by Erin Brenner
Professional copyeditors tend to think of the Web as devoid of good writing. Website owners will throw any old copy up on the site, careless of good grammar, never mind rhythm and style. While quality sites are out there (think the New York Times and The Atlantic), they still make mistakes and 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 they be? The competition is just a click away. If websites won’t give them what they want, they’ll find it somewhere else—fast. And what they want is pretty specific. Web users 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.
It turns out that web users have a pretty specific pattern that they consistently use, what’s commonly called the F pattern. They’re not reading every word; they’re reading a full line or two and the first few words in several lines. Only if they like what they see do they (maybe) go back and read the entire page.
Study results have also revealed other online reading habits, including
- They read slower online.
- They spend 80% of their time viewing information “above the fold.” That is, they’re looking at the first screenful of information, no matter how large or small the screen is.
- They don’t like large blocks of text.
- They like lists.
- They like white space.
- They read headlines but don’t always read subheads.
In response to that, writers and editors have created a style that keeps web users 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 readers only read subheads when they clearly say 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 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.
Some techniques for trimming words:
- Prefer single verbs over verb phrases: change are able to to can
- Use present tense instead of present progressive: change is going to goes
- Turn nominals into verbs: change make it clear that expectations for students to clearly expect students
Designers know how important white space, or negative space, is on the page. White space points readers to the important information on a page and gives them space to think, instead of overwhelming them with more information, forcing them to figure out what’s important.
Of course, we aren’t designing Web pages. We’re editing them—and likely editing just the text. But even if we’re just editing articles in an existing page template that’s busy with navigation and ads, we can help readers scan to find the important bits.
We’ve already looked at including subheads and utilizing short paragraphs within the text. All of these will help create white space, as well as easily scannable copy. When the text allows for it, create a bullet or numbered list. When creating lists
- Keep each item relatively short. If each bulleted item would be the size of a paragraph, don’t bullet them; just leave them as paragraphs. Don’t forget to break up large blocks and introduce 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. Editors know that parallelism improves clarity and readability. These things are doubly important online.
- 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.
Two additional ways you can format the text to make it more scannable:
- Create block quotes and pull quotes. This highlights important text and creates desirable white space.
- Create tables. Tables can help you say a lot in a small space. Make sure your table has sufficient and consistent white space, too.
There’s a lot more you can do to shape copy specifically for websites. Check out The Yahoo! Style Guide for detailed articles on writing for the Web and the BuzzFeed Style Guide for current styles and an amazing word list.
Web writing doesn’t have to be terrible. By applying some proven style guidelines, copyeditors can help any web page sing.
Erin Brenner has been editing the Web since 2000, and she hasn’t had to abandon her editorial values yet. Erin is co-owner of Copyediting, a 25-year-old publisher of materials just for copyeditors. Erin also runs Right Touch Editing, an editorial services company that specializes in marketing and Web copy. Follow Erin on Twitter and LinkedIn.