Writing and production for the web

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Why should people read us?
You need to persuade your reader to read. Make the reading experience valuable for them.
Online readers often arrive at your story cold, from a search engine. Sometimes they arrive from a link. But mostly there is no context for what they see. They are not flipping through a magazine that they are familiar with.

Alarming statistics:

  • How long do people spend reading a web page? 27 seconds (maybe less now)
  • What are the most read parts? first 2 words of each headline

[Research: Jakob Neilsen]

How people read:
Cool experiments with laser tracking of people’s eye movements show that people read the web like this.
It’s called the ‘F’-shaped page – because it kind of looks like an ‘F’. Sort of.
Here’s what people look at:

  • The top of the page (the headline).
  • The bit in the middle.
  • The left hand margin

There’s some more about this here.
The left margin is important. People skim down this to see if there’s anything on the page to grab their attention.
How NOT to do it
Here is a web page about the Great Depression of the 1930s. Have a look and see why it’s not the kind of thing you’d want to spend time with.
It’s just a big block of text. there’s nothing to grab the attention.

What does this mean for us as journalists?
How does this change our writing and subbing? What are we trying to achieve?
We need to capture readers’ attention. And keep them engaged with our content.
Two key ideas:

  1. Scanability
  2. Engagement

1] Scanability
“Good web writing is like good print writing – only more so.”

  • Headline is a tight summary of the content
  • First para is a brief overview of the conclusion
  • One idea per paragraph
  • Shorter paragraphs than print
  • Fewer words than print [about 50%]
  • Think lists and bullets
  • Use clear, concise language – your page is visible worldwide
  • Nested structure – levels of heading

Structure changes

  • Lots of short chunks of material that can stand alone but also refer to one another.
  • Structure is more web-like less linear
  • Less linking of paragraphs in text [therefore, nevertheless]
  • Link paras with bullets, hyperlinks

Things we hate in print – or don’t work – are often good online:

  • Bullet points
  • Lists
  • Highlighted keywords
  • Clickable links

Things we often like in print (though perhaps wrongly) are extra bad online:

  • Punning/clever headlines
  • Big blocks of text
  • Big words/complex argument/extended narrative

How not to do it –writing for the web in the same old print style:
Much Better:
Some rules

  • Cut waffle
  • Cut extra words
  • Be objective
  • Be precise

Always ask – why should people read this – and how?

2] Engagement

How do we engage the reader?
Links can:
[A] Refer back to stories
What effect does this have on current content?
[less recap exposition]
[B] Link to outside material to add value.


Reworking a print feature for the web


  • The feature as it started: written for print – very discursive – text heavy


  • Work out the structure – what is it actually saying?
  • List these to help with the editing


  • Use the structure to break the piece down with crossheads

Serious editing

  • “Chunking” the copy to make it more bite-sized
  • Shuffling it around to work with the crossheads
  • Breaking out some opinion into a separate blog entry


  • Add tables and bullet points to get information across visually


  • Add the introduction – the finished piece