Professional copyeditors often believe that the web is devoid of good writing. They argue that website owners will throw any old copy up on the site, careless of good grammar, let alone rhythm and style. While quality sites are out there (think The New York Times and The Atlantic), many more websites are in need of a skillful copyeditor to help raise standards.
Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen has said that web users are “selfish, lazy, and ruthless.” And why shouldn’t we be? The competition is just a click away. If websites won’t give us what we want, we’ll find it somewhere else—fast. And what we want is pretty specific. We go online to:
- Solve a problem
- Learn something
- Get information
- Be entertained
Usability experts like Nielsen have learned how we read online through eye-tracking studies and other research. Eye tracking uses technology to follow a web user’s eye movement on the page: what they look at, in what order, and for how long.
Online Reading Habits
It turns out that we have some specific patterns we use online, such as the F pattern. We’re not reading every word; we’re reading a little bit here and a little bit there. Only if we like what we see do we (maybe) go back and read the entire page.
Study results have also revealed other online reading habits, including:
- We read slower online.
- We spend 80% of our time viewing information “above the fold.”
- We don’t like large blocks of text.
- We like lists.
- We like white space.
- We like headlines and subheads.
In response to that, writers and editors have created a style that keeps visitors reading, some of which is influenced by others styles of writing, such as marketing and journalism.
There are two main areas copyeditors can work on to help ensure copy is styled for web reading: editing copy and formatting copy.
All of your usual editing tasks still apply: correcting for grammar and usage, ensuring proper sentence structure, protecting the writer’s voice while clarifying ideas, and so on.
But just as you would do these tasks and yet edit a news story differently from a textbook, basing your work on the medium and desired writing style, you’ll approach web copy differently from copy in other media.
Start with a clear and specific headline. Readers have been taught not to click on suspicious-looking links. Don’t let your title seem suspicious.
Make sure the subheads are clear and specific, too. Subheads are great for breaking up long articles, but like headlines, they have to be descriptive. Research shows that we only read subheads when they clearly tell us what’s coming up.
Because dense paragraphs are hard to read online, break up paragraphs into smaller chunks. Try for two to three sentences per paragraph. For example, one paragraph might contain a topic sentence and a supporting fact. The paragraphs that follow should have one to two more supporting facts until the topic is done.
One-sentence or one-word paragraphs can help with the pacing of the whole article. They grab the reader’s attention. An emphatic statement or a shift in topic is a good candidate for a one-sentence paragraph.
Next, ensure that the most important idea is at the start of the paragraph. The copy needs to grab readers’ attention right away and hold on to it.
Similarly, put the most important idea at the front of the sentence. This is the position of power in an English sentence. Think about it: the heart of any sentence is the subject and the verb—most often the doer and the action. In English, we generally put the subject and verb up front. The simplest sentences are just that: subjects and verbs.
You can help push those ideas to the front of the sentence by using active voice:
Passive voice: The manuscript was edited by Jamie.
Active voice: Jamie edited the manuscript.
Not every sentence needs to be in active voice, however. Sometimes the receiver is more important and should be front-loaded in the sentence. Remember, too, that variety in sentence styles keeps readers’ interest.
Finally, trim the deadwood anywhere you can. Because most site visitors scan rather than read, every word counts. Sometimes you need more words to explain a concept, and that’s fine. But make sure every word delivers meaning.
Creating Vertical Lists
White space points us to the important information on a page and gives us space to think instead of overwhelming us with more information, forcing us to figure out what’s important.
Including subheads and utilizing short paragraphs help create white space. When the text allows for it, a vertical list can also help create white space and support scanning habits. When creating lists:
- Keep each item relatively short. If each item would be the size of a paragraph, make them paragraphs instead, breaking up large blocks and introducing subheads as necessary.
- Bold the introductory phrase or sentence of each bullet. Also, ensure the bolded text is the main takeaway of the bullet. Readers who only read the bolded text will get the message.
- Make all of the list items parallel. Parallelism improves clarity and readability, doubly important in online reading.
- Reserve numbered lists for sequential items. Numbered items will then tell the reader something important.
- Avoid embedding lists within lists. Because they’re indented so much, embedded lists are hard to follow. Readers who are scanning may miss them completely.
There’s a lot more you can do to shape copy specifically for websites. Check out Right Touch Editing’s Web Editing Resources for detailed articles on writing for the web and use our Web Editing Checklist while copyediting your next webpage. Web writing doesn’t have to be terrible. By applying some proven style guidelines, copyeditors can help any web page sing.
A version of this article originally published in December 2015 on Corrigo, the official publication of the STC Technical Editing SIG.