Writing for the web (or getting people to read your stuff online) by Liz Zadnik

Good morning!  I’m Liz Zadnik, aea365’s Outreach Coordinator and Saturday contributor.  Part of my role on the curating team is working with evaluators and researchers interested in generating content for the blog.  Writing for the web is a little different than drafting an evaluation report, policy brief, or peer-review journal article – it requires a slightly more conversational and informal tone.  I’ve pulled together a few tips and resources for folks interested in refining their online-writing style.

Hot Tip: Frontload your information. Basically, put the most interesting or poignant nuggets first.  This is a little different than most of the resources you may usually write – results or findings are typically contextualized first and then outlined later.  Not online.  Blog and website visitors are looking for something – give them what they want.  They’ll peruse a page, scanning for keywords.  If they don’t see what they’re looking for, they’ll leave.  

Lesson Learned: White space is your friend.  Many people equate dense paragraphs with quality – that won’t do for online content!  Embrace patches of white space – throughout the page and also within the content.  “How do I do that?!”  Well, you can use bulleted or numbered lists, images, or line breaks between paragraphs.  Don’t worry if you feel it looks sparse – your readers will thank you!    

Hot Tip: Get active!  With your voice, that is.  Writing for the web is intended to keep the visitor engaged for short period of time.  Folks have something in mind when they visit a site and want to be spoken to directly.  Active voice helps create that atmosphere – it also makes blocks of text for readable and scannable.  

FROM “The participants’ questions were gathered by the meeting facilitator.” (passive)

TO “The meeting facilitator gathered participants’ questions.” (active)

Just to be clear, passive voice isn’t bad.  It has its place in scientific and academic writing.  But blogs and websites are different and should look and sound different.  This style can be difficult to practice at first, but I’ve found it has strengthened my writing both professionally and personally.   

Rad Resources:

  • Usability.gov offers a checklist and more tips on effectively writing for the web.
  • Writing Spaces pulled together a style guide a few years ago – it has some nice background on different platforms and “genres” of web writing
  • Speaking of style guides, Sum of Us offers a very thoughtful one, A Progressive’s Style Guide, for folks interested in harnessing language as a tool for social change. 

I would also encourage you to pay attention to blogs and websites you really like.  How do they use white space?  How/Do they offer a scannable page for visitors?  What information do they offer?  

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

1 thought on “Writing for the web (or getting people to read your stuff online) by Liz Zadnik”

  1. Thanks for this great article. This is one of my favorite topics and it’s good to see you spreading the news about using white space and writing like a human.
    I think the main advantage of using a conversational tone of voice is that it greatly increases the chances of your reader making it to the end of your article. It’s hard to get and keep the attention of readers and these tips really do help.

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