to break up your paragraphs with other types of content. You can draw the attention of your readers by using bulleted or numbered lists, and you can break up a visually heavy section of text by adding pictures or pull quotes. If you use these visual breaks strategically, you can give your readers a moment to pause and process what they’re reading.
If you are reading this article closely, you may have noticed that my opening paragraphs say almost the same thing as my first key point, but using different words and formatting. I did this intentionally – because I know that some folks are likely to read the opening, and other folks are likely to skip it and go straight to skimming the headings. I repeated that information because I think it’s really important for you to know that readers engage content differently on the web than they do in printed pieces.Of course, the goal is not to just copy and paste information, but to present it in different ways to reinforce the the point – we don’t want folks who actually are reading the entire post to check out. But if you can tell it again with a story, or with a distinct application, or in some other way that connects with the reader, this repetition can be a helpful way to make sure your most important point gets made.