You can maximise the effectiveness of your web content by taking care of four factors: reader focus, online presentation, writing style, and the mechanics of grammar and spelling.
Digital content needs to be strong in all these areas. How does yours measure up?
1. Reader focus
What sort of people is your content aimed at? What do you want these people to do or think as a result of reading your content? Can you say?
You need a clear picture of who your important readers are and why they visit your website. That way, you’ll be able to write for the reader: choose the words your readers would naturally use. Task-oriented words. Words that enable people to perform the tasks they came to your site for. The things you want to enable them to do.
If parts of your content don’t contribute to serving a known purpose for a known reader profile, it’s probably time for a selective content cull and update.
2. Online presentation
There is some evidence that people read less attentively on screen than on paper. Whether this is true or not, you can be sure that screens can offer the reader experiences that paper cannot. It thus makes sense to optimise the layout and language structure of your content for online reading.
When you read a book or a printed document, it’s different from using a website or app. People don’t read online content in the same linear way. They navigate, scroll and scan-read until they find what they’re looking for. Successful web content is written in a way that makes the best of online reading behaviour.
An effective web layout makes good use of main headings and breaks the content up with subheadings. Each page or content area begins with a summary of what it’s about. This way the reader can quickly grasp the sense of a piece of content and decide which bits to delve in to.
More than words
Body text isn’t always the best way of presenting information. Some things are better explained by the use of show-hide or tabbed content areas, tables, charts, pictures or infographics. That said, any information conveyed in non-text form also needs an accessible text equivalent to go with it. Finding the best medium for presenting information is part of a web writer’s job.
These are some techniques for structuring language for online reading:
- Omit needless words.
- Choose mainly short words.
- Write mainly short sentences.
- Construct mainly short paragraphs.
- Don’t overuse adjectives and adverbs.
- Write in the active voice, not the passive.
- Use the imperative form for instructions.
- Use bulleted lists.
An experienced web writer can take your print-optimised content and rework it into something engaging for your website audience.
3. Writing style
Your published English content needs to be written in a style that does justice to your organisation and sounds natural to your readers.
If your content originates as English, it should be written – or at least reviewed – by an experienced writer whose mother tongue is English. If your content is translated into English, you need to use a professional mother-tongue-English translator.
Many people are proficient enough in a foreign language to write internal or not-for-publication communications. But content that represents your organisation to a public readership is a different matter.
That’s why professional translation bodies forbid their members to translate into a language that is not their mother tongue. When translators translate into a foreign language the output will almost invariably be perceived as unnatural by mother-tongue readers. And it can be even worse for non-mother-tongue readers, who may struggle to understand it at all.
If you’ve got any content on your website that was written by a non-mother-tongue author, consider getting it reviewed.
4. Editing for spelling and grammar etc.
English is a terrible language for spelling. Many words have two or more correct spellings. And many words are commonly misspelled. And there are plenty of other pitfalls.
All it takes is a few small mistakes or – not even mistakes – inconsistencies, and people will detect that something is amiss and they won’t trust your content. They may be only subliminally aware of it. There are studies showing large numbers of would-be customers driven away from companies by small anomalies in the content of a website.
Editorial style guide
An editorial style guide is a document that may complement a voice-and-tone style guide or may be a standalone. It sets out rules for correctness and consistency. It imposes a discipline on your authors and editors and helps guarantee that your content is readable, trustworthy and credible. It covers such items as:
- Which English language version (UK, US, or other)
- How to write the name of your organisation
- How to write the names of any related companies and brands
- Which words to capitalise
- How to write numbers, dates and times
- How to punctuate
- Consistent forms for words with two or more correct spellings
- A-Z glossary of special terms used in your website
In addition to enforcing consistency, an experienced English-language editor will find and correct any anomalies that won’t be covered in written guidelines:
- Passages of repeated, duplicate or redundant content
- Any apparent contradictions within your content
- Facts or figures that seem wrong
- Words and phrases that can be unintentionally humorous
- Words and phrases that can be unintentionally offensive
- Words that are known in US but not UK English or vice-versa
- Words that mean different things in different regions of the English-speaking world
Your editor can also help identify any parts of your content where the meaning is not clear and will work with you to suggest a rewrite so that you are sure every reader understands it perfectly.
Please contact me so that we can explore a cost-effective solution for you.
This article originally appeared in the English Digital Content Consultancy website.