Why we stopped using ‘please note’

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Writing for the web can be very different to writing for print.  Visitors to your webpages will not be reading the text in the same way as they might read a leaflet or brochure.  Instead they will be scanning the text, picking out key words and phrases, and trying to gauge the meaning of the content in as short a time as possible.

Imagine you’re driving past a billboard at 60mph in the car.  You can only take in a limited amount of information and there’s no time to mentally process any complicated wording.  Whilst the window of opportunity for a webpage is not quite so narrow, you need to bear in mind that your readers might be racing through your content rather than reading and digesting every carefully crafted word.

We need to adapt our writing style accordingly.  We don’t want to confuse our readers by using words which are ambiguous, difficult to understand, or which act as obstacles to providing a clear message or straightforward navigation.

With this in mind, we’ve listed below some words that you should avoid using as these reduce the readability of our content.

Formative/summative (usually used with regard to assessments)

Do you know what these words (which tend to appear on course webpages) actually mean? If you do, it’s likely you’re an academic member of staff, responsible for setting and marking assignments.  Put yourself in the shoes of the intended audience for these pages: high school students, who are likely to be baffled and even put off by such unfamiliar language.  We need to use terms that our users are going to be familiar with, and such vocabulary suggests that we haven’t given our target audience enough consideration.  How you would describe the format of assessment if you were having a chat in person to a 16 year old?  It’s very different to the way you would write a formal policy document. Most people overestimate the knowledge and vocabulary of even their professional audiences and sometimes jargon is so ingrained you forget you are using it.

Equip

This is another word which is often found on our course pages, but which can make it sound as though we want to send our students camping!  For example: ‘You will be fully equipped to develop your own career’. This word also tends to be used in the passive tense, which takes a reader longer to analyse (only microseconds, but it all adds up) and increases the word count of a sentence.  In many cases, simply saying ‘you will learn’ works better as it is more direct and active.

Innovative and state-of-the-art

There are few university courses or departments which would not want to describe themselves as innovative and this is one of the most over-used words we find on our webpages.

If something about your course is genuinely innovative it should sell itself.  It is better to focus on particular features, and crucially, the benefits they provide, rather than using filler adjectives like this.  Instead of using these words, think along the lines of ‘We provide X, so you can do Y’.  Give your readers the evidence and let them decide.

Very, actually, really, just, and similar adverbs

These don’t add anything to the message of your page but simply reduce the scannability of the text and add unnecessary bloat.

Please note 

This phrase doesn’t mean anything – it’s the text after it that is important.  When readers scan down the left-hand side of the page, picking out keywords, the phrase ‘please note: deadline is 1 July’ doesn’t jump out at the reader in the same way ‘Deadline: 1 July’ does.  Once again, the phrase adds bulk to the page whilst reducing meaning.

Former/latter/above/below/respectively

Since readers will often be scanning the text on our webpages, we need to ensure that this process is as smooth as possible for them.  Words such as former and latter mean that a reader will need to jump forwards and backwards in the text to understand it which disrupts scanning and increases the time it takes them to process the material.

Click here

Never use ‘click here’ when you are including a web link.  Link text should describe what the reader will find when they click on it.  This makes it easier when someone scans the page.  Example:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, cu essent doctus deserunt per. Vidit nulla homero cu nec. Quas tacimates vituperata ut qui, ex eum nostrud evertitur, quaestio evertitur duo ei. Per ei sale labores, et vim amet corpora, cibo senserit vis et. click here. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, cu essent doctus deserunt per.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, cu essent doctus deserunt per. Vidit nulla homero cu nec. Quas tacimates vituperata ut qui, ex eum nostrud evertitur, quaestio evertitur duo ei. Per ei sale labores, et vim amet corpora, cibo senserit vis et. Please read about our history courses Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, cu essent doctus deserunt per.

Complicated words or phrases when there is a simpler alternative

Simplifying your text will make it easier for your readers to quickly grasp what you mean.  For example:

Facilitate → help

In order to → to

In the event of → if

Due to the fact of → because

At this point in time → now

In as short a time as possible → quickly

Utilise → use

Website when you mean webpage

We have only one University website.  If you are writing content for a department or centre within the University, please ensure that you refer to this as a ‘webpage’ or ‘webpages’ rather than a separate ‘website’.

Words to use

Just before I wrap up this post, I’d like to briefly mention a couple of words that are to be used when writing for the web.  The English language is rich and powerful, and there are many, many words to choose from, but the two most important words are

‘You’ and ‘we’

‘You’ is the greatest word in the English language when it comes to writing content.  It puts the reader directly at the heart of the action (avoiding the passive voice), can help to simplify complex instructions, and conveys a friendlier tone.  Choosing to use ‘we’ and ‘you’ also avoids the problem of gender-specific writing.

Do you have any thoughts on this?  Are there any words you come across frequently which are your personal bugbears?   Please comment and let us know.

Written by: Claire Gregory

Claire graduated from the University of St Andrews – MA (Hons) History (first class), MLitt Historical Research (with distinction) and PhD in Scottish History.


She began working at the University of Dundee in 2008 as a web content editor.


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    2 Responses to “Why we stopped using ‘please note’”

    1. Julie Christie

      Great article which is close to my heart. I ‘pinky promise’ to avoid ‘please note’ – it’s something I’m truly guilty of and your post has reminded me to think differently.

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