Understanding the origin
of the written word will help you
become a better web writer.

The history of writing

Summary: the origins of writing.

It’s in our nature to give structure and order to things, from shopping lists to favourite movies, music, books, etc. Lists are part of popular TV culture, they fill the internet and the creation of the internet itself is high on the list of the most important inventions in history.

How writing began

The history of writing has its own significant events, going back 10,000 years.

Our ancestors used individual clay tokens to list their agricultural produce–the shape conveyed the meaning, for example a conical token meant a measure of corn.

To add more meaning, to distinguish between types of sheep (rams, ewes, lambs), marks were made on the tokens themselves, which were stored in large clay pots that were also marked to indicate their contents.

The first tablet

About 3,200 BC the first tablet was created, 5,500 years before the iPad in 2010.

Individual tokens and their bulky containers became obsolete as the idea of writing things down on a convenient clay tablet spread. More developments followed:

Today’s pace of technological change risks a loss of focus on the fundamental need to understand how and what we write–and for who.

The understanding of written communication is as important now as it was thousands of years ago.

How the web is read Back to top

Summary: people don’t read websites, they scan them. Writing for the web must be tailored to the user’s needs.

Jakob Nielsen argues ‘web pages have to employ scannable text’ using specific techniques:

Nielsen also found that credibility is important for web users, since it is unclear who is behind information on the web and if a page can be trusted.

Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound hypertext links. Links to other sites show that authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites.

The use of boastful claims (‘best ever’ is ‘detested’ by users, they want plain facts. This promotional writing style is dubbed ‘marketese’ by Nielsen and should be avoided at all costs.

10 web writing tipsBack to top

Summary: writing for the web is totally different to writing for printed material. Follow these guidelines to improve your communication skills.

  1. Read Jacob Nielsen’s articles
  2. It’s hard not to agree with everything he says. His tips to improve your web writing are further explained below.

  3. Never assume knowledge
  4. Write for your target audience. The reader might not understand phrases that you assume everyone knows. For example, saying ‘it’s just not cricket’ will not mean anything to millions of people who don’t know (or don’t care) anything about the sport.

  5. Get the basics right
  6. Give yourself the time to research, write and edit your article before you start designing. Read it out loud to check it makes sense. Ask somebody else to read it to see if they understand what you’re trying to say.

    Always use spell-check, but don’t totally rely on it. A spell-checker would be perfectly happy with this sentence: ‘The Primer Minister mad a trip tot he White Hose to discus the issue wit the President’–but it doesn’t make much sense.

    Use clear and simple language:

    • avoid slang, jargon or boastful language
    • use short words where possible
    • avoid complex sentence structures, keep to one idea per sentence
    • use active not passive words–‘we won the award’ is shorter and easier to understand than ‘the award was won by us’.

  7. Front-load content
  8. This means putting the conclusion first, followed by more detail. Readers need to know:

    • who
    • what
    • where
    • when
    • why.

    This tip applies to paragraphs and web pages. Most news websites use this technique. You don’t need a beginning, middle and end when to comes to writing for the web.

  9. Only one idea per paragraph
  10. This also helps the reader scan, get the general meaning and move on to the next paragraph.

  11. Use descriptive sub-headings
  12. Breaking up text with descriptive sub-headings allows users to easily see what each section of the page is about. Within the page there should be various sub-themes which can be quickly put across with sub-headings.

    As a suggestion, aim for a sub-heading every two/three paragraphs.

    More importantly, the sub-headings should help organise content into logical groups, allowing site visitors to easily access the information that they’re after.

  13. Use bold type to emphasise important words
  14. Pick out two/three words in some paragraphs, the ones that best describe the main point of the paragraph. This helps users gain an instant understanding of the content before deciding whether to read more.

    Make sure these key words make sense out of context; this tip is not about words you want to emphasise, it’s about conveying meaning.

  15. Use lists
  16. Lists are:

    • easier to scan-read
    • less intimidating
    • more succinct.

  17. Descriptive link text
  18. In the same way that bold text stands out to screen-scanning web users, so does link text. Avoid link text such as ‘click here’, it makes no sense out of context so is useless to site visitors scanning web pages.

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