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How to Write Effective Web Copy (Part 1): Creating Readable Content

This article kicks off a two-part series adapted from Mighty Citizen’s popular webinar, How to Write Effective Web Copy. Check out the on-demand webinar for even more advice on crafting effective Web content.

The Internet is bloated. Your users have limited attention spans. And websites everywhere are written with cliché, ambiguity, and scattershot messages.

But words matter! The wrong words—or worse, the forgettable words—can cost your organization countless opportunities. The right words can spark emotion, spur action, and start a lifelong relationship. Which are you going to pick?

What We’re Up Against

Users have limited attention spans.

In 2000, a global study found that the average human adult had a 12-second attention span. They measured goldfish at about 9 seconds. Then they did the study again a few years ago and found that our attention span had dropped to 8 seconds.


Between the years 2000 and 2013, the Internet happened. We are connected in ways that we weren’t 20 years ago, and it has measurably affected our ability to focus.

The Internet is loud.

When you’re crafting messages for the Internet, you have precious few seconds to capture your user’s attention. There’s a lot of distraction, not only from direct competitors but from the Internet in general. There are plenty of ways for users to ignore your content in favor of other content because there’s just so much of it.

Skimming is the new reading.

Another thing we’re up against is how people read on screens. It’s not the same way they read offline. On screens, people tend to skim, search, and scan.

Literacy tops out at an 8th-grade level.

There’s also the issue of literacy—the average American adult reads at an 8th-grade level. If you’re curious, books by John Grisham and The Great Gatsby are written at an 8th-grade level. If your content is written above this level, you’re likely losing readers. We actually wrote a whole article about this issue.

We’re fighting low attention spans, more competition, scanning instead of reading, and a relatively low literacy level. So what can we do?

Make Your Copy More Readable

Keep your audience front and center.

When the writer Nora Ephron was a senior in high school, her journalism teacher had the students practice writing leads for the student newspaper.

The teacher gave the students these facts and asked them to figure out what the lead should be: Kenneth L. Peters, principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Pat Brown.

The students put their heads down and began trying to make the facts more concise. Nora Ephron, a genius even at that age, wrote this: There will be no school next Thursday.

This story illustrates how important it is to keep our audiences at the front of our minds when we’re creating any sort of message for our organization. It’s easy to forget what our users want and need. Nora Ephron understood that what students care about is getting out of school, so she started there.

As communications professionals, we spend all day thinking about ourselves—our work and our organization. We’re deeply embedded in our organization, but our audiences aren’t. They don’t understand our internal jargon. They don’t use the same words we do. By keeping audiences top of mind, we can focus on what they truly care about, how they talk about the things they care about, and the words they use to describe those things.

Writing it to rewrite it.

Start by getting the information out of your head. Write it all down. If you’re doing things right, your first draft will be horrible. No really. Don’t worry about form at this stage. Your job is to get all of your thoughts out. Let go of your inner editor, and just lower your standards for that first draft.

Kermit the Frog typing

Flannery O’Connor had a great quote, “I write in order to know what I think.” For so many of us, writing is a form of thinking, but if we inhibit ourselves at every step and try to make every sentence perfect the first time, we’ll inhibit our thinking. Get the ideas out, and then worry about making them work.

Cut it out.

The quickest way to make words work is to make them shorter. Most people write way too much—aim to cut about 50% of the words from your first or your second draft. When you cut your copy down, it almost always injects your writing with more energy, personality, and dynamism. It becomes more interesting to read.

Let me give you an example. Here’s a sentence you might read on a technical website:

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Please note that although Chrome is supported for both MAC and Windows operating systems, it’s recommended that all users of this site switch to the most up-to-date version of the Firefox web browser for the best possible results.

That sentence has 41 words. It’s not terrible. It’s relatively clear. But it could be improved. So, from 41 words, let’s go to this:

For best results, use the latest version of Firefox. Chrome for Mac and Windows is also supported.

This new version has 17 words—we cut 59%. Notice two things: it’s easier to read, and we didn’t lose a single piece of information. Marketers sometimes worry that they’re leaving ideas out, but you can be concise in your language online without losing important ideas.

Simplify your copy in 4 steps.

Quick tips to make your copy more readable:

Eliminate prepositions.

Just cut them. Don’t remember what a preposition is? It’s any word that can connect a squirrel and a tree: in, under, on, around, etc.

Cut out “to be” verbs.

A sentence like, “The program is designed to serve single moms,” can simply become, “The program serves single moms.”

Use the active voice, not passive.

“Jim was hit by the dodgeball,” becomes, “The dodgeball hit Jim.”

Cut filler phrases.

Get rid of things like, “one can easily see,” “it’s important to realize,” and “it goes without saying.”

F pattern in text

Notice the F Pattern.

The F-Pattern describes how people look at websites. Visitors read the top of the page, then as they scroll down the page, they read less and less.

On a smartphone or mobile device, there is a more loose f-pattern. Because people aren’t going to read everything on your website, put the most important information at the top of each page. This also helps with search engine optimization; content higher on the page is given more weight in search.

Structure your pages well.

Pop quiz: which text block is easier to read?

Little Red Riding Hood example

The vast majority of users chose the one on the right, especially on a screen. It’s because the block on the right uses structure and format in ways that increase readability:

  • There’s a title on the right to orient us.
  • There’s a relevant image providing visual interest.
  • It uses a sans serif font (no little hooks on the edges of the letters), which tend to be easier to read on screen.
  • There are more paragraph breaks and more white space (open space around text and images).

When reading on paper, our eyes can handle longer paragraphs. On screens, not only does too much text hurt the eye, but it can make a page very daunting. Many people will leave a page instead of reading big blocks of text. We want to make it easy for readers to scan, search, and hunt by giving them more paragraph breaks.

You improve scannability when you:

  • Add white space. Use more paragraph breaks than normal and increase line spacing within paragraphs.
  • Break up text with images. Even better if it’s not stock photography.
  • Make it scannable. Add headlines, subheadlines, and bulleted lists.
  • Be creative. Use pull quotes, stylish buttons, and video.

Now that you know how to create readable (and compelling) content, go forth and write that horrible first draft!

Check out the second article in this series.

This article was originally published by NPEngage.

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