Writing Conventions for the Web – The Complete Guide

Global demand for web content has created endless opportunities for freelance writers. Every enterprise needs a website, and every business needs visibility in search engines, so there is a huge demand for effective web copywriting.

If you have a background in creative writing, journalism, or advertising, it’s not difficult to learn how to write for the web, and even if you don’t it’s still simple enough to master. Here’s what you need to know.

Why Writing Conventions Matter for Effective Web Content

There are a number of ways that writing conventions for the web are different from other forms of writing conventions for copywriters. Whether you are writing a blog post or a web page, here are the factors to keep in mind:

  1. Search Engine Optimization. Many businesses rely on visibility in search engines to drive traffic to their sites. For good placement in search engines, your copy needs to be rich in the desired keywords, high in relevance, and well-structured.

    Keep in mind that search algorithms change frequently, so specific strategies like keyword density may not always be effective. Instead, create relevant, high-quality content that remains valuable even as the algorithms change.
  1. Searcher Intent. If your SEO copywriting is effective, many readers will land on your page as a result of a search. For the reader, create clear and direct answers to their questions, anticipating what they need from their query and making it quickly and easily available on your page.

    If your content is long, add navigation tools at the top so they can skip to the relevant part. A Table of Contents with clickable links to jump to headings works well.

In other words, writing for the web is striking a balance between what you (or your client or employer) want to say, and what the reader wants to know. It’s not a soapbox: it’s a dialogue. 

Web Content Style Guide

Web writing has just a few style conventions that writers need to know. Here are the six most important guidelines:

Capitalization for the Web

Capitalization is one of the trickiest web writing conventions, because everyone does it differently. As a rule, when writing headers and subheads:

  • Capitalize the first word of all headers and subheaders, regardless of what kind of word it is
  • Capitalize all nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives and adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (you, it, because, although)
  • Lowercase all articles, prepositions, and conjunctions (a, the, with, from, and, etc) unless they are the first word in a header or subhead. Lowercase “to” when it’s part of an infinitive verb.

Because there is so much variation in web capitalization, consistency is more important than following these rules. If the client has a style guide or follows a specific style manual, follow those guidelines. If they don’t, follow the rules above for all your web copy.   

Punctuation for Web Copy

Follow proper punctuation rules, and remember to skip punctuation at the end of titles, headers, and subheads unless you are using a question or exclamation mark. Many copywriters have strong feelings about the Oxford comma, so either follow the client’s style guide or be consistent in your own serial comma usage.  

Numbers and Statistics for Online Writing

While print style manuals typically call for spelling out numbers, web copy favors digits instead of numeric words. Digits facilitate scanning, and can add credibility to citations and statistics.

Here are the general rules for numbers:

  • Use digits even when writing headlines and subheads (“10 Rules for Writing Headlines”, for example)
  • Use digits for numbers up to 1 billion (for example, “2,000,000” instead of “two million”). For large numbers over 1 billion, use digits and spell out units (1 billion, 3 trillion, etc).
  • Write out general numbers that don’t indicate facts, but use specific numbers when citing facts or statistics (for example, “dozens of people were stopped in traffic” or “thousands of gallons of water” vs. “26 school children fit in the bus” or “6742 people participated in the study”)
  • Spell out units.  Don’t assume that the reader understands unit abbreviations. For example, “$” could indicate US, Canadian, or Australian dollars. “TB” can be a terabyte or a tablespoon. For formal writing, use international acronyms for currency (“1 billion USD”), or write out the units for informal writing (“1 billion US dollars”).

Formatting Headers and Subheads for the Web

Writing headlines for the web is an art unto itself. However, formatting headers and subheads is fairly straightforward, and boosts your SEO. Use header tags as part of your outline process, like so:

  • H1: your headline, used only once
  • H2: sub-topics related to the headline, defining each section
  • H3: points that support the sub-topic in each section

Links are important for both SEO and credibility on a web page. Use inline links to either offer the reader more related content from your own site, or to substantiate any specific facts, statistics, or verifiable claims you cite in your copy.

For example, if you make a general statement like “people hate being stuck in traffic,” it usually doesn’t require substantiation. If you write that “average Americans spend 42 hours stuck in traffic every year,” include a link to your source. 

Adding Emphasis to Web Text

Generally speaking, use bold text to add emphasis when writing for the web. Bold text stands out more on the page, and is easier for the reader to see than italic. Avoid the use of underlines, since they are typically reserved for links. 

Using Hyphens in Web Copy

Every style guide has a special set of rules for hyphens and dashes, and they vary tremendously. However, when possible, avoid the use of hyphens when writing for the web. For people who use screen readers or text-to-speech technologies, they can be confusing, because they can so often be mistaken for minus signs or other forms of punctuation.

As a rule:

  • Avoid hyphens in common words. Write “email” or “website” instead of “e-mail” or “web-site”
  • Avoid hyphens when indicating a range. Write “10 to 15” instead of “10-15”
  • Never use hyphens to separate bullet headers from the content.
    Instead of, Bullet point 1 – here is my point
    • Bullet point 1. Here is my point
    • Bullet point 2: another great point

Effective Web Writing Conventions

Writing for the web is about more than formatting and links. Web copy also has a certain writing style. Generally speaking, approach writing for the web with these principles in mind:

Make it Scannable

Eye tracking studies show that only 16% of people read online text word for word. Instead, readers skim, taking in headlines, subheaders, digits, and highlighted words to glean one key idea per paragraph of text. They pay attention to meaningful subheadings and emphasized words that are relevant and indicative of the content, and ignore cute/clever wording and language that is overly promotional. The online reader wants just the facts.

Use the Inverted Pyramid

The inverted pyramid was developed for journalism, and is ideally suited for the web and for quick scanning readers.

The idea of the inverted pyramid is that the most crucial, high-level information or conclusion is presented first, with greater detail and specificity below. If you can, try and use a hook to pull the reader in and get their attention.

The reader who only visits for a few moments, or only skims the content, can still get all the relevant information, while the detailed reader can gain deeper understanding.

To write in the inverted pyramid style online, follow these guidelines:

  • Make your title, headers, and subheaders crystal clear and factual, and structure the information by relevance. Put the biggest information, conclusion, or main takeaway at the top of the page
  • Add your substantiating information next, proving the conclusion or claim in your primary message
  • Add relevant details last, completing the picture created in the headline.

Use the Active Voice and the Second Person

In all writing, the active voice is a better choice. Avoid passive statements like “the paper was passed”, and make stronger statements like “he passed the paper”.

On the web more than in almost any other form of writing, use the second person and address the reader directly. “10 Ways You Can Succeed” or “plant your seeds in the spring” are ways that writers build reader engagement with direct speech, and also helps focus your content on reader intent.

Keep it User-friendly and Jargon Free

When writing for the web, keep it simple. Online readers don’t want a textbook, they don’t want jargon, they don’t want an advertisement, and, in most cases, they don’t want poetry. Give them the information they are looking for, in simple and straightforward terms.

Writing Conventions for the Web – Summary

Writing for the web is less formal than other writing styles, and uses headlines, bullets, bold text, links, and numeric digits to make the copy search-friendly and scan-friendly.

Following these conventions will make your web writing more informative, more effective, and more valuable for the reader.

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About Rebekah Villon

Rebekah Villon is a professional writer and marketing consultant who specialises in strategic content for B2B communications. In her personal life, she enjoys the freedom of remote digital work while travelling, pursuing hobbies, and continuous learning.

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