There is a distinct difference in people’s mind between “writing for the Web” and “writing.” I get more than 54 million results for a search on “writing for the Web,” going all the way back to Jakob Nielsen’s classic article from 1997.
But a closer look at what it means to write good web copy and what it means to write good print copy reveals more similarities than differences.
Usability.gov has a nice summary of the guidelines that evolved from the early work of Nielsen and his colleagues. You’re probably familiar with all of them:
- Use the words your users use.
- Chunk your content.
- Front-load the important information.
- Use pronouns.
- Use active voice.
- Use short sentences and paragraphs.
- Use bullets and numbered lists.
- Use clear headlines and subheads.
- Use images, diagrams, or multimedia.
- Use white space.
Many of these same guidelines can be found in The Elements of Style, which was first published in 1918. (You can download the Kindle version of the original book for free.) Start with a topic sentence. Use the active voice. Use concrete language. Omit needless words.
So what IS the difference between web copy and print copy? The WP-Tonic Live Panel (Brian Lee Jackson, Jonathan Denwood, John Locke, and I) sat down to discuss this, and concluded that the issue is not so much a difference between web copy and print copy, as between marketing or sales copy and other kinds of writing: fiction, essays, academic writing (not the high school paper kind that’s advised to follow the guidelines in Strunk & White, but the college-professor kind where you need lots of jargon and a footnote every three words).