Writing for the Web


Who are you writing for?

Writing for the web is very different from writing for print.

People read differently online

  • It is more difficult to read from a screen than from paper.
  • People are impatient. They scan and skim rather than reading word by word.
  • Users spend a limited time on each page and read a small percentage of the text.

First questions to ask:

  1. Who are you writing for?
    Speak the language of these visitors. Remember this might not be the same as that used by you and your colleagues.
  2. What do they want to know?
    Your content must answer these questions.
  3. Why will they be visiting your website?
    Focus and target your information accordingly.
  4. Does any similar content already exist on the University website?
    Content should only exist once within a site but can be linked to from multiple places.

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Identify your key message(s)

important-content

  • Keep web pages short and to the point – use less than half the word count of conventional writing. Cut out any words (often adjectives) which do not add value.
  • Stick to only one idea per paragraph.
  • Begin with key information and follow with further detail. This applies to the page as a whole, right down to individual sentences which should begin with key words.

 

Example:
“Note: you must apply by…”

does not jump out to the skim-reader unlike
“Deadline for applications:”

  • Start with a strong lead sentence. Visitors can enter your site at any point, so sum up what the page is about straight away.

Example of strong lead sentence:
Personal and Professional Development is here to help you develop yourself and your career.

Example of weak lead sentence:
Whether you are a current or prospective student, or you simply want to find out more about our teaching and research activities, we hope these web pages will provide you with the information that you need

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Simplify

  • Use short words and short sentences. You can often make substitutions for longer words or phrases. Examples of shortening your text.
  • Keep subjects near verbs and avoid tangents in the middle of sentences.
  • Avoid jargon, abbreviations and acronyms which are unfamiliar to your readers.
  • If visitors need different pieces of information, then separate those pieces out.

Example:
Interested persons, on or before 15 June 2007, may submit to the Principal, Tower Building, University of Dundee, DD1 4HN, written comments regarding this proposal. Faxed comments will be accepted at (01382) 229948. To submit comments electronically, go to this site:

is better presented as

We invite you to comment on this proposal.
Deadline: 15 June 2007

Submit written comments

by mail to
The Principal
Tower Building
University of Dundee
DD1 4HN

by fax to
(01382) 229948

electronically at
www.anyaddress.com

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Organise your content

A wall of text acts as a barrier. Break your information up into chunks.

Headings:

  • Pages with similar content should share a similar structure of headings and layout. Patterns help readers when searching for, or understanding material.
  • Ask questions as headings when people come with questions.
  • Give statement headings to convey key messages.
  • Consider divisions by:
    • Time or sequence
    • Task
    • Type of information
    • Audience

Bulleted lists:

Bulleted lists can make information easy to grab.

  • Numbered lists can break down complex instructions.
  • If the order does not matter, use plain bullets.
  • Keep unfamiliar lists short (5-10 items).
  • Use a parallel sentence structure where you can.

Example:

  • The kitchen is for cooking.
  • The bedroom is for sleeping.
  • The bathroom is for washing.

Sequencing:

  • Set the context first.
  • ‘If’ clauses must come first – follow the reader’s logic and the ‘if/then’ pattern.

Example:

If you arrive in Edinburgh on a flight from an airport outside the UK, then…

This means people don’t waste time reading information that is not necessary or relevant to them.

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Engage the user and drive action

  • Use ‘we’ and ‘you’ to engage your user. Remember that ‘you’ is the most powerful word in the English language when it comes to writing content.

Example:

‘You must register and arrange to pay for your classes before you arrive’

is preferable to

‘the student must register and the fee payment process must be started prior to arrival’

  • Use words that drive action: ‘apply now’, ‘read more’. Ideally, your web page should lead to an action being taken.
  • Always use the active voice and a positive tone. See how to Keep action in the verbs
  • Make it clear who the information is for.

Example:

Worst: The passive voice should be avoided

Bad: The passive voice should be avoided by writers

Better: Writers should avoid using passive voice

Best: Writers should use active voice

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Trust and consistency

  • Write in an objective style – visitors detest marketing fluff.
  • Spelling and punctuation matter – poor spelling or incorrect use of apostrophes creates a bad impression.
  • Follow the conventions set out in our web style guide to maintain consistency across the site.
  • Keep your information current. Set up a maintenance schedule and review your content at regular intervals.

Capitalisation

  • Avoid using capitals as they slow reading speed.

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Guiding users through the site

Homepage:

  • Identify your site and establish your brand.

Avoid long mission statements and long introductions or welcomes.

  • Focus on the key tasks that visitors want to complete and make it easy for them to do so straight away.
  • Try to showcase your content and entice people in.
  • Update at least one section of your homepage on a regular basis.

Links:

Users should never have to guess where they are going or what they need to click on. Help them to find the easiest route possible through your site.

  • Use clear and descriptive links which make it obvious what the page being linked to is about – avoid confusing acronyms or abbreviations.
  • Place the most important words at the start of your link text.
  • Avoid using: ‘click here’, ‘follow this link’, and ‘this website’.
  • On a page which consists of a large number of links, consider their order. Thematically ordering the links often works better than putting them in alphabetical order.

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How will people find your site?

  • Determine the keywords used by your target audience (speak to the Web Team, who have access to Google Analytics and will be able to assist you with this) and make sure they feature across the site.
  • Complete the meta tags for description and content. More information on meta tags
  • Avoid using witty slogans for titles, headings and links if they don’t use the words your users are searching for. Titles are your bait, so use a keyword to hook the reader.
  • Try to keep your content fresh – update at least one area regularly – and unique.

Before you publish

  • Ask someone to read over your content before it goes live. Do they understand the key message you are trying to convey? Are there any errors or typos in the text?

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References and resources

Books

  • How to write for the web – by John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen
  • Janice Redish, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works (2007)
  • Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (2000)