Simple Rules for Writing on the Web

When you’re writing on the web, you need to think about your what your message is, and how you will tell your story. A great idea with poor execution will fail. Great execution with a bad idea will fail. You need both a great idea with an amazing “hook,” and you need to execute on that idea well.

Well-written content will be read by more people, more often, and will be shared more than poorly written content.

There’s a few simple rules you can follow to make your writing better.

Use Active Voice, Not Passive Voice

Passive voice is one of the most misunderstood aspects about writing. Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is being acted upon, instead of doing the action.

When writing technical material, many people think that passive voice reads more professional, but it’s often awkward, harder to read, and divorces the subject from the action.

Here’s an example:

The town was attacked.

“The town” is the noun being acted upon. “Town” is being “attacked” in this case.

Giant fluffy kittens attacked the town.

The giant fluffy kittens are now the subject of the sentence, the town is the noun, and attacked is the verb.

How do I know I’m using “passive voice”? As pointed out by the Grammarly Blog – A simple rule is that if you can add “by zombies” to the end of a sentence, you’re probably using passive voice.

The town was attacked by zombies.

– Makes sense; passive voice.

Giant fluffy kittens attacked the town by zombies.

– Doesn’t make sense; active voice.

Establish a Consistent Tone or Stylistic Voice

For this blog, we try to write fairly informally. We want the tone to be “the smart friend you go to when you want to know something.” To do that, we pepper in the odd joke, keep our pictures light and fun, and use informal language and a conversational writing style.

Basically, if I can read it out loud and it doesn’t sound weird, then I can write it the same way.

For your own brand, you need to decide, are you “Light and Airy,” “Buttoned Up and Official,” or somewhere in between? No matter what you choose, you can still use the “if I can read it out loud and it doesn’t sound weird” test.

How do you refer to the people reading your content?  Are they “consumers,” “clients,” “members,” “audience,” or something else entirely?

Depending on the situation, you may refer to them in different ways, but you should be consistent about it.

Use Billboard Design

A good way to think about writing your content is to picture your readers as drivers in a car along a highway. They pass by your sign; how does it stand out?

Headlines in particular need to be action oriented, brief, and informative all at the same time.

Your headline is one thing, but the body of your content should share the same philosophy.

Headings that break up your content and separate ideas are important for scanning. Bullet points and blockquotes give the page visual breaks. This helps reduce reader fatigue, and makes ideas stick in your audience’s head.

Images that can illustrate a point are often better than a written description.  For a good example of this, see our post How to Create an Autoresponder That Delivers a Download…for Free.

Use Plain Language

Use the simplest word possible. Don’t “utilize” something when what you’re really doing is “using” it. You don’t “have an ask,” you “have a question.” A lot of business speak is just nonsense.

You need to tell people what you want them to do as plainly and clearly as possible.

If you want someone to download your guide, then tell them to download your guide.  If you want someone to send an email, label your button “Send,” not “Submit”.

Use active words like “join,” “buy,” and “start.”

  • “Send me an email”
  • “Join My Email List”
  • “Buy Now”
  • “Start Your 20-Day Free Trial”

Active words create a sense of urgency and make an end user want to take an action.

Get the Guide!

Speaking of plainly and simply telling your audience what you want them to do, I want you to download our How to Make Your Business Smarter guide. It’s four questions and three solutions that will help you solve the biggest problems that every business faces with their digital strategy.

Omit Needless Words

This is essential information from one of my favourite books of all time Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.  When it comes to words, more is not better.

Words are a crutch and can be misinterpreted. If you find yourself using a bunch of words in place of simple instructions, you’re doing it wrong.

Happy talk such as “welcome to the website” is not useful; every word acts as a barrier and dilutes your message. Rather than “welcome,” it makes more sense to state what your mission is. “This website will help you do a thing to give you a resolution.”

Instructions are often unnecessary. There are things we can assume, such as someone knowing how to use a drop-down menu. Instructions are also confusing when the words don’t match up with your actions. “Click Here” makes sense when you are using a mouse, but what about on a mobile device?

Example – Reduce this text to just the essential parts:

“The following questionnaire is designed to provide us with the information which will improve the content relevant to your needs. Select the choices from the drop down to determine which best suits you. This process should take approximately 2-3 minutes to complete. ”

What is unnecessary:

  • Telling me how to use a drop-down menu (instruction)
  • Telling me that the survey will improve the content (awkward wording, makes it sound like you are customizing the site, but really they just wanted to know what content they should focus on)

The result:

“Please help us improve the site by answering these questions. It should only take 2-3 minutes to complete the survey.”

The Takeaway:

Use active voice, establish your own voice, use billboard design, use plain language, and omit needless words.

Following these simple rules will make your content better, more likely to be shared, and generally more interesting.