Online writing needs to be clear and concise. Readers expect a more conversational, personal and straightforward style online. Use simple sentence structure and informal writing. Avoid academic jargon and marketing language. Shorten every single thing—paragraphs, sentences, and the length of words.
- Web users are impatient and in a hurry. They are on a mission to find information and answers quickly—or they will move on.
- Most users scan pages.
- Users only read whole passages when they are highly motivated to get extended information and when they are sure they have found what they need.
- Eye tracking studies show that users skim down the left side of a page, then briefly scan text to the right of the main heading and subheadings. This creates a tracking pattern that resembles a capital letter F.
- Most users skip over the introduction of an email newsletter. They understand it’s an introduction and assume it will not provide real information.
- Half of American adults read at eighth-grade level or below.
- Low-literacy users are motivated to minimize reading.
- Seniors represent a disproportionate number of those reading at lower levels.
Factors that affect reading comprehension include:
- Cognitive disabilities, such as attention span and size of vocabulary
- English as a second language
Writing Clearly for the Web
- Use short pages, paragraphs, sentences and words.
- Avoid colloquialisms, idioms and U.S.-centric phrases and words.
- Avoid complex sentences.
- Add images that set tone and help readers understand the content.
- Use plain English (examples below).
- "buy" instead of "acquire"
- "start" instead of "commence"
- "stop" instead of "cease"
- Use active voice (examples below).
- Maria returned the book to the library (active voice).
- The book was returned to the library by Maria (passive voice).
- Know what you are trying to say, and do not publish until content is complete.
- Write for your audience.
- Put the important stuff at the top.
- Organize content to meet user priorities.
- Tell people what they’ll get and why.
- Group content that is similar.
- Use titles, headings and subheadings.
- Make links look like links: the most common is blue and underlined.
- Use charts, graphs, pictures, captions and pull quotes.
- Provide helpful links.
- Make logical paths through content.
Organization can be done in several ways, by narrative approach, by task, by topic and by audience, among others.
- Linear narrative is telling a story, introducing one concept at a time and building to a conclusion. It’s sort of like a funnel, pulling the reader to one end point, so navigation is not an issue.
- Nonlinear narrative is more appropriate for problem solving. It offers different solutions and allows the reader to choose a path.
- Navigation by task means organizing content to reflect an understanding of what readers need. For the university, a task-oriented page for a new student might have navigation to Admission, Registration for Classes, Paying Fees, Buying Books, Finding Housing, Picking a Major, etc.
- Navigation by topic means having a good reference site. Content should reflect a user’s expectations. Are topics clear? Can content be listed under more than one topic?
- Organizing by audience is useful for sites that have distinct user groups. (e.g., students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, etc.)
NOTE: It’s OK to use more than one strategy for navigation. A home page might have navigation by audience, but an index might have numbered tasks.
Understanding Web Technologies and Standards
Write to be found by search engines!
- Most will use a search engine to solve open-ended tasks.
- Employ users’ vocabulary. They will search on words that they know.
- Make sure each page has a title. (Google has 26 million pages that are titled “untitled document.”)
- Create HTML versions of documents or at least HTML summaries of the documents because not all search engines parse PDFs.
- Write news in inverted pyramid form.
- Use descriptive headlines.
- Cite sources, and use links if possible.
- Give the author’s name and date of the story.
- Invite corrections and show them prominently.
- Keep an archive.
- List releases in order of most recent to oldest.
- Write in scannable text wherever possible.
- List contact information clearly.
- Write dates in international format.
Blogs, Wikis, User Reviews
- If using interactive forms, make clear the difference between where university content ends and user content starts.
- User-generated content is out of your control. Edit judiciously but don’t censor.
Understanding Organizational Politics
Reduce friction between competing interests while still using the Web in an optimal way by creating a style guide.
To Create a Style Guide:
- Define users and their goals.
- Define your own goals and messages.
- Include rules for writing on the Web and the use of existing materials.
- Create a content advisory board with key stakeholders.
- Make guidelines simple and enforceable.
- Give rationale for each guideline with examples.
- Review content before publishing.
- Have editors and contributors meet occasionally to review content as a group.
- Train content contributors on the style guide.
- Update guidelines based on feedback and user testing.
- Enforce guidelines.
Repurposing Print Content on the Web
Very little content repurposes easily from print to Web. Most print content is too verbose and relies on formatting that doesn’t translate well to the Web—rewrite it!
- Remove half the text.
- Reorder narrative stories by importance using keywords early on.
- Turn series into lists.
- Regroup the material into groups of similar content.
- Add links into the text.
- Remove all unnecessary words, empty phrases, hype, buzzwords and jargon.
- Avoid repetition.
- Replace ambiguous words and phrases.
- Shorten words, sentences and paragraphs.
- Use simple sentence structure and standard English.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Do know your audience.
- Do use short sentences.
- Don’t use meaningless words or jargon.
- Don’t write technically.
- Do use small blocks of text instead of lengthy paragraphs.
- Do use implicit text for your links.
Phrases like “click here” or “links” distract from the content. Write your links so
that they are a natural part of the sentence.
For example, instead of “Biology students love their major. Click hereto read more about Biology,” use “Biology students love their major.”
- Do update your pages regularly.
- Do show date of update so visitors feel confident the information is current.
- Do ask for feedback and provide an email address to submit it.
- Don’t show any page “under construction.” If it’s not finished, don’t publish it.
- Don’t change links. People will link to your site/content, so don’t break the links.
- Don’t create dead ends. A dead end page is linked to by other pages but has no links. Visitors get trapped on a dead end page and have to use the back button.
- Do regularly check all of the links on your site to avoid 404 errors.
- Do always supply textual links.
Using only clickable images or image maps makes your site unusable for anybody that disables images. Images should always have ALT text as well.