Writing Content for the Internet
by Dean Jacques

Writing content for the Internet is an art and science of its own, dictated by the type of reading web site technology generates from its audience.

We provide the following as a helpful guide. Click topic of interest or scroll down to read the entire article.

      1. Benefits & Problems
      2. Page & Typeface Design
      3. The Greeting/Introduction
      4. Content, 1st Screen
      5. Good Writing
      6. Word-Sculpting
      7. Photos
      8. Outside Links
      9. Ending


See also Web Site Readability Standards (WSRS).




Benefits & Problems

While the Internet provides incredible potential for carrying your message to the public, it also provides new challenges for carrying that message effectively. Print has dominated communication design for centuries, developing guidelines through trial and error that work exceedingly well — in print.
     The web site medium is significantly different from print, and has its own guidelines.


  • Web sites give you the ability to convey your message worldwide, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Compared to print, it is very inexpensive.
  • A web site allows for the availability of an incredible amount of information. It is not limited to a boxed ad in the newspaper, a magazine layout, the confinements of a brochure or even multiple-paged annual reports.
  • Content can be changed easily and quickly .
  • Distribution is taken care of by the nature of the medium itself..
  • Server memory takes the place of storage rooms.
  • No huge expenses for utilizing color and graphics.


  • It's 80% more difficult reading from a computer screen than print. People tend to visually scan for information rather than read in a linear fashion. This means your content has to be focused and well-presented to overcome these challenges. Writing content for the Internet is now a specialized field.
  • Design limitations.
    • Having to present information within the "box environment" of a computer screen.
    • Designs look different on different screens and computer platforms.
    • Accessibility issues.
    • Download time (graphics can be a killer).
    • Visitor control of default settings.
    • Navigation in a nonlinear environment.
    • Typeface limitations (there are only a few common typefaces to choose from).
  • While distribution is no problem, marketing is. You have to make people aware of your web site so that they will come to it.




Page & Typeface Design

You need a design worthy of your content. Compare the look and feel of a tabloid newspaper compared to Newsweek Magazine. Which would you take more seriously? A quality look is important to convince your readers to take your message seriously.
     In recent years, designers have tackled the limitations of web design and came up with a helpful set of rules.

For text:

  • A narrow column of text is easier to read; do not allow lines of text to run from one side of the screen to the other.
  • Certain typefaces are easier to read on a computer screen, depending on the size of the text.
  • Keep number of typefaces to two or three.
  • Use contrasting typefaces for maximum effect (one serif, one sans serif)..
  • Use typefaces that are available on most computers (for PCs right now, that would be Times New Roman, Arial, Verdana, Georgia, Geneva).
  • Avoid monotype fonts (such as Courier) for lengthy text. People read the shape of a word rather than its spelling. The regular spacing of monotype destroys the shape and slows the reading.
  • Generally use dark text on a light background. The opposite can occasionally provide dramatic effect, but use it sparingly.
  • Left justification presents a stronger display of your message than centered text. Never, ever, put lengthy text in a centered alignment.
  • Be consistent in your alignment.
  • Use nonbreaking spaces to create paragraph indents.
  • Bold or enlarge the first word or words of a section. This draws the eye into reading your text.
  • Small paragraphs are more readable than large ones.

For page design:

  • Be consistent in your design.
  • Use invisible tables to hold the design together.
  • When possible, try to avoid the "boxy look" that tables create.
  • Use colors that go well with each other.
  • Avoid animated graphics; they distract from your message and annoy the reader.
  • Optimize photos and graphics for quick downloads.
  • Use pictures only if they add to your message.
  • Develop a navigational hierarchy that is logical and intuitive.
  • Avoid large and/or gaudy graphical buttons.
  • Utilize "white space" and other design elements to avoid clutter and direct the reader's eye where you want it to go.
  • Beware of the auto-stretch feature! It changes the look of your design on different sized monitors and can ruin it entirely.
  • Simplicity goes a long way.
  • Avoid visible tables! Use color or white space instead.
  • Avoid large bullets!
  • For accessibility, use headers of tabulated data on the left side rather than on the top of a graph (accessibility programs read from left to right, and then from top to bottom).
  • Proximity! Place related information next to each other.
  • Avoid distracting background images.
  • Use frames sparingly (or not at all), and never on the entry page! (Browsers might link to only one frame in your set, thereby ruining your design and stranding your visitor.)




