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How to Write for the Internet (and keep your readers reading) 

 February 10, 2021

Learning to write for the internet means writing for both your audience and their devices.

Of course you want people to read your blog for all the great content. But if your content is physically hard to read because it’s a gray mass of text filling the screen, it won’t get read no matter how great it is.

How your audience reads your words — on a laptop, tablet, or phone — affects whether they read.

And how you write for their devices can make the difference in that decision.

This post will give you a lot of tips on writing for the small screen to keep your readers reading. (I’ll leave the big screen to Spielberg.)

Otherwise you’ll lose them to the next pop-up notification, or simply to something they can read. Either way, you’ve lost a reader, and maybe a sale or client too.

Simplify

I love long-winded Russian novels and the spun-out poetry of Walt Whitman. But their writing style is completely wrong for blogs and social media.

Learning to write for the internet doesn’t require literary skill. On the contrary, it means simplifying. On small screens (and most online reading is mobile), short paragraphs appear long and long paragraphs feel endless. Readers tend to scan and skim more than read.

Internet writing needs to facilitate that, especially in evergreen blog posts, for instance, which generally run longer than time-sensitive content. Your text needs occasional physical clues — like subheads and bullet points — to move the eye along, show it where to go, what to read next.

People like long content, but they have to be able to get through it. Even the erudite long-form journalism of The New Yorker is easy on the eyes on a smartphone. That’s what we’re talking about here: not literary style, but physical appearance.

SEO: Write for search engines … and searching eyes

When you think about search engine optimization (SEO), remember that it’s not just bots reading your posts, but people. Search engines look for keywords, people search for information.

Good internet writing helps both find what they want. I’ll write about keywords in future posts; this post is about readability.

Readable writing boosts your so-called “human SEO.” Remember the real mission of Google, Bing, and the rest: It’s not to find keywords, it’s to match people with the information they’re looking for.

Thanks to artificial intelligence, search bots have learned to read really well. They can tell if your blog post is well organized, clearly outlined, and easy to read and scan. They understand a searcher’s intent, not just the literal search terms.

They’ll boost your post not only because they find keywords (which signal it’s on topic), but because they’re confident people will find the information they want inside the post.

The more that search bots find well-written content on your blog, the greater their confidence in you. So your authority grows and rankings rise. Not all at once or massively, but these things add up over time.

In short: If it’s more readable by humans, it’s more searchable by search engines.

If it’s more readable by humans, it’s more searchable by search engines.Click To Tweet

A blog post that’s well written for the internet will more likely be found and read — which is what you want.

Write for the Internet: Tips and techniques

With that in mind, here are 16 tips you can use every time you write a blog post. They cover both the words you use and how they appear on screen.

Make your text readable.

  • Scannability. Make the text easy to scan visually. Subheads, pull quotes, lists and bullets — all give the eye something easy to find and large to land on, to keep your reader engaged.
  • Justification. Centered text is great for wedding invitations but body text needs to be flush left so the eye doesn’t have to keep searching for the beginning of each line.
  • Emphasis. Use bold and italic type sparingly for emphasis. This list uses boldface on single words to draw your eye. I italicize words in the post that your voice would emphasize if you were speaking them. It’s a little thing, but these little things add up.
  • Typefaces. Conventional practice says use sans serif fonts for headlines and serif fonts for text. That’s because serifs (the little tails at the ends of letters) move the eye horizontally along a line — very helpful for reading The New Yorker, which uses a sans serif branding font for titles. By contrast, Mashable uses sans serif for both titles and text, and The New York Times a serif font for both.

TIP: When formatting your text in WordPress or another website builder, use the built-in tools. For instance, use the H2 header tag instead of making your subheads bold and larger. Use the numbered (ordered) and bulleted (unordered) list icons instead of typing hyphens for bullets. Using these and other standard tags — they’re all in the WordPress toolbar — makes it easier for search engines to understand how your text appears.

Your goal is to choose fonts, emphasis, and line spacings that make your content easily readable at small sizes. At the same time, your choices, as in these three examples, play a big role in expressing your brand identity.

Create pleasing pages.

  • Spacing. Default line spacings in word processors are generally good, but paragraph spacing defaults are meant for printing, not online reading. Adding a little space after each paragraph creates so-called “white space” — breathing room for the eye, if I can mix metaphors — and makes it more clear where each paragraph starts.
  • Length. Besides vertical line and paragraph spacing, the horizontal length of your lines matters on wider screens like laptops. It’s hard to read an eight-inch-long line of text. Consider using columns in your layout to make the lines shorter.
  • Contrast. Use color to create a clear difference between your page background, headlines, body text, and especially links inside your text. In addition, this blog uses one more color for the call to action at the end of each post.
  • Images. Infographics and other images draw interest and help break up your text, giving the eye, again, more breathing room.

Choose your words well.

  • Terminology. Avoid jargon and technical terms or abbreviations unless you’re writing specifically for an audience that knows what they mean.
  • Diction. The flip side is: Use the words your readers would use. It creates connection because you’re literally speaking their language.
  • Consistency. Vary your word choice to keep it interesting but name things consistently to avoid confusion. If you write “newsletter,” don’t call it an “email update” or “broadcast” after that.
  • Action. Make your call-to-action instructions clear, and clearly visible. Although there’s much debate over this, it’s okay to write, “Click here to…” if it makes clear what you want your reader to do.

Write clearly and simply.

  • Directness. Direct, declarative sentences are easier to understand than long ones full of commas, parentheses, and elaborate turns of phrase. It’s fine to use those things, but use them to change up the pace, not to convey the bulk of your content.
  • Voice. “I made a mistake” is active voice; “Mistakes were made” is passive, and mushy and unclear by comparison. Passive voice is normal in everyday speech, so it’s good to include some to keep your writing sounding natural. But most of your internet writing should be active.
  • Paragraphs. Short paragraphs are easy to scan and process, and thus restful for the eyes and brain.

Know your “why.”

One final tip:

  • Purpose. Know the purpose of each piece of writing. Your clarity of intention will come through naturally in your writing style, which will be easier to read as a result.

When you write for the internet, keep it clear, direct, and simple. That makes both the reading and the writing easier.

You’ll write more, your readers will remain more engaged, and your content will have a greater impact.

Now that you can write for the internet, can you write for the people you want to reach? Read the partner post to this one: “How to Speak to Your Target Audience (in writing).”

About the author

Randy Lyman

You have something to say, not just sell. I help conscious companies use content marketing to improve their triple bottom line: people, planet & profit.

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