Five things novelists should do when writing for the web

Frustrated man at a laptop

Rajesh Sundaram/sxc.hu

In my day job, I manage the content for a large charity website. I spend lots of time training my colleagues on writing for the web.

When I visit authors’ websites, I’m sometimes struck by the simple ways they could make their sites easier to use. Last week Roni Loren wrote about the ten components to a rocking author website. Her number one tip was to make sure a drunken monkey could navigate it. Excellent tip.

My post today will show you how the content you write can make your site easier to use. I won’t focus on how you use your voice or how to market your books. Instead I’ll show you easy ways to ensure your message is clear and easy to act on – whether it’s “Buy my book!” or “Get to know who I am!”

Though I’m writing this mostly for my fellow novelists, the principles here can apply to all websites.

1. Understand that web writing needs to be different than print writing because we read differently online.

In fact, people don’t tend to read online. And when we do, we read more slowly on a computer screen than we do a printed document. Plus, when we’re online, we often have other things competing for our attention, unlike when we settle down with a good book.

Instead, we scan for information online. This means you need to…

2. Make your web pages easy to scan.

You might love long, lush paragraphs in your novels, but your web audience will bash their heads against their keyboards if you present them with information that way. Unless they love you with stalkerish devotion, they’ll probably give up on your site and try to find their information elsewhere.

So how do you make your pages easy to scan? Simple. Don’t use a single word more than you have to.

There are several other ways to draw our eyes to your most important information:

  • Write descriptive links.
  • Limit paragraphs to three short sentences at most.
  • Use descriptive subheadings to break up paragraphs.
  • Use bullet points for lists instead of long sentences with lots of commas.

Because they’re crucial in helping our website visitors scan, let’s look more closely at links and subheadings.

3. Make your links descriptive.

It’s so easy to overlook link text, but it’s crucial in helping people find the information they want. Good link text also helps make your site more accessible to visually impaired people (more about that in a second).

Here’s a quick exercise. Sit back for a second and scroll down this page. Which of these two links jumps out at you?

a. Click here to follow me on Twitter.

or

b. Follow me on Twitter

Most people will say b. Your link text should tell me immediately where you’re taking me. If I see a page full of ‘Click here’ links, then I’m forced to read all the surrounding words, which slows me down even more.

‘Click here’ links also make pages very difficult for visually impaired people, who can use something called a screen reader to read out web pages to them. If you’ve ever seen someone use a screen reader, you’ll know how remarkable it is. (I searched for videos of people using screen readers, but most of them had such terrible sound quality that they weren’t very helpful.)

Visually impaired people scan with their ears the way sighted people use their eyes. They can have their screen reader read out all the links on a page. Imagine how frustrating it would be to hear ‘Click here’ ten times when you really want to find a link taking you to an author’s bio page, or information about whether a book is available in large print.

Link text should:

  • closely match the title of the page you’re taking people to (see my link to Roni’s post above for an example)
  • preferably be 3-5 words long, unless the page you’re linking to has a longer title.

Even if the only thing you change about your site is to make your link text more descriptive, your site will be immediately easier to use.

4. Write descriptive subheadings.

If I’m looking at a long page all about a single novel, I want the page to be broken up with subheadings that immediately tell me what information comes below.

Let’s say you have a page about your latest novel. Here’s some of the information you might want on it:

  • Blurb
  • Excerpt
  • Links to reviews
  • Places to buy the book
  • Extra fun stuff

If I see all that information without any subheadings, I’ll go nuts. It’s so simple to write ‘Excerpt’ in big bold letters before pasting your excerpt onto the page, but it makes a huge difference and helps readers find what they’re looking for.

5. Put your most important information at the top.

In English we read left to right, top to bottom, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the top left of the screen is where our eyes start out. That’s your prime real estate. That’s where you should put your most important information – whatever you decide that is on a particular page. (Check out this cool eye-tracking heat map showing where web users look.)

Photos are rarely the most important thing, which is why you’ll always see my blog photos justified right. They’re just eye candy. Words rule. Give me the blurb on the left of the page, and the book cover on the right.

What are other ways writers can make their websites easier to use? Which authors’ websites do you think are fantastic? And what kind of information would you include on your author website?

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39 Comments

Filed under Writer's toolbox

39 responses to “Five things novelists should do when writing for the web

  1. this was too long, i stopped reading.
    *kidding*
    great information! very helpful, thank you! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the tips. I’ll keep them in mind.

  3. And PLEASE make it easy to read. Use a readable font, and none of the light on dark. Nothing has me click away faster than white text on a black background (Can’t read it. Period.) And there are other hard-to read combinations. But none of the tips in this post work if you can’t get your reader to stay on the page long enough to start reading.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    • Katrina

      Amen! My blog used to break this rule big time. Sounds stupid, but one day I typed in the URL and looked at it the way my visitors would see it, and I got eye-ache within minutes.