The Greeting/Introduction

The Home Page needs at least one sentence of greeting or introduction right up front. This sets the tone of the site, puts the reader at ease and defines what is expected. It also establishes your narrative “voice.”
     When someone comes to your door to visit, it's proper decorum to say hello, invite them in and show them around. We expect that. It's the same with someone visiting your web site.
     Unfortunately, many well-designed sites fail to deliver this simple nicety! Why? They are convinced that visitors want to see as little text on their page as possible.
     It's true that visitors tend to skim first page material rather than read it, making lengthy text questionable.
     But you don't want to make their initial experience of the site uncomfortable either. Too little explanation of the site (or none at all) will leave them confused. Like entering an unfamiliar workplace without being invited. They pause. In their rush for information, they will probably resent trying to understand what your site is all about. Your lack of introduction forces them to either investigate or leave.
     As they click away, their four second impression of your site will not be positive. And worse — you just lost a visitor/potential customer.
     A short, friendly statement will alleviate this problem.
     People want information. The initial experience of your site sets up the delivery mode of that process. When they land in your site, they are experiencing your threshold. They decide whether or not they want to stay. While an endless, meaningless narrative will also send them elsewhere, a poor greeting may result in the same effect.




Content, 1st Screen

Your Home Page is your first page of content. It provides you the strategic opportunity to “hook”your visitors. The content has to be special. It has to catch the eye and reward your viewers. They want specific information. Give it to them right up front, with the promise of more if they decide to stay.
     The problem is, the amount of your “hook” information is limited to the visible territory of your first screen. They may scroll down to see what lies below, but don't count on it.
     After a brief greeting/introduction, you need to provide some serious “points of interest.” Give them genuine pearls of information that will draw them in to seek more.
     The points can link to further details or extended text. That's exactly what they're there for. If the reader's interest is sparked, he or she will read your elaborated text. It is, after all, the information that they want!
     Newspaper layouts are similar. The most important information is located on the front page “above the fold.” Bold headlines attract the eye. Short introductions whet your interest and then continue on other pages. The good layout will get you to open the paper up and look around. It will attract you to read other articles by juxtaposing them according to common themes. A good picture adds tremendously to the experience.
     So too with your Home Page. Bold headings, suitable color variations, “white space,” and strong introductory sentences all cater to the viewer's interest. That said, you still have to reward them with the information they are seeking. This hopefully encourages them to seek other rewards by exploring different levels of your site.
     Remember, readers skim for keywords. Know what the keywords are and utilize them in your titles and text. Highlight them in your narratives. Use bullets or white space to point them out.





Good Writing

The purpose of a web site is to convey information. While “points of interest” reward a visitor for coming, the “hook” they provide should lead to more and even greater rewards.
     What are these rewards? More information! Well written information, of greater depth or variety. Provide them with something good to read, something they will tell others about and maybe print.
     We're talking about longer columns of text. Something that may utilize bulleted lists, but is not limited to them.
     Is there danger in this? Of course. Reading from a computer screen is 80% more difficult than reading from print. This means you have the burden of a reluctant reader from the very start! A reader who can click away to another world at the slightest whim.
     The same problems exist as on your Home Page except your reader has consciously stepped into your next level. You've generated enough interested to accomplish this. Congratulations!
     Now you have to present serious content in a way that is acceptable and appreciated. Use every trick in the book to maintain your readership. This means using a proper typeface at a proper size, a narrow text column, contrasting colors, decorations (boldface, etc.) and few, if any, hypertext links that lead to the outside world. (If you have to use one, make sure it opens on a separate browser window, so the reader hasn't lost you.)
     Most of all it needs good writing, fashioned specifically for web site reading.
     What does this mean? The usual, of course.

  • Correct spelling.
  • Good grammar.
  • Clarity of thought.
  • Simplicity.
  • Avoiding clichés unless absolutely necessary.
  • Expressing your message in a unique fashion for greater impact; offering greater depth or a new, and fascinating perspective.

     But there's more as well. Writing for the Internet demands that you confront it's limitations in everything you do.
     So, how do you make lengthy text more palatable?

  • First of all, keep it simple. Deliver your message so there is no doubt as to what it is. Avoid jargon.
  • Similar to your Home Page “points of interest,” put your conclusions at the beginning of your paragraphs, and then elaborate on them.
  • Keep paragraphs small. Long paragraphs are intimidating, especially to a reader who is rushing (i.e. your average user of the Internet). Paragraph indentations add white space to the column, enhancing its appearance and readability.
  • Use a “voice” the reader will be comfortable with. A medical site will use a more formal voice than that of a a community center, but it should still be friendly and easy to read.
  • “Chunk” information. This means dividing your narrative into comprehensive segments that are individually condensed, logically placed and linked together.

