Writing for the web versus print

Good writing is good writing, regardless of the medium. So what makes writing for the web different to writing for print? In this article, we discuss one key difference—technical knowledge.

One of the main things that sets web writing apart from writing for print is the technical knowledge web writers need. They should know about:

  • findability—how and where people look for and find information, and which content elements they rely on when they’re doing this
  • accessibility—how to ensure content does not create barriers for people with disabilities
  • HTML formatting—how to use basic HTML formatting tags to reflect the underlying structure of their content.

Let’s have a closer look at each of these issues.

Findability

Users’ search behaviour

When people search for information, they choose their own search terms.  We can’t stand beside them and tell them that we call a rubbish tip a ‘transfer station’, or a degree certificate a ‘testamur’. If they don’t know our language, and we don’t use theirs, users may have a hard time finding what they’re looking for. A web writer’s role is to ensure the right words are used.

Making content findable – tips for web writers provides some quick tips to help searchers find your content by using the right words, in the right places.

Search engine optimisation

Web writers also need to know a little about search engine optimisation, and enough to ignore some of the nonsense that gets written about it. Keyword metadata and keyword density are not going to get you anywhere with Google!

Google’s search engine optimisation starter guide (PDF) provides some good advice for web writers. Read the sections ‘SEO basics’ and ‘Optimising content’.

Social media linking

People may find our content when their friends or colleagues share links to it on social media channels.  But they’re not likely to unless we’ve written a meaningful HTML <title> and meta description. That’s because most social media networks will use the title as the label for the link, and some generate the description from our meta description.

Is your content fit for social media linking discusses this issue in more detail.

Links in content

While web writers don’t usually have a lot to do with the design of a website’s navigation, they do make decisions about when and how to include links within content.  Web writers need to know when to link to related content, how to write clear link text (not ‘click here’ and the like), and avoid cluttering the text with too many links.

Re-finding content

Users often want to re-find content they’ve found earlier. Many will bookmark or add pages to favorites, while some will go back through the browser history. Users may also open several pages at once in a series of browser tabs. In each of these cases, users rely on the HTML <title> to clearly label the page content. Our job as web writers is to write something that makes sense — hours, days, weeks or even months later.

Accessibility

The way we write and design web content can make or break the experience for people with disabilities.  Web writers need to be aware of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, the standard all Australian sites must meet.

19 of these guidelines are relevant to writers, and cover:

  • written content (reading level, abbreviations, unusual words)
  • structure and formatting (headings, lists, quotations, emphasis, tables)
  • navigation (page <titles> and links)
  • images (text alternatives, colour, contrast).

Web accessibility for writers is a series of articles discussing these guidelines.

Basic HTML tags

Most web writers use publishing tools that create the underlying HTML mark-up. We must be aware of the tags these tools generate and know how to use them properly.

Heading tags (<h1>, <h2> and so on) are probably the most important to understand.  All headings need to be tagged and heading tags need to be used logically. Use <h1> for the main heading, <h2> for sub-headings, and <h3> for sub-sub-headings, and so on.

We should also know how to use formatting tags for:

  • dot points or numbered lists — never use dashes and indented text instead
  • quotations — never use the <blockquote> tag just to indent text
  • emphasising certain words or phrases — don’t overdo it, or it loses its effect.