Writing Content for the Web: Working Around Online Reading Behavior
Regardless of the medium, effective writing takes into account what sort of audience will be reading. So in writing content for the Web, the content writer needs to take the reading behavior of his audience into account.
Writing for the Web and writing for real world media like magazines and newspapers are two separate dimensions. They have similarities – especially if the Web content in question is supposed to read like an online mag article or news flash – but they also have differences, and these differences can make or break the Web content article. Because your readers are online surfers, you need to factor in their browsing / reading behavior into how you put your online content together.
Online Reading = Scanning
The Internet breeds lazy readers – you’ve probably heard this, or something like this, many times before. The reason is simple: the Web is a profusion of information that needs a lot of sorting out. This means that ‘Net browsers (your readers) have very limited time in which to ascertain if a website’s content is helpful to them or not.
The implication of this is that the majority of your readers won’t actually read your piece the first time they see it. They’ll scan it for important bits of information – the data they’re after. If they see particular words or phrases relevant to their goal or task, they’ll read a bit, but among the many people who would take a look at your article, only a handful will actually read it in earnest. Even people who find your article useful will only try to pick out the info and filter out all the neat verbiage and stylistic elements you tried to infuse.
Reading Patterns Online
So the basic and predominant reading behavior is quick scanning; how exactly can you write for the Web with that in mind? First off, behaviors bring about patterns, and the lazy reading-scanning behavior brings about an F pattern of reading.
What exactly is this F pattern of reading? Eye tracking studies found that Netizens (users of the web) typically read (scan) a webpage in a loose F-shaped pattern. Most people would often scan the top of the page (first lines of your article) in earnest. This constitutes the topmost horizontal bar of the F-shape. More thorough scanning persists a few more lines from the top, and this makes up the second horizontal bar of the F. Finally, for the last lines of the content or webpage, users would normally read only the first few words of the lines, making a consistent vertical bar that completes the F. The pattern is a loose reference and not pixel-perfect – some eye tracking patterns show more of an E pattern with an extended vertical bar at the bottom – but the point here is that the topmost content gets the most comprehensive scans, and only a few words at the beginning of the lines are scanned at the bottom parts of content.
First Words of Content
Given this F pattern, how can writers optimize their Web content to take advantage of it? From the behavior and the pattern, it’s almost an unspoken standard that the first two paragraphs of content contain the actual message of the article – making use of the inverted pyramid style of writing that begins with the conclusion. But how about the rest of the article: the subheadings, the lists, and link lists?
This is where a seemingly nominal style of arranging content comes into play: the positioning of important words. For subheadings, lists, and link lists which herald more content, it is best to allocate the first two words for important key terms that catch readers’ attention.
Web content subheadings are usually what people scan first. If they can tell that the subheadings are meaningful, they go ahead and scan the paragraph below it. The same is true for lists and link lists: meaningful lists are more useful and are more thoroughly read, and links that are promising are clicked. The first two words of these parts of content are particularly important. So take advantage of them and arrange your subheadings, lists, and link titles to make use of important words in the first two words.
These important words must be information-rich – or a promise of information that is clear and concise, making it a decisive factor in reining in attention and making readers go from scanning to reading.
Content Writing Tips: Leveraging Online Reading Behavior
Aside from putting the most important stuff in the first two paragraphs and making sure important words constitute the first two words of important preceding lines, what else can you do to leverage your understanding of online reading behavior and thus optimize your Web content writing?
When working around online reading behavior, there are some small things you can do that make a huge difference. Try:
– Using plain and simple language. This is especially true for presenting important information at the start of online content, and in preceding important lines. Since your readers are scanning, the moment they register fluffed up or hifalutin words, they tend to tune it out in efforts to find the bits of info they need.
– Make use of terminology that is specific. Don’t hesitate to use jargon if it is completely relevant to the topic and is probably known to your target audience anyway. The more specific the words you use, the easier it is for your scanning readers to get ahold of that key term and use it for directions to the info needed.
– Always follow naming conventions of common features. Mass mentality rears its head here. There is an unspoken agreement on how the common and typical are named; going against this convention only serves to confuse your readers or make it harder for them to scan more effectively.
– Don’t use generic and bland terms or words. This applies to writing the meat of the article; the first two paragraphs particularly. You’re not avoiding the menial in hopes to hype it up (though it helps), you’re doing so to grip the attention of your readers and signal them to slow their scanning down since you’re talking about stuff they need to read.
– Don’t use terms that are made up. Don’t invent terms that can serve to confuse or annoy your scanning readers. These terms are simply not scan-optimized (see that?).
– Be concise in your wording: don’t promise too much or be misleading, but be straightforward enough so that the people scanning immediately understand that they’ve gotten to the heart of the matter.
– Use numerals instead of spelled-out numbers. Numerals are more eye-catching as they are used to represent facts and figures, which are either the data your reader needs, or indicates that such data follows.
– Use lists and pointers whenever applicable and efficient. Lists break down stuff that can otherwise constitute bulky, intimidating blocks of text.
– Use enough space and formatting to make your content more reader-friendly, or better yet, scanner-friendly.
Web Content Writing = Writing for Online Readers
Writers write for their readers, so Web content writers should write for online readers – the lazy, scanning bunch that would probably just pick out data instead of read your hard work. But seriously, if you can help your readers by making your content “scanable” and easy to navigate through, you’re helping yourself by making your Web content more useful to your audience. Write for the Web, not for print.