This September marks the 3rd anniversary of my blog. While I’m typically pretty hard on myself, even I have to admit it’s improved dramatically over the years. And I’m still learning.

The Secret to Better Online Copy

One of my most recent revelations is I’m writing my posts all wrong. Well, maybe not all wrong. But I’ve certainly been missing some important fundamentals of formatting.

You’ve likely heard that people generally don’t read websites or blogs word for word. Rather, they scan, “picking out individual words or sentences.”

It’s a short leap of logic to assume that readers prefer short copy. That assumption would be wrong. In fact, studies show that longer posts perform better. They tend to rank higher in search, get more social shares, attract more inbound links and convert better.

So the secret to better online copywriting isn’t to write shorter copy. It’s to write text that’s easily scannable and includes the use of headlines, sub-heads, bolding, font size, bullet lists and so forth.

If your copy isn’t formatted to be scannable, readers will merely see a big blob of words on your page. And since they’re busy people who only have time to absorb the salient bits, they’ll quickly click away to find what they need elsewhere.

As in just about every other facet of communications, there’s an art to formatting text.

Whether you’re just learning to incorporate it into your writing or you’re an old pro looking to pick up a new trick or two, I highly recommend you head over to CopyHackers and purchase Joanna Wiebe’s eBook: Formatting and Better Body Copy.

Wiebe, who is based in Victoria, British Columbia, has been writing, editing and proofreading online and offline copy since 2003. She’s also the co-founder of Copy Hackers, “the home of conversion copywriting,” where she specializes in writing effective copy that encourages people to buy from your business.

One of the greatest gems in her book is the recommendation to make your online copy look like a children’s book. “The more your site feels like it could have been created by Dr. Seuss (minus the unclear language), the better,” she writes.

Short sentences, big fonts, lots of white space, and “chunks” of text make copy feel as if it’s easier to read.

Here are a few more of her suggestions to help you follow online writing best practices.

1: Use short sentences and paragraphs

If you have a tendency to write run-on sentences, break them up into 2 or 3 shorter ones. I’d add that using different sentence length throughout your copy makes for a more interesting read. A blog post filled only with 15-word sentences will quickly put your reader to sleep.

Same goes for paragraph length. Paragraphs (or “copy chunks” as Wiebe dubs them) should be no more than 4 lines.

Not 4 sentences. 4 lines.

She also advocates for single-sentence paragraphs to make reading easier and faster. Here’s an example from Wiebe’s book demonstrating the use of short sentences and paragraphs:

use short sentences paragraphs

2: Don’t write out numbers

Journalists and public relations professionals take note: if you’re writing for the web, use numerals. Forget everything you learned at school (and from Canadian Press and American Press style books), where the best practice is to write out numbers 9 and under as a word: one, two, three. Instead use 1, 2, 3.

According to eye-tracking data, readers scanning your website or blog are more likely to pick out a number such as “nine” when it appears as the numeral “9.”

The only caveat I’d add is if there are too many zeros in a number, many audiences will find them hard to understand. Once you get past a billion, use the numeral for the 1st digit, then write out the rest, as in: 2 billion.

3: Use lists

Bulleted and numbered lists are standard fare in every copywriter’s arsenal. Wiebe suggests no more than 5 bullets per list, ordered as follows:

how to format a list

For those who learned in writing class to order your ideas with the most important first and the least important last, Weibe’s advice may come as a surprise.

Keep in mind you’re writing for people who scan, not for people who read every word. When scanning a bullet list, we typically read the first few bullets and then hop to the last one. Afterward, we may go back to the middle of the list, but middle bullets are often skipped entirely.

Here’s a simple trick from Wiebe to improve the likelihood that your middle bullets get read: use odd-numbered lists. When there is an odd number of bullet points in a list, the middle one sticks out and catches the reader’s eye.

Other tips by Wiebe for improving the likelihood that your online copy gets read include:

  • Use ellipses to separate longer parts of a statement…or a sentence
  • When possible, use Em dashes—also known as long dashes—in place of commas
  • Capitalize Words You Want To Emphasize (but avoid all caps)
  • In headlines replace ‘plus’ with ‘+’
  • Increase the size of your font

Remember, your prospects will only become your customers if they have enough information to make a buying decision. It’s not enough to simply put the information in front of them and hope they absorb it.

You must supply it in the appropriate medium. And when that medium is text, you should do everything in your power to ensure it gets read.