Don’t Copy Shakespeare – The Art of Writing for Online Readers


Sometimes as web designers, it’s easy to get caught up in our own little worlds. We get stuck in the mindset that a good design will attract and keep a lot of visitors to our sites, and we think that the visuals we create will solve a lot of problems.

But they could just be hiding one of our biggest flaws: unimpressive, flat writing.

Sure, we talk a lot about typography and how it affects the reader, but how often do we pay attention to the words beneath those letters? How often do we study the art of writing for online readers? If you’re in the business of providing web copy along with your design, these are questions you can’t afford to ignore.

What Online Readers Want

Copyblogger’s Jon Morrow, one of the most successful bloggers of our time, learned about writing for online readers the hard way. He studied in English literature and communication in college, acing most of his courses and graduating with a GPA of 3.921.

But guess what? Not only did he forget 95% of what he learned, he also had to re-wire his entire brain to learn how to write for online readers instead of academics and scholars.

Morrow learned that online readers are a different breed from other types of readers. They’ve developed a taste for a specific writing style, and they’ve
come to expect it when they’re browsing online because they’re in a hurry and have lots of demands on their attention. Online readers don’t want Shakespeare; they want scannable, easy-to-follow writing.

Because of these expectations, web designers can’t assume readers will ignore bad writing if there’s a pretty design in front of their faces. That’s like saying a restaurant’s customers won’t notice a raw steak if you make it look really fancy and serve it on a gold dish.

If you want to attract and keep more visitors (who could be potential clients), you need to understand what they want to see from your copywriting, then deliver it to them.

How to Write for Online Readers

There are two basic things to remember when writing for online readers: formatting and style.

Formatting is how your words physically look like on the page, and style is the way you choose to write (cryptic, we know, but we’ll explain later).

Content plays a big role, too, but the immediate goal is to get visitors interested in reading in the first place. If your writing looks disorganized or is too Shakespearean, you’ll lose their interest, and your content, no matter how good, won’t get a glimpse.

Let’s look at formatting first:

  1. Think visuals and spacing: This shouldn’t be hard – you’re a web designer, after all.
    Your writing and words need to have a visually appealing layout, which includes double-spacing between paragraphs and the use of sub-heads to break things up into separate sections. And keep text left-aligned; your online readers will thank you for it.
  2. Focus on font: Feel free to choose creative fonts in your design, but on your page copy, keep things simple with a readable choice like Arial or Georgia. Some designers argue for sans serif font vs. serif, but the choice is ultimately up to you.
    Also, pick a font that’s large enough to be viewed on any device; the general recommendation is to start at 14px. The point of writing copy is for it to get read, not for online readers to squint at it because it’s too small.
  3. Shorten your paragraphs: No online reader wants to slog through paragraphs that span 5-7 lines. Keep it simple with 3-5 sentences, max.
    How short is too short? Online, even one sentence counts as a paragraph (despite what your English teachers taught you).
  4. Liven things up: Even with good visuals, font, and paragraphs, text can look very “blah” without some extra oomph.
    Use bold font to highlight key ideas, and italics for specific emphasis.
    Always format lists with bullet points, and try including them every time you write. Don’t forget to indent your lists, too (if it’s not done automatically).

Online readers love all this extra flair — it makes your text scannable and consumable when they’re in a hurry (remember earlier how we said that’s one thing they look for?).

You may have noticed that this post has so far included everything we just mentioned about formatting. If you’ve gotten this far, the formatting probably played a large part in keeping your attention.

Now let’s move on to style, and explain what we meant by “the way you choose to write”:

  1. Write conversationally: Jon Morrow found out professors want academic writing, but online readers want conversational writing. They don’t want to be written to like they’re a robot.
    Imagine you’re talking to a friend to accomplish this style. Use active voice and lively language.
    Avoid terms your readers may not know. Since you’re probably used to reading technical, design language, it could take some practice for you to write “looser.”
  2. Meet your readers where they are: You’ll need to study your readers for a while to know what they respond to, but always try to write at their level. Never above and never below — you’ll always come across as arrogant and patronizing if you do.
  3. Use humor occasionally: Humor always goes far with online readers. Your grammar may be messed up here and there but no one will (or should) care if you’re hilarious.
    Just make sure not to overdo it. You don’t want your readers to think, “I was looking for a web designer, not a comedian!”
  4. Just be you: Writing style can also be defined as the way a writer reveals his/her personality. This doesn’t come naturally for everyone, so finding your voice in writing may take a while.
    You’ll find that the more you write, the more comfortable you’ll become and the more likely your voice will reveal itself. You can also take some steps to being more creative if you feel this is a limitation.

How Writing for Online Readers Will Create More Leads

The art of writing for online readers becomes simpler when you know their expectations. They want scannable, easy-to-read writing that doesn’t smell of Shakespeare in the least. It may take a little extra work, but your reward for your efforts will be loyal readers and clients wanting to hire you instead of that designer next door (digitally, of course), whose writing is… well, bland.

However, if you just don’t feel up for writing your own content or providing that service to your clients, don’t hesitate to hire the job out to a copywriter whose work you admire. You want to make sure you’re always presenting your online readers with quality, whether that be your design work or your words, or someone else’s words.

And when you offer great designs with scannable, easy-to-read writing, it just makes sense that you’ll gain more traffic, more readers, and more leads.

Of course, this gets into aspects of lead generation, landing pages, A/B testing, and lots of other back-end stuff… but what do all these have in common besides page design?


So make sure they’re good ones.

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