Questions to ask when writing for the web

Paul Boag

If you can write a half decent document you may be mistaken for thinking writing for the web will be easy. However, the web requires a focus of writing rarely needed elsewhere.

Like tight rope walking, writing for the web is not as easy as some people make it look. This is because of how users read online.

We have all heard it said that goldfish have a 3 second memory. However, what you might not know is that some studies suggest the average adult attention span is less than that, coming in at just 2.8 seconds.

Man wearing a divers helmet containing goldfish
Some studies suggest our attention span may now be less than that of a goldfish. This makes writing engaging, concise and focused content more important than ever.

Combine this with the fact that users scan, rather than read copy and it becomes obvious that web content needs to be concise, engaging and focused.

How then can you improve the quality of your copy when writing for the web?

No shortage of advice

There is certainly no shortage of advice about writing for the web. In fact this is a subject I have touched on more than once (see The 4 essential web writing tips and Effective web site copy). However, reading it and implementing it are two different things, especially if you are not putting into practice what you have learnt on a regular basis.

Google search for writing on the web that returns 728 million results
There is no shortage of advice about writing for the web, but will you remember those lessons when you sit down to write?

Try using a checklist of questions

A better approach is to have a checklist of questions that you answer every time you have to write some content for your site. You could even making answering these questions a set of mandatory fields in your CMS that have to be completed before the page can be published.

What these questions are will vary from site to site. However, below are a list of possible questions to get you started.

  • How does this content support the overall objectives of this site?
  • Who is this content aimed at?
  • Why would users want to read this content? What would they hope to learn?
  • What task would users be doing when they encounter this content?
  • What do you want users to do after reading this content?
  • If a user only scans this content, what one thing should they take away?
  • How can you summarise the message of this content in two sentences?

The aim of these questions is to ensure your copy is as focused on user and business needs as possible.

Focusing on the right stuff

The problem is that much of the writing on the web is more about communicating predefined messages, than it is meeting user or business needs.

We are so intent on telling people our message we rarely stop to ask why. What is the reason for communicating this message and does anybody care? Being able to clearly articulate the answers to these questions helps focus our writing and prevents us adding copy that is surplus to requirements. Indeed, sometimes asking these questions stops us adding some content at all because we realise that it is not actually relevant.

So before you next sit down to write something for the web, make sure you have a checklist of questions in front of you that must be answered first. It will make a huge difference to the effectiveness of the final result.

“Hand Typing On Floating Keyboard Isolated On White Background” image courtesy of