By Bryce Arghiere
The facts can dishearten. On average, Web users read 20% of the text on a webpage, covering around 62 words before leaving the site within 15 seconds. The challenge of writing for readers who barely read calls for a unique and fearless approach to editing.
Breaking Up Text
To get started, the user experience (UX) experts at the Nielsen Norman Group say, take the amount of text you would typically write on a topic and delete half of it. But don’t rush to throw it away. Instead, if you see value in keeping the removed text, divide it into subtopics, put each on its own page, and link to each from the original page. This makes it easier to fit the content on one screen so that readers don’t have to scroll (which is a poor user experience). Dividing up text also allows interested users to drill down for more specific content without cluttering the page for those who don’t need it. And most users won’t.
User Experience and Needs
In fact, most Web users scan more than they read and focus only on finding the information they are targeting. As a result, it’s important to identify who the audience is, what they are looking for, and what they want to do. This prepares you to edit out all but the most relevant information. To bring readers’ needs into focus, it can help to draw on UX practices, or introduce yourself to some UXers, and create user personas—that is, profiles of users from different demographics.
Informed about your users, you will have a better idea of what to cut and what to emphasize. Just as in print, there are many ways to emphasize text on the Web: italics, bold fonts, bulleted lists, etc. Where Web writing differs is that it is most effective when presented in small chunks, so users can scan the page, locate what they need, and “grab and go” (Redish 2007, 5). Short sentences and paragraphs, left-aligned text, and plenty of white space all make content more scannable.
Another way to make information clearer and more accessible is through tone. Speak directly to readers using the active voice, first- and second-person pronouns, and informal language, like you would in conversation. Below are additional editing tips to make it easy for readers to understand what they find:
- Remove buzzwords and jargon
- Use clear topic sentences
- Place key information at the beginning of the page, paragraphs, and sentences
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has put together a longer list of readability best practices, in which they recommend keeping sentences to under 25 words (in newer versions of Microsoft Word, spell check calculates average sentence length).
Editing for accessibility also means creating content that works with screen readers and other assistive technologies. Accessible Web content isn’t just a way to accommodate users with disabilities. It’s also a basic human right, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Below are a few ways editors can ensure content is accessible for all:
- Order content in a logical sequence
- Write descriptive titles, headings, and link text
- Include descriptive alt text for images
- Check links to make sure they work
In their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the W3C suggest around 200 more best practices for Web accessibility. Many of these suggestions pertain to the features and appearance of Web pages. While it may take a Web designer to actually edit a Web page, an editor can certainly check for particular features. According to the W3C, Web pages should:
- Have a link at the top going to the site’s home page
- Display interactive elements in an order that parallels the corresponding content
- Include a breadcrumb trail of hyperlinks, showing the page’s location within the site
- Have a Help link, if relevant
- Use headings for organization
- Describe links via link text and the context of the sentence
Because of the limited time Web users have to find what they need, any accessibility edits should focus on clarity. For Web editors, ensuring a page is accessible also means checking for sentence-level inconsistencies that can obscure the content’s message. These are often small details, just as relevant to print as to the Web.
But online, it is usually even more important to be as clear as possible. As a result, details are more important to catch. Here are some details that the W3C suggests watching for:
- Providing pronunciations in parentheses for difficult words
- Introducing each acronym immediately before or after the first appearance of its long form
- Using labels to describe the differences among color-based information or page elements, such as required form fields or color-coded tables.
These examples provide a starting point, but like any editing, sentence-level changes can be infinite. The key here is to emphasize the important information so users can easily access it.
Search Engine Optimization
For accessibility to matter, content must first be findable. With Web content, editing for SEO can raise a page’s findability in many ways. By beginning with the article’s title and meta description—the summary that appears on search results pages—you can boost findability very quickly. Effective meta descriptions, which you can edit by changing the content of the page’s HTML <meta> tag, should contain one or more of the page’s primary keyword phrases and elaborate briefly on the page’s content.
Likewise, the article title should reflect the content and contain keywords, if possible. Titles should also be vivid or catchy so that readers will recall them later and possibly retweet them. The best titles will bring your article extra exposure through the shares they get on social media. Subheadings are another strategic place to embed keywords. To make subheading text findable, though, it is essential to use a sequential hierarchy of HTML heading tags (<h1> – <h6>). These tags describe subheading text to search engine bots, which may then give the article a better ranking.
To ensure meta descriptions, titles, and subheadings actually improve SEO, a Web editor should ask the writer which keywords they selected and do some basic research to determine whether the current keywords are in fact best for the content. To start off, make a list of words that describe the article’s content and type them into the Google search bar. This will trigger Google’s list of auto-suggestions, containing related words and phrases that may work as keywords.
Audience analysis is another effective method for keyword selection. As with tone—and content in general—the best keywords must match the audience’s needs. One way to gauge this is to ask yourself a series of questions about site users’ needs and the relevance of potential keywords. This can give you an idea of what users’ Web searches may be and which words and phrases best capture those needs. Generally, simple yet specific and descriptive keywords result in the highest ranking.
After agreeing with the writer on which keywords to use, a Web editor should check to make sure the selected keywords are used often but without calling attention to themselves. Especially with clunky keyword phrases, it can be challenging to include keywords without the content reading like an address to the search engine bots. To keep the content reader-friendly, it may be best to use awkward keywords only if you have to and, even then, mostly in titles, headings, image alt text, captions, and lists. Doing so will preserve the flow of the writing without eliminating keywords.
However you use your keywords, be careful not to overuse them. In addition to often having little impact on a page’s search engine ranking, high keyword density can incur search engine ranking penalties (for keyword stuffing). In nearly every case, it also makes content more difficult to read.
Usefulness and Objectivity
Like high keyword density, a promotional tone does not work well for Web writing. Research shows that Web users of all ages process objective and informative writing much faster than promotional writing that contains unsupported claims. This highlights the importance both of editing for tone and of fact-checking Web content. Because of the amount of unreliable information on the Web, checking facts and sources is especially important for Web editors. If the information is credible, adding outbound links allows readers to confirm its accuracy.
Whether you seek conversions or click-throughs, the effectiveness of your content rests on its credibility and usefulness. Informative, accurate, and well-written content will not only rank high in search results, it will meet the needs of readers, almost as if written by one of them. It will exclude promotional writing and, in the words of usability expert Janice Redish, “market best by giving users the factual information they want as easily and quickly as possible” (110). For an editor faced with deleting half or more of a writer’s text, giving readers what they need when they need it may be just the rationale required to make the cuts and prepare the content for the Web.
Janice Redish, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works (San Francisco, CA: Elsevier, Inc., 2007).
Bryce Arghiere has been a language enthusiast since college. He is a member of the STC Carolina Chapter and Technical Editing SIG. His work experience includes writing, proofreading, and editing many types of content, from online Web marketing copy to technical documentation. Currently, he prepares and edits cybersecurity reports. He can be reached via email (email@example.com) or on LinkedIn.