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Copy writing tips for the web and social media

There are three key words to keep in mind when writing for the web and social media:

  • Brief
  • Clear
  • Compelling

The seven key elements of electronic copy writing

  1. Write short sentences
  2. Write in small blocks of copy—short paragraphs (one sentence paragraphs are perfectly acceptable on the web)
  3. Leverage sub-heads that are action words
  4. Use bullet points to separate and call out elements
  5. Write with Anglo-Saxon words…”walk” not “ambulate"
  6. Use emotional language on the web and social media—this is a personal medium
  7. Prompt the reader to take action with your copy

Critical elements and best practices to keep in mind when writing for the Web

Online readers are different

Research shows that online readers use vastly different sections of the brain than offline readers.  In short, the brain is conditioned to skip around when online reading, as clicking on a link, for example, will reward the brain with new images and content.

Writing effectively online doesn't mean that every reader reads every single word you write.  It means they can quickly and efficiently get the information that is most important to them and move on.

Write compelling but clear headlines

Don't get cute.  The headline is almost always the first thing readers read.  Make sure it is clear and gives the reader a good idea of what the content is about. This is not only important for the reader but also for Search Engine Optimization.

Write in the active voice

Effective online writing is all about getting to the point and the most effective way to do that is to use the active voice.

Online writing is visual

Create white space in your copy by keeping paragraphs short and using bulleted lists when appropriate.  Use bold print to accent key information and use block or pull quotes to draw readers into the copy.

Scannable copy blocks

Copy for the web must have easy to scan copy blocks—research tells us that online readers will pass by your story/copy if it has long paragraphs with few breaking points.  It’s simply too hard to read online when it’s written in that style.

Strong call to action

Copy for the web and social media should also have a strong call to action (if appropriate).  Make sure that it’s very obvious what you want the readers to do.  (i.e. register today, visit our school, take this class, sign up for this program)

Leverage Sub-Heads

You will increase the ability of your readers to scan, digest, and understand your copy if you utilize sub-heads frequently in your copy.  Sub-heads allow the reader to scan the page and determine what they will read.

General copy tips to keep in mind

  • Remove all vague attributes from your web copy—if you can’t back up what you are saying with concrete examples that are important to your readers, don’t put it on the page.
  • If writing a FAQ section, make sure the questions you’re answering are actual questions the readers want answered and leverage the interactivity of the web by providing links to additional related information within your answer.
  • Using numbers in copy draws attention to the copy and increases the likelihood of it getting read on the web.
  • Copy for the web should be personal—use of the words “you” and “I” is perfectly acceptable in web writing.
  • Sub-heads should be action words, not labels.  They should motivate the reader to the next text section and they should appear more frequently in web copy than in print.
  • Paragraphs must be brief (short blocks of copy).  In most cases, a paragraph on the web should not be more than 50 words and/or 5-7 sentences.
  • The length of the story or the page on the web is not as important as adhering to the other basic tips such as short blocks of copy.  If the opening sentence in the copy block is interesting and compelling enough—readers will continue to scroll down the page to read.
  • Web writing is generally more informal, more personal, more engaging.  Sentence fragments are OK in web writing from time to time.
  • Do not underline words in web copy. An underline indicates a hyperlink.  Instead, use the subhead functionality of our Content Management System.
  • Never use the words "Click here" for a link:

While there are many resources on the web that cite the deficiencies of using “click here,” here are some of the most commonly cited:

  • "Click here” is bad for search engines. If you say “For information on pneumonia, click here” search engines won’t know that your document contains a link to a document about pneumonia. Some important search engines use the link text in estimating the relevance of a link. Using a descriptive link text thus helps users in finding documents they’re interested in, potentially including your document due to a link text with some key word.
  • There’s usually a fairly simple way to do things better. Instead of the text “For information on pneumonia, click here,” you could simply write “Pneumonia information.”
  • “Click here” just looks stupid
  • “Click here” looks especially stupid when printed on paper
  • “Click here” is useless in a list of links or when in “links reading” mode, or whenever a link text is considered as isolated from its textual or visual context
  • “Click here” is device-dependent. There are several ways to follow a link, with or without a mouse. Users probably recognize what you mean, but you are still conveying the message that you think in a device-dependent way.

Additionally, it’s extremely important to keep visitors with disabilities in mind. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen writes:

Users with dyslexia may have problems reading long pages and will be helped if the design facilitates scannability by proper use of headings…selecting words with high information content as hypertext anchors will help these users, as well as blind users, scan for interesting links (no “click here,” please).

How long should an article or story be online?

Industry best practices say that word count isn't as important as leveraging the tips and best practices listed above.  However, a good rule of thumb is to keep in mind the 3-2-1 formula.

For every 1,000 or so words that you write in an online article or blog post, be sure to include:

  • Three sub-heads: Sub-heads are bold, one-line headlines that break up long chunks of text and organize information.
  • Two links: Links offer additional information for readers who want to go deeper.
  • One graphical element: A photo, chart or anything else visual helps readers.  Whatever you use, make sure it advances the story--don't just post a photo in the post for the sake of posting a photo