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Writing for Online Readers: It Isn’t What They Taught You in School

Writing at a school blackboard

The average high school essay contains between 300 and 1,000 words.

No one will read it except your English teacher, and only because she has to.

The guidelines might go something like this:

The essay should demonstrate a student’s understanding of the topic, as well as their ability to write clearly and concisely. Students must stay adhere to the assigned word count (300 to 1,000) and edit for grammar and spelling mistakes.

The essay should engage the reader. This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve learned in class. The most important thing is to make your reader want to keep reading until the very end.

Yessir, the smart reader will skip ahead to the end and avoid the rest.

Sounds great, right? Writing is writing — it should work even for web copy! Except that it won’t.

Customers don’t read web copy like essays or magazine articles. They scan a page for information and hop to the sections that interest them most.

What do your essay guidelines say about headings? White space? Bulleted lists? Line spacing?

All those things matter in web copy. Not so much in the classroom.

Online, you should:

  1. Keep your sentences short. On average, web copy should contain only 10-14 words per sentence. That’s much shorter than the 17-word average for print publications and even shorter than the 20+ word sentences common in essay writing.
  2. Keep your paragraphs short. This means limiting each paragraph to around 5-7 lines of text. Leave plenty of white space between lines and paragraphs.
  3. Use subheadings liberally throughout the page. This makes it easier for readers to scan the copy and find what they’re looking for.
  4. Use bulleted lists and numbered steps to break instructions and similar copy into easily digestible chunks.
  5. Incorporate visuals like images, videos, infographics, or other multimedia elements to make your content more engaging and appealing.

That was the Cliff Notes version of web copywriting. Now let’s examine a few points in more detail.

Open with a Strong Lead

Your first sentence should encourage a reader to proceed to the second sentence. If it doesn’t, you’ve already lost the reader.

Let’s consider a different opening for this blog.

“Multiple studies from leading UX research labs suggest that online reading behavior is markedly different from book reading, and many rules and lessons we learned in school may not translate to web copywriting. In this blog, we’ll examine…”

You get the idea. You’d be gone. Your customers will be, too, if you burden them with leaden prose.

Frontload Your Service Value or Proposition

Eye tracking data shows that many users read only the main heading and first paragraph, then scan the rest of the page. They read almost nothing to the right of a page and even less at the bottom. These are visual dead spots.

Culture Cube’s CrazyEgg tracking maps indicate that many desktop users never scroll past the fold of a page.

So if you’ve got something to say, be quick about it. State the value of your service near the top of the page and not after a lengthy exposition.

Bulleted lists are great for listing your selling points succinctly. So make your points after a brief introduction, and place your first call to action below them.

Write for Brevity & Pace

Keep your sentences short, skip needless words and phrases like “it is” or “in fact,” and use the active voice (not passive) wherever possible. Replace weak adverbs and adjectives with strong and descriptive verbs and nouns. The natural momentum of your copy should carry the reader forward.

Avoid hyperbole. Don’t tell the reader your service is awesome; explain why it’s awesome.

Your web copy isn’t a novel (or high school essay). Shorter writing often gets better results because you’ve removed anything extraneous and distracting. So keep your writing simple, direct, and concise.

If you haven’t read it already, order The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It’s a classic, and the Kindle version costs less than a buck.

Include Lots of Subheadings

Headings and subheadings break up the text, making it scannable and guiding the reader to sections of particular interest.

Search engines love them, too. They should be descriptive and keyword-rich, not laconic one-word grunts. Nothing irks me more as an SEO than seeing “Leaks” in the h1 of a page about Leak Detection & Repair.

Heading 1 (h1) is reserved for titles only — one per page, please. H2s can introduce major points, and h3s can further subdivide those points.

H4s are worthless, in my view — nothing more than bolded text. And don’t get me started on h5 and h6.

Here’s another pet peeve of mine as an SEO — never use headings to size text! Sure, it works cosmetically, but it sends the wrong signals to search engines.

