Writing for the web – what’s the difference?
This is a guest post by Michelle James, post-grad student in writing and publishing at UQ and all-round lovely lady. Michelle interviewed me about what working as a web copywriter entails and the fundamental differences between print and online. Here’s her take on the conversation.
Writing well still the key
Since the mechanised printing press was invented in the early nineteenth century, the
writer’s craft has been crucial for communicating with mass audiences. With the
emergence of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s—and the proliferation of web
sites, blogs, and social networking—society is more text-dependent than ever.
Organisational writers today must be technologically savvy or willing to learn.
Entrenched Luddites need not apply.
The initialism-infused digital age of URL, HTML, PDF, RSS, and SEO can be a
confusing place for people who grew up before the advent of new media—those who
e-learning specialist Marc Prensky has dubbed ‘digital immigrants’. (For the uninitiated,
the above initials denote Uniform Resource Locator, HyperText Mark-up Language,
Portable Document Format, Really Simple Syndication, and Search Engine Optimisation
respectively. For clarification of these terms, please see the Internet.)
Twentysomething Sarah McVeigh is a ‘digital native’, someone for whom personal
computers, e-mail, and the Internet have always been an integral part of life. As a
copywriter for Bluewire Media, a web-strategy firm in Brisbane, McVeigh says that, no
matter what medium you are writing for, the reader must come first. “You need to give
people valuable information.”
With this first principle in mind, there are distinct considerations that arise when writing
for the web, such as optimising text for search engines. Search engines—Google being
the behemoth—are computer programs that sort through large amounts of web-site text to
find keywords, which are then indexed. When someone types specific words into Google,
it checks these against its keyword indexes and the best matches are returned as ranked
hits. Search engine optimisation means including keywords in web copy to move a web
site up a search engine’s ranking.
“You need to always have SEO in mind and always be writing with search engines as a
priority but it’s really important to only ever put it second. Your web site exists for the
human visitor and you can’t lose sight of that. When you go to web sites that are so
stuffed with keywords—because they want Google to find them—you just click straight
off them because they’re not valuable to you. A search engine won’t buy your product; a
search engine won’t engage with you,” McVeigh says emphatically.
People read on screen differently than they read material printed on paper, skimming
rather than reading closely. The presence of images, pop-ups, and hyperlinks encourages
non-linear reading. For this reason, scannability—using headings, bullet points, and short
McVeigh advocates brevity. “People have ever-shorter attention spans and you are
competing with the rest of the web for somebody’s attention. You have to be concise and
grab the reader quickly so you don’t lose out to this other site over here. I suggest you
leave long-winded prose at the door. It really doesn’t have a place on the Internet,” she
“For other writing—for a magazine feature, for example—you can paint a picture and
then go into the specifics. You don’t have the flexibility to do that when writing for the
web. Lower down in the site hierarchy you can … but on that home page you’ve got to
say who you are, what you’re offering, and where [the reader] can find the information
So do grammar rules still apply to the World Wide Web, or can writers be a little more
‘creative’? “I think they should apply. Grammar is very important. Organisations want
their web sites to be professional. They don’t want their branding to go out the window.
With blogs, you can be a little less formal and the writer can use their own voice, be more
colloquial. But I don’t think the web is an excuse for sloppiness,” she says.
At Bluewire Media, McVeigh’s workdays are spent creating copy for clients’ web sites,
re-writing—which she describes as “webifying”—supplied content, and writing articles
for Bluewire’s blog. She says that she uses her own writing style only for the blog. “You
use lots of headings, bolding, bullet points, and image captions when writing for the web.
It’s very different to how you’d write for an offline publication. For the blog, the style is
conversational. I’m discussing things, such as SEO, that people may not be clued in on,
so I write it in a way that they would understand. That casual style is mine. The actual
structure of web copywriting is a learned thing, as opposed to a style thing.”
McVeigh, who aims to become a professional journalist after completing her Bachelor of
Journalism degree at Queensland University of Technology, is finding her courses
relevant to her part-time copywriting role. “They go hand-in-hand. My degree covers
sub-editing, search engine optimisation, the use of blogs, and having a real understanding
for writing for the web, as opposed to, say, writing for a newspaper.”
For organisational writers taking their first steps into the unknown world of the web,
there are resources available. McVeigh suggests Glenn Murray’s e-books on SEO
copywriting, which are available online. “Glenn Murray’s e-books are really insightful.
He was a technical writer before he was a web copywriter so he knows how to explain
Murray majored in English literature and linguistics at university and describes himself as
“no techo” who, accordingly, understands “the importance of explaining things in
layperson’s terms”. His e-books cover strategies to increase a web site’s search engine
ranking, but not at the expense of readability. Like McVeigh, he emphasises writing
helpful content. “If you write for your reader first, and you do focus on quality, you’ll
find you won’t have to do much optimisation of your copy at all.”
The World Wide Web is the new ascendant. Although the medium has changed in the
two centuries since the mechanised printing press revolutionised mass communication,
the principles of good writing have not. Effective communication through the written
word still connects the writer and the reader. Nevertheless, organisational writers have
additional factors to contend with in the digital age. For McVeigh, writing for the web
presents one unique challenge. “Not being distracted by the Internet,” she laughs.