Beyond the F-shaped structure: 4 language tips to make your web copy more readable
Back in March I wrote a blog post on why structuring and formatting for F-pattern readers is essential. In that post I talked about how most people read on a screen, and gave you four tips to help you do it effectively.
(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, it’s probably worth checking it out before you read this one. It’ll give you a lot of background for why on-screen readability is such a big deal.)
Of course, there’s more to readable copy than just good structure and format.
The way you use language can also make your copy easier (or harder) to read on a screen.
If you’re new to web copywriting, here are four quick and easy hacks to keep your copy flowing smoothly for on-screen readers.
#1 – Shorten or split long sentences
In my March article I mentioned that reading text on a screen takes longer than reading the same text in print.
Granted, screen quality and resolution have both improved in the 20 years since Jakob Nielsen discovered the 25% gap in speed between the formats. But the general principle still holds true.
It’s easy to see why overly-long sentences cause problems for web readers. By the time they reach the end of the sentence, they’ve probably forgotten how it started.
When I did my “Writing for the Web” training, I learned these sentence-length standards:
- Keep most sentences under 20 words.
- Don’t go over 25 words in a single sentence.
- Don’t be afraid to use one-word sentences and paragraphs. (Just don’t do it too often.)
Got any sentences longer than this? Look for unnecessary words you can delete, or find ways to rewrite them in fewer words. Alternatively, consider splitting a complex sentence into two or more shorter ones.
#2 – Get active (at least in your voice)
Are you clear on the difference between passive and active voice? If primary school grammar was a long time ago, here’s a quick refresher:
- With active voice, the main subject of the sentence ACTIVELY does something, often to someone or something else (e.g. “The cat sat on the mat”). Sentences written in active voice tend to be shorter, simpler and clearer.
- With passive voice, the main subject of the sentence PASSIVELY has something done to it, usually by someone or something else (e.g. “The mat was sat on by the cat”). Sentences written in passive voice tend to be longer, more convoluted, and more “murky”.
Now despite what Buzzfeed-style list articles (and some grammar checkers) claim, using passive voice is NOT a grammatical error. It’s a totally valid way to write a sentence. And it can be useful, especially if you don’t know exactly who performed the action. (It’s also great for taking the attention off someone so they don’t look bad.)
But passive voice can really bog your writing down. It makes your sentences longer and less clear—the last thing you want in web copy.
So unless you have a good reason to keep them passive, write your sentences in active voice.
#3 – Use the shortest, simplest words to convey your meaning
Einstein is often quoted as saying, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler”.
And it’s especially true in web copy.
I love this quote because it recognises that the shortest word isn’t always the right one. Sure, sometimes you can just say “blue”. But at other times you may genuinely need “cerulean” or “cobalt” or “turquoise”.
That said, creating readable copy involves using the simplest language to accurately communicate your meaning. Here are some practical tips to make that happen.
- Check whether there’s a shorter word you can use. Most people sub-vocalise (silently speak words in their minds) when they read. The more syllables a word has, the longer it will take them to read. So ask yourself whether your readers really need to “utilise” a technique. Maybe they can just “use” it. And do they need to “purchase” your programme, or can they just “buy” it?
- Watch out for nominalisations. These words are born when someone takes simple verbs such as “develop” and “admire”, and turns them into nouns such as “development” and “admiration”. Not only does it increase the syllable count, it also forces you to add a few more words to make it work (e.g. “the development of”). If you find nominalisations cropping up in your copy, try to cut them back to their simpler verb forms.
- Don’t be afraid to use contractions. You were probably taught not to use contractions (e.g. “don’t” instead of “do not”) at school. But they actually make your copy more conversational and relatable. (They also cut out an extra word—bonus.)
#4 – Write TO your reader, not about them
When you write for corporate or academic readers, you’re often encouraged to take yourself – and them – out of the picture. It’s almost as if the writing has to exist totally independently of the person who wrote it to be credible.
Writing for the web is different. Keeping people’s attention means proving that what you’ve written is relevant to them. And a big part of that is writing in second person (“you”), rather than third person (“he”, “she”, “they”).
Think about it: which option is more likely to keep you reading?
- “People shouldn’t use third person in their copy. Their readers will find it less engaging.”
- “Don’t use third person in your copy. Your readers will find it less engaging.”
It’s number two, right? That’s because using “you” makes you feel like I’m talking to you rather than about you.
Good web copy is all about making things easy for your reader
If you’re new to web copywriting, especially if you’ve come from a corporate or academic background, these tips might sound strange to you. You may even think I’m asking you to turn the rules of writing on their heads.
But writing well for the web is all about keeping the purpose of your copy in mind.
You want people to read what you’ve written, and then take action. And anything that makes it harder will reduce the chances of it happening.
In the end, writing good web copy is all about making it as easy as possible for people to do what you want them to.
Over to you
Know any other tips and tricks that make writing easier to read on a screen? Tell us about them.