A lot of people go through life in the mistaken belief that they "can't write" and, even worse, will never be able to. There's a latin proverb that most literature students come across at some time or another: "Poeta Nascitur, Non Fit". Roughly translated, it means "a poet is born, not made". To a certain extent it's true. Some people are simply more creative or more insightful than others. But, whilst certain people may seem to have a natural way with words, it doesn't mean that the ability to write well can't be taught.
Good writing mainly comes down to knowing two things. Your audience, and your medium. Say you're writing a blog post about hayfever for the general readership of a health site. That blog post is going to have a completely different style and tone to an article in an academic journal about hayfever treatment. To meet the needs of each group of readers, you need to adapt your writing accordingly.
Below are six basic rules to bear in mind when writing for the web – but they can be applied to almost anything you write for a general, i.e not academic, audience.
Sentences written in the active voice have the subject perform the action denoted by the verb. “The man ate the sandwich” is an example of the active voice. The subject – the man – is the one performing the action: eating the sandwich. The active voice is more direct and easier to read.
“The sandwich was eaten by the man” is in the passive voice. The subject in this case is the sandwich. It’s passive because it’s being eaten by the man.
One quick way to check for passive voice is to try adding ‘by zombies’ after the verb. If the sentence makes sense when you add ‘by zombies’ then it’s probably written in the passive voice. "The sandwich was eaten by zombies.” If it doesn’t, then there’s a good chance it’s in the active voice.
Always be age appropriate.
Aim for a reading age of 12 or under. This isn’t patronising – it’s polite. Your reader’s time is valuable and you don’t want to waste it. No matter how complex your subject is. Always make your writing as easy to read as possible.
Writing for a reading age of 12 or under is quick to read and scan. Be sure to use simple words and avoid ones that make you look clever. Use tools such as Hemingway or the Gunning fog index to check your work. Make your writing easier to read by using plain language, shorter sentences, and the active voice.
This is especially important if the purpose of your website is to provide information to the general public. The average reading age of the UK population is nine years old. Around 16 per cent, or 5.2 million adults in England, can be described as "functionally illiterate". They would not pass an English GCSE and have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old. The Guardian has a reading age of 14 while The Sun has a reading age of 8. If you’re writing for a local government or charity website, you need to be writing for readers of The Sun.
Avoid cliches like the plague.
Cut all cliches and jargon from your writing. Writing that’s littered with jargon is irritating and unimaginative. Cliches are tired by their very nature. When you use them, they cast doubt on the originality of the point you’re making. There is always a better word if you look hard enough.
People hate jargon. Only 21% of people are happy to work with somebody who uses business jargon in conversation. Business and IT are among the worst offenders for words and phrases such as synergy, leverage, and blue-sky thinking.
Most people who use jargon don’t understand what it actually means, and there’s no reason your readers will either. Less than 25% of people think that the business jargon people use is the easiest, quickest way to express what you mean. See point two and do both you and your readers a favour.
Show don’t shout.
Be empathetic. What does your visitor or user want? Their needs trump yours. After all, if you’re not providing what your visitors want, then they’ll stop coming to your site.
If your website is selling a product or service, think of the sales process as a funnel, not a foghorn. Show your visitors the value of what you’re selling through case studies and testimonials rather than blasting them with sales messages. If you blog, and you should be, make sure you’re providing useful content to generate traffic.
If your website provides a public service, think about what your visitors are most likely to want to know. Make this information easy to find. Most local residents are more likely to be looking for details of their bin collection or parking permit than minutes from the latest council meeting.
Obey the rules.
Grammar exists for a reason. It helps us understand each other. You don’t need to be an expert, but a little study can go a long way to improving your communication.
Never misuse reflexive pronouns. “You”, “me”, or “them”’ may be simple but they’re far preferable to the salesman’s favourites – “yourselves”, “myself”, or “themselves”. Which of these two sentences sounds better?
"Paul and myself will be showing yourself around the property.”
“Paul and I will be showing you the house today.”
Aside from being grammatically incorrect, the first sentence seems more pompous and less direct than the second.
Adopting a style guide helps maintain consistency if you have multiple authors, editors, and content creators.
You don’t have to create one from scratch. There are plenty of great style guides available to use from other organisations. At Zengenti we use The Guardian and Observer style guide. It’s available online and as a book.
While you’re at it, decide who owns your content. There’s nothing worse than a web page that’s several years out of date. Make sure every page on your site has an owner who is aware of their responsibility to keep the information up to date.
Bonus tip: Check and check again. Always get at least one other person to proofread your work before you let it loose in the wider world.
Want to explore writing well for the web in greater detail? Sign up for our one-day course.