20 tips on how to write for the Web

By WebdesignerDepot Staff Posted Aug. 06, 2009 Reading time: 7 minutes

There are really only a few tricks to writing properly for the web. If you know how to write, you are already 95% of the way there.

These are some of the more common mistakes that I’ve seen in web copy and some tricks that I use every day to write effectively, from e-mails to site pages. You don’t need to be an English major to understand any of this advice either. It is written in plain English that everyone can understand.

These are tips based on my own experience and education as a writer, and particularly as a writer specializing in the web. If you’ve got some tips of your own feel free to share them in the comments section.

1. It’s versus its

This is a very common mistake that a lot of people make. It’s is short for “it is”, so “it’s all relative” is correct while “it’s color is blue” is not. “Its” is a term of possession, so “its color is blue” is correct.

2. Overuse of punctuation

Excess punctuation should be left out of most sentences on the web. If a reader sees a sentence with more than one comma, the sentence becomes harder to scan and therefore more likely to turn a reader off. More advanced punctuation such as semi-colons and colons should be avoided completely by starting new sentences instead.

Example: “It is really important to keep three principles in mind, when thinking of the best shoes to buy; comfort, style, and eco-impact.” Should be: “Comfort, syle, and eco-impact should be kept in mind when thinking of the best shoes to buy.” Short, sweet and no semi-colon.

3. One space after a period

This is something I struggle with daily. It was drilled into my head, especially during University, that two spaces after a period were needed. The convention for web writing is now one space after a period. This is something that the owner of this blog gently pointed out to me, and I researched it extensively before implementing it. He was completely right.

4. Don’t begin sentences with “But”, “And”, or “Yet”

This is more common than you would think, and I have seen it from very established writers. If you are challenging a concept from the previous paragraph or sentence, use “However” to start the sentence. If you are trying to follow up on an idea from a previous sentence, don’t begin a new paragraph and just present the idea in the next sentence. Your audience will leap with you without an introductory “and” or “but”.

5. Overuse of “also”

I go through all of my articles for what I call the “A Word” before releasing them into the wild. “Also” has its time and place, but frequent use looks like a grammatical hiccup and is highly noticeable after a while to your reader.

6. Keep sentences short

While this was covered in the section on punctuation, it is important enough that it needs its own heading. A sentence should never be longer than a line. If you need to list something, do it with bullet points or an attractive graphic rather than producing a long sentence.

7. The serial comma

The serial comma is used before a grammatical conjunction, such as “and” for the last item in a list of commas. Its use has been a topic of hot debate by writers and people in the publishing industry for a long time.

Since web writing aims to keep itself as simple as possible, the usual preference is to do without the serial comma. Some clients will insist on its use, especially if they are in occupations where a more formal use of language is the norm, such as law.

Example: “She likes the films of Ridley Scott, Martin Scorcese, and Clint Eastwood.” Technically its use is never really incorrect, but it does serve as excessive punctuation that can trip up the reader.

You want your audience to read the sentence, not to pause on the comma and ponder whether or not it is being used correctly.

8. Capitalize words in headlines

Excepting prepositions (of, to, for, is) and the words “and” and “the”, all major words in a headline should be capitalized. I see a lot of copy where only the first letter of the headline is capitalized.

9. Their, there, and they’re

Their: Is a term used to illustrate possession, such as “their mitts were soaking wet”. There: Indicates the whereabouts of something, such as “the statue is located there”. They’re: This is a contraction of “they are”. “They’re going to the beach today.”

10. Use lots of headlines

Ideally, any site page or blog posting should read much like this article, with a headline and then a paragraph or two.

Headlines act as important signposts for the reader to decide whether or not they want to read those paragraphs, so the headline should always describe the subject matter of the paragraphs which follow it. This will look weird to those used to more conventional forms of writing, but the more you break it up, the more readable it is.

11. Use spell check and your eyes

Spell check isn’t always enough. If you spell “breakfast” as “break fast”, the typical spell check will not pick up on your mistake.

