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Grumpy, Lazy, Busy: why it’s so hard to write for the online reader

By Andrew Boulton

April 12, 2013 | 4 min read

Writing an opera based on ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ is probably the most challenging writing task I face each week. A very close second is writing online content that people will actually: a. read and b. act upon.

The modern online reader is the most impatient, cynical and distracted creature in the wordy world of words. To perfectly illustrate the point i’d imagine a fair proportion of you who started reading this article haven’t even got as far as this sentence.

No other medium of copywriting demands more thought, structure and strategy than developing and managing online content.

Human biology dictates that reading content online is inherently more difficult and tiring than consuming the printed word. Couple that with the massive, unending distraction that is the internet and online content emerges as a ferocious battle for any scrap of attention.

A clever fellow I know who specialised in managing online content once told me that online communications were the equivalent of trying to read a book while a billion other authors slap you in the face with their own novels.

Before even embarking on a piece of online content there is an enormous check-list of issues that must be considered and attended to. Online content by its very nature addresses an international audience, and the right kind of language and tone must be chosen to allow for this. At the same time, the copywriter must not be seen to be ‘drying out’ their copy in order to make it as universally accessible as possible.

The online field of copywriting is probably the one that requires a degree of sagacity, if not restraint. The flourishes and complexity that one might indulge in printed media are an unstable element when introduced to your online content.

Patience and attention are incredibly short lived in any online engagement between writer and reader. The term ‘skim read’ may be utterly loathsome to any copywriter but the sad reality is that is all you can realistically expect from your audience.

Constructing something beautifully elaborate may make you feel rather pleased with yourself but if a skim reader only takes away the words ‘sesquipedality’, ‘temerarious’ and ‘Promethean’ from your content then you, my friend, are an astoundingly eloquent failure.

Clarity is King, Queen and X-Factor winner all rolled into one when it comes to online content. As is brevity and, most importantly, the meaningfulness of the content. The sceptical and preoccupied online reader needs transparency and openness in what they absorb digitally. Jargon, double-talk, unlikely assertions and impenetrable construction will leave the reader with nothing and the writer with even less. Whereas an open and inviting conversation, with clearly illustrated points and a purposeful structure may do just enough to engage those unfocused rascals.

So apart from being clear, engaging, concise, transparent, authoritative, reassuring, well-structured, easily digestible and providing all the required information without delivering an overload of information... apart from all that, producing online content is a breeze.

An opera about a largely obscure 1980s comedy on the other hand...


Andrew Boulton is a copywriter at the Together Agency. Please buy tickets for his opera.


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