Most guides to writing for the web advocate brevity and simplicity. This is sound advice, supported by years of research. Sometimes, however, the complex nature of your topic dictates that you “go long”. Whether you’re explaining a new approach to sustainable energy production, or providing in-depth software documentation, you may not be able to do your subject justice with a couple of short paragraphs and a few bullet points.
Contrary to what you may have heard, people will read long copy on the web, but only if they feel they will benefit from it. The following are a few tips that will help you keep your audience with you.
Break it up.
Even more than with short copy, it’s important to visually break up your long text and avoid huge, impenetrable-looking paragraphs. However, the techniques you use to break up your text will differ from those you use for short pages. For instance, on a long and detailed page it’s fine to have longer paragraphs than you would use on a short page, as long as you vary the paragraph length. Mixing short and long paragraphs will make your page more visually enticing, and will also encourage succinct writing.
Guide your reader with subheads.
Frequent, informative sub-headings will help readers quickly find the information they are after. Sub-headings also convey a sense of structure and direction, reassuring readers that their time will not be wasted.
Encapsulate your main points with pull-quotes and side boxes
Look at any long feature article in a magazine and you will see snippets of text that have been pulled from the main body and given emphasis with a larger font-size. These pull-quotes are designed to convey the main points of the article with maximum impact and draw readers in, while further breaking up the line of the main text.
Side-boxes give additional information and resources in point form. In magazines they serve to back up the main article and invite readers who aren’t prepared to commit to reading the long text. One additional benefit of using side-boxes on the web is that you can include interactive elements such as hyperlinks and forms.
A picture is worth… well, you know the rest.
Well-chosen photos and diagrams will help explain and reinforce your content, while adding visual interest to the page. Online stock photo libraries make it easy to find just the image you’re looking for, usually for only a few dollars. A word of warning, though: make sure to optimise any images for viewing on the web; visitors with slow internet connections will quickly lose patience with large image files.
Long content on the web is fine. Needlessly long content is not. Make sure you have a clear idea of the purpose and intended audience of your page, and stay focused on that idea as you write and edit your content. Avoid the temptation to write the ultimate article about everything for everybody. Make a note of ideas that don’t fit. They will likely provide you with inspiration for other pages or articles.
When writing about complex subjects on the web, there’s no need to squeeze your idea into two hundred words or less. As long as you provide enough cues to keep readers’ interest, the value of your in-depth knowledge will help your writing stand out.