      It can be so difficult to step back from our sites and see them the way others do. That’s why it can be good to ask someone you trust for their opinion.

    • I found a site last week that used dark purple lettering on a black background. I showed it to my officemate and said, “Ugh! I actually wanted to find out more about this author, too!”

      When I asked him for suggestions on my page the next day, he replied: “I think you need to have purple text on black background.” Heh.

  4. Great tips. I second Terry’s tip about choosing a font that’s easy on the eye and not too small. Color selection for a website is really important. If it’s too dark I click away too.

    Also music on a website. Please. Just don’t do it!!

    • Katrina

      *shudders* Totally agree about music, if it plays automatically. I usually ignore widgets that you can press to play music, but at least they wait for me to decide (not) to hit play.

  5. Some good tips here. Thank you 🙂

  6. Excellent tips! Saving this.

    You make an interesting point about pictures. I tend to switch them, one post pictures on the left, next post pictures on the right.

    • Katrina

      I think a bit of variety is good, as long as your pages don’t vary so much they look like they belong to different sites. But if you want your words to stand out as the most important things on the page, then I’d relegate your images to the right-hand side. I especially wouldn’t put them at the top left of the page, where our gaze naturally goes first. Pictures are window dressing (at least, they are on the sites I manage), and I’d rather my visitors overlook the images than the words.

  7. Very helpful. I believe I’ve already used most of your tips but I can see a couple places where my site might be improved.

    Thank you! 🙂

  8. Excellent post! I agree–I’m very time-crunched so I value eye-catching posts that are generally short and easy to read.

  9. Oh, I just saw Joanna Bourne on your blogroll–she’s one of my favorite authors! Nice!

  10. Love this post! So simple and useful for those who love words.

  11. Good ideas. I think I’ll try the headings again. I never really got them to work to well, so gave up, but you’re right, they do make it easier to scan and pick up on what we’re looking for.
    Cheers.

    • Katrina

      They’re worth the effort, Nigel! Seriously, how many people do you think read every word on this (uber-long) post? Subheadings help us find the information we’re most interested in so we don’t waste our time – and our eyes – reading long pages.

  12. Chris Bailey

    Thank you! Great content. The WordPress templates used in our class limit our layout options–and that’s a good thing. In addition to your sensible reader-centered tips, I recommend http://www.webpagesthatsuck.com/

  13. Great tips, I think one of the other big tips is if you’re designing a blog or site make sure what it looks like in all of the browsers. You blog may look wonderful in Firefox but it could be a jumbled mess in Safari. Just something else to keep in mind.

    • Katrina

      So true, PW. Annoying but true! I can’t tell you how many times my page title fit on one line in IE and nudged itself onto two lines in Firefox. ugh

  14. Great article! Thank you. Accessibility is so important! I’m currently revamping my website to include simple changes in order to make navigation easier for non-traditional Internet users. (This weekend will be dedicated to changing the “click here” headings 🙂 I would also suggest using the h1, h2, h3 tags in the HTML for headings (rather than using the head tag in CSS). Makes it easier for folks who use screen readers.

  15. Thanks for your advice! I am not a novelist but your tips are appropriate for all writing. The key is to remember your audience and how they will react to your words. Effective communication does not take place until the message gets to the reader. Your webiste-oreinted tips are especially appreciated as this realm is new to me. Keeping pages accessible is always a good goal, thanks for the reminder!

    • Katrina

      Glad it was helpful, Patti! And yes, keeping your audience in mind is essential. I think it’s easy to throw things onto a website because we think we should, but asking ourselves “Why would someone want or need this information?” is the first step to an effective website.

  16. Great post. I came over from Sara Megibow’s guest post on the Reader, I Created Him blog and it’s equally pithy and apropos. I’ll repeat: See my What is it About Romance? essay under IDEAS TO PONDER on my webpage macwriter dot wordpress dot com for more thoughts on the subject.

    Also, just a thought. I know some readers and writers love their plot-driven stories, but for me, it’s always, first, about character. And what is personality but character? When I choose a book to read, or dream up a story to write, it always begins with characters that I can identify with, admire, or one’s I want to follow on their personal journeys/arcs, just because they really need to do that, learn those lessons, drop those prejudices, see the world or themselves a slightly different way. That’s half the fun of reading or writing a good book.

    • Katrina

      I’m with you on the importance of character, macswriter. I think a great story will develop out of strong characters. Weak characters make for weak stories.

  17. I couldn’t agree more about the descriptive links. The “click here” links don’t tell the surfers anything about where it will take them to. Great tips!

  18. Interesting. I’ll have to try and implement your tips!

  19. Pingback: Trends and Definitions in YA and Paranormal | Kitty Bucholtz, Writer

  20. Pingback: Romance Writers of New Zealand magazine | Reader, I created him

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