Include Numbered Lists & Bullet Points

Lists and bullet points add structure and improve legibility, especially when describing a process. They can showcase the features of a product or service.

Numbered lists are best for instructions, while bullet points are ideal for list summaries. Each list item should deal with a single focused point.

Search engines also take a shine to lists, often featuring them in their search results.

Use Adequate Line Height for Legibility, UX & the ADA

My typography instructor once told our class that leading (the distance between lines of text in print media) had greater impact on legibility than font size. In web parlance, it’s called “line height,” and the default for most browsers is 110% to 120% — not nearly enough.

He was right, and how often have you visited a website where lines of text were compressed and almost impossible to read?

Web design more than an aesthetic exercise; it involves UX, too. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has strict requirements for line height, often calling for greater line height and larger font sizes than some designers prefer.

As a copywriter, you may not control the line height of your web copy — only the CSS gods do. But you have a voice, and it’s up to you to make that voice heard. More line height and better legibility benefit everyone.

Include Calls to Action

Punchy CTAs (calls to action) should appear at key points of each service information page, pointing the reader to a specific next step. Don’t let the button say “Submit” or “Go”; instead, use strong CTAs like “Order Now,” “Schedule Service,” or “Get Started.”

If people are hesitating, add reassurances and sweeteners — things like money-back guarantees or discounts for seniors near your CTA buttons. Make it easy for them to take that step.

Write Quickly; Edit Later

Joe Sugarman, a Hall of Fame copywriter who made his fortune in direct mail, insisted that all copy was “terrible” at the first pass. The editing and polishing made it great, and the main purpose of the editing was to whittle copy down.

Write down your ideas quickly (stream of consciousness, baby!), build an outline to give the page an organized structure, and come back later to refine your copy. Sometimes, it’s best to let it sit for several days before editing. You’ll be less attached to it and more objective.

Proofread & Test Your Web Copy

That awkward feeling you get when you read something aloud for the first time? It’s called self-doubt, and all good writers experience it. Only the worst writers are 100% confident in their effort and go straight to online publishing. Like bad bosses, they never make mistakes.

Test your web copy until it feels right. Read to yourself; read out loud; read to a friend or family member (or preferably a stranger). Ask them what they think and observe their reactions: Did they figure out the service quickly? Did you leave any questions unanswered?

The more you test your copy, the better it becomes.

Writing web copy is a skill that improves with practice. So keep practicing, and read everything you can about copywriting (I’ve included a few personal favorites below).

Soon, you’ll be writing content that people love to read and search engines love to rank! And that helps your client make a sale.

About Culture Cube Digital Marketing

Culture Cube specializes in digital marketing for local businesses. Our clients include plumbers, HVAC installers, appliance repair companies, and local newspapers.

We offer the expertise of a large agency at small agency rates.

Because we specialize, we’re better qualified to promote your small business and create the most effective campaigns.

We don’t waste client money on lavish offices, fancy equipment, costly business trips, and endless meetings. We pass our savings on to you and welcome you as a partner more than a client.

Please contact us to learn what we can do for you.

Further Reading & Resources

By Peter Losh

Peter Losh is the SEO Director of Culture Cube Marketing in Upland, California. He's also a de facto UX designer, site builder, and content creator. Unlike most folks in the SEO biz, he works directly on the sites he optimizes, having witnessed the effects of recommendations that go ignored or misunderstood (in previous gigs).

Peter has worked on websites since the salad days of the internet, first as a graphic artist and web designer at the Centers for Disease Control. Then came several years of freelance web development, SEO and e-commerce management for business sites of various sizes, and ultimately a 10-year stint as the sole SEO Manager of PartyCity.com.

In his spare time, he enjoys classic film, classical music, and classic comebacks. And cats.

Professional Work Experience

  • Search engine optimization
  • Ecommerce management
  • Conversion rate optimization
  • UX design and analysis
  • Copywriting and training
  • E-mail campaign design
  • Web design and development
  • Graphic design

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