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Is online writing really that different?

Type the words 'writing for the web' into Google and up will pop around 739,000,000 results in 0.41 seconds. I didn't get beyond the first 30 or so but it was clear from those that just about every academic institution, training course provider and professional writer has an awful lot to say on the subject. But is all of this special attention really necessary? Surely good writing is good writing. Is online writing really that different to writing for any other medium?

Yes. And no.

No. Because so much that's written about writing for the web could equally be said of other mediums. I repeatedly see the following tips on writing for the web.

  • Be concise
  • Use simple language
  • Know your audience
  • Adopt the right tone of voice
  • Engage your reader
  • Proofread carefully

Good online writing would be good writing if it were on the back of a jam jarIt's not bad advice. In fact, it's good advice — for ANY PIECE OF BUSINESS WRITING.

No. Because good online writing would be good writing if it were on the back of a jam jar — provided it obeyed all the other rules of jam jar writing, i.e. short, interesting and relevant to users of jam.

But yes, it does need to different in some aspects because...

Knowing what MEDIUM you're writing for is a crucial part of being a good writer.

Consider how your words could be interpreted — or misinterpreted — by non-native English speakersRegardless of the subject, you wouldn't approach a radio ad, a conference speech and a how-to manual in the same way. You'd know the rules for each medium and you'd adapt your style and content accordingly.

Equally, you'd be a pretty ineffective writer if you didn't consider your TARGET AUDIENCE.

As online writing has the potential to reach millions of people across the globe, you might need to consider how your words could be interpreted — or misinterpreted — by non-native English speakers.

And yes, because if you're also trying to improve your SEARCH RANKINGS, you'll need to write for two audiences — humans and machines.

However, it's worth pointing out that successful Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has got a lot less to do with blasting your copy with keywords and a lot more to do with throwing money at it.

If you really want to influence your search rankings, write content that humans like, find interesting and want to share.I won't go into all the ways you can improve your SEO in this blog post (I might tackle that one another time) but believe me when I say that the only way the little bookshop in your local high street is going to top Amazon is through some very clever and potentially expensive backend digital work and a very large online advertising budget.

If you really want to influence your search rankings, write content that humans like, find interesting and want to share. Then put some appropriate keywords in the title, introductory paragraph and subheads.

So for those of you looking for the SPECIFIC rules of online writing, here are my...

Ten top tips for writing online

1. Don't band all online writing together

Writing copy for the home page of a county council website isn't the same as writing copy for an online guide to recycling or a social media post on Christmas opening hours.

2. Do repeat your messages frequently

An ad on the back of a magazine can lie around for a year. Unless you write regularly, your posts and tweets will be lost in a sea of billions of others.

3. Don't oversell your products or services

Online audiences can make up their own minds, or ask millions of unbiased people what they think.

4. Do test your online writing on several platforms

Those 300 words look lovely laid out on the big screen. Squashed onto a phone, nobody can be bothered to read them.

5. Don't stuff your copy with obvious keywords

'For all your plumbing needs in Croydon come to Croydon Plumbing, the home of perfect plumbing in and around Croydon' could harm your site's ranking and turn off human visitors!

6. Do involve as many people as possible

If every blog post is written by your product manager you'll give people the impression that he's the only person who works at your organisation or that he's a bit of a control freak. Different points of view make blogs interesting. If you're a sole trader, try adapting your style, inviting guest bloggers or link your posts to complementary sites.

7. Don't be a slave to grammar

Online writing is (generally) scanned not read. If it's easier for people to scan bullet points, phrases and ridiculously short paragraphs, go for it.

8. Do use visual tricks

Such as numbers as figures (1, 2, 3, etc. as opposed to one, two, three) buttons, photo captions and subheads to draw readers to important information.

9. Don't write long chunks of text

Break your narrative up into lots of short non-linear paragraphs — each one making sense on its own.

10. Do add links to other pages and websites

The beauty of the web is NOT having to tell someone everything at once. Give them the bare bones or the teaser then encourage them to go elsewhere for more info.

If you're still hungry for advice, here's a few more good sources:

BBC Academy: Writing for the web
University of Exeter: Writing for the web
Web Wise Wording: 10 Web Writing Tips
Google Webmaster Tools: About rich snippets and structured data