This is especially important for site copy. You can’t expect people to trust your brand or product if you have spelling mistakes on your page. While a spelling mistake may be forgiven by your readers in a hastily written article or blog posting, it won’t be if it is present on a page that is trying to sell something.

12. Weasel words

These are vague generalizations that are made for the convenience of the writer, not the audience.

If a writer is rushed for time, they may write something like “most people feel that juice is 100% tasty”. The proper procedure is to find out the statistics and facts and work those into the sentence. The correct form would be “60% of people feel that juice is 100% tasty, while only 5% feel that it is only 10% tasty”. Web readers are reading your site to get information, not opinions.

13. Then and than

These words are very commonly misused. Then is indicative of a place in time, such as “there was no internet back then”. Than is a quantitative term, which can follow the use of “more”, such as “there is no more annoying thing than a writer telling people how to write.”

14. Apostrophe use

When you are considering whether or not to use an apostrophe, look at your demographic.

Is it a blog like this one that would benefit from a more casual style? Is it a website for a financial adviser? The web is usually home to a more conversational style, but where you feel the context is more professional, don’t use the apostrophe.

Examples: Personal Blog for a financial adviser: “You’re going to find the new SEC regulations difficult to navigate without a little help.” Website copy for a financial adviser: “You are going to find the new SEC regulations difficult to navigate without a little help.”

15. Obscure references

Think of these as in-jokes with yourself or your industry that your clients just don’t get.”This new album is more explosive than the Tunguska Event!” would be a good example of an obscure reference.

Again, this is context-specific. Referring to an episode of Star Trek by name will go over just fine on a Trekkie blog, but not in a mainstream news piece on science fiction.

16. Acronym use

It is a good idea to limit acronym use even if you think your audience will know the acronym.

The 10% who don’t know it will be annoyed and may click off of your site. If an acronym will be repeated throughout a site page or an article, it is only necessary to define it the first time it is used. Once again, this is context-specific.

You don’t need to spell out AJAX for the readers of this blog, while you would have to for a mainstream media article. Wrong Acronym Use: “CPIC, CSIS, and the PAO are running a joint venture to better educate the public about how hard drugs finance international terrorism.”

Right Acronym Use: “The Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and the Police Association of Ontario (PAO) are running a joint venture to better educate the public about how hard drugs finance international terrorism.”

17. Keep person on track

If you are referring to yourself as “I” at the start of your piece, don’t shift to “we” in the middle. Keep grammatical person use consistent.

18. Use hyperlinks

If you are writing for the web, you want readers to be able to interact with your page.

You saw this above with the “Tunguska Event”. It was linked to a definition rather than leaving it up to you to look it up if you were interested. If you are writing site copy for a business offering a product or service, use links to other areas of the site here and there to make it even easier for customers to find what they are looking for. Keep both inbound and outbound links relevant and don’t use too many

19. Overuse of literary devices

This is just good advice for any writing, online or offline.

Overuse of metaphors, similes, or any other literary device will distract from the point of your composition and make you look pretentious. Literary devices are meant to help you get a point across in a certain way, so use them if you have to sparingly and move on.

20. Words to avoid: Just and regardless

“Just” can end up insulting your reader by implying that an action is easier than it actually is.

Look at the difference between these two sentences: “She says that I should just learn the French language.” “She says that I should learn the French language.

The first example makes it seem like the person is being talked down to, while the second sentence reads as more of a suggestion.Regardless should be avoided as it is a nonsense word that really doesn’t mean anything at all, right along with its sister word, irregardless. When included at the beginning of a sentence, the words are not necessary, as you can see in these examples:

Regardless, the show must go on.
Irregardless, the show must go on.
The show must go on.


Written exclusively for WDD by Angela West.

Feature image by Shutterstock

Do you have a pet peeve word or phrase that you would like to see eliminated from the web or tips of your own? Share them in our comments section!