An example of "chunking" information is found on this web page. What was originally a lengthy article was broken up into segments that a reader can choose from and link down to. You have to be careful with chunking however. Each segment may have to stand on its own. You cannot be sure the reader has read any of the previous segments.
     I used bookmarks linking down through a single page in this article. This way, a reader can just scroll down to read in a linear fashion, or return to the menu and choose another topic. Some examples of chunking use separate web pages for each segment, necessitating a hyperlink menu on each page.





The rules for good writing can overwhelm the uninitiated!
     To make things easier, we offer you the concept of “word-sculpting.”
     The idea is to write your narrative as comprehensively as possible, with as many words as you want or flourishes you can think of. Be verbose. Be creative.
     Once you have your first draft, it's time to make changes. Word-sculpting means to go through your writing and eliminate the nonessentials. Chisel away at superfluous phrases. Move fragmented ideas to where they better serve their purpose like a chuck of soft clay.
      Simplify! If a small word expresses the same idea as a large word, use the smaller. If an adjective is nice but really isn't needed, throw it out. Excise the ponderous. Replace tired sounding words with something bold and exciting. Use active sentences. Compress ideas into their simplest form. If something is interesting but not altogether pertinent, put it elsewhere and provide a link. Let the reader choose.
     A true word-sculptor will phrase even familiar terms in such a way that readers feel that this is the first time they heard it. Provoke the response of "hey, I never thought of it like that before," or, "wow, this says it like it is." This is where creative literary talent is vital.
      But be careful! The narrative needs to flow. Unique phrases can be ponderous. Don't overdue it.
     The final product will be the crafting of a pleasant sound of words, liberated from the nonessentials until the narrative is lean, easy to read and loaded with pertinent, originally expressed ideas.





What do photographs have to do with writing content?
     Nothing directly, of course. But content is often well served if pictures are included. Content, after all, is what fills your page with information. Pictures can be part of this information-giving.
     Use pictures to enhance your message, but don't include them just because you know how. Make sure they add something to the narrative. Use interesting pictures that that illustrate your text.
     And please, PLEASE, enhance and optimize your photos before placing them on the web. How many times have you seen beautiful landscapes or beach scenes on the web that were darker than they should be? They completely lose their impact and make the whole design look amateurish.
     If you don't properly optimize your pictures for quick and easy downloads, your visitors might go elsewhere instead of waiting.
     Although a picture is worth a thousand words, it is never worth a thousand kilobytes.




Outside Links

Hyperlinks provide the web with its magic, making a world of information conveniently available at the click of a mouse.
     As a content designer, you may want to recommend your visitors to other web sites. It's a wonderful courtesy, especially if the other site links back to yours.
     Unfortunately, once your visitor clicks on that outside link, he or she is gone!
      This is why you have to be judicious in utilizing outside links.
     One popular solution is to code your link to open in a separate browser window, thus leaving your site still open. But even this has its drawbacks. For one thing, it pulls the reader away from your message. With the new site open, you've willingly promoted the competition.
     Not many years ago, there were a lot of pages with blue, underlined links interspersed throughout the narrative. Keywords were turned into hypertext that led to further information. Sort of like footnotes.
     Such a strategy contradicts having a narrative in the first place! If your reader clicks on a link in the middle of a paragraph, your continuing message is lost, or at least interrupted. Professional writers don't want that. They respect their work enough to want the viewer to read it from beginning to end.
     If you still want to supply your visitor with access to important links, provide them at the end of your narrative, or on a page meant specifically for advertising other sites.






The ending of a narrative plays an important yet somewhat subordinate role to the finished product. If you follow the advice under Good Writing, you will promote the most important information to the beginning of the text. The middle will add details. The ending sums up what preceded it.
     Endings should be short. Don't waste the reader's time rehashing details. Keep it brisk and light. If possible, make the reader satisfied while still wanting more. In other words, keep it enjoyable.
     At the very end, add links returning to the top of the page or to the menu. Remember your Copyright declaration.
     One more important piece of advice. Have someone you trust edit your work. No matter how many times you edit it yourself, errors slip by. Why? Because your brain is so attuned to the creative aspects of your words, it automatically fills in mistakes and concentrates on the meaning.
     Writing for the web can be fun and challenging. It demands a balance between form and creativity that differs from that of print. Study what other web sites produce. Don't be afraid to experiment.
     You'll be surprised how satisfying it is to produce a streamlined work of prose that captivates the reader even over the Internet.


© Copyright 2004