E-style

Online Editing 101

We all know that writing for the Web is different. People read web content differently than they do books and our writing must adjust accordingly. That doesn’t mean we leave the grammar and composition lessons behind. Far from it! Grammar and style are just as important as they ever were. There’s just a lot more competition for your reader’s eye when viewing a blog page and you need to organize your writing to help keep them focused on what you have to say.

Studies have shown that most readers’ eyes follow a triangular pattern across and down a web page beginning at the top left of the screen. These eye-tracking studies tell us we have to grab our reader’s interest at the beginning of our post in order to keep them reading. Most online readers scan first, looking for relevant words, phrases and images. Do you get to the point of your article right away? Do you use headings to identify topics within your article? These items will help your readers determine if your article is something they want to read.

Another thing that makes online writing different is that you aren’t just writing for human readers. You also have machines reading your copy. Huh? Search engines have been programmed to look for keywords and topics to help categorize your article so it can be found when a potential reader types the appropriate search term into his search box. How does a search engine do this? Your post titles, categories and tags all help, but your use of HTML within your article not only formats your words to look good but tells the search engines that these words or phrases are important.

Styles selector in the WordPress editor.
Styles selector in the WordPress editor.

Using styles to define the formatting of your content is a quick and easy way to maintain consistency within an article. Here you see the styles selector in the WordPress editor toolbar. These style tags also identify headings and sub-headings to the search engines as important content. The HTML specification supports six levels of headings. While we have often just used these levels to identify six different kinds of formatting, it’s important to remember that the machines and programs distributing and searching our content see them as levels of importance. Use your heading styles to present the organizational hierarchy of the content first and as formatting styles second.

In addition to headings, search engines will look for lists – bulleted and numbered – for important content. Lists are also useful for catching that scanning human eye because it gets your points out front where they can been seen.

One other thing that will make your readers’ experience better is consistency. Are you using consistent formats for presenting dates, phone numbers and units of measure? How about capitalization and abbreviations? Your machine readers will see St. Augustine and Saint Augustine as two different places and may not connect that it is an important term because it has been repeated. Consistency tells your human readers that you are a writer who is serious about every detail – someone worth reading.

If you’d like to learn more about editing web content, visit the Editing 101 section of the online Yahoo! Style Guide. Better yet, grab your own copy of The Book. It’s available in both paper and ebook editions.

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