Writing for the Web

The basics of good writing hold true in any context. On the web, you still have to know your audience, organize your thoughts and strive for clarity in expressing them. There are, however, pitfalls to avoid and opportunities to seize that are specific to the web.

Print vs. Web

What is different about the web? Reading on the web is a different experience from reading a printed page. It’s slower and less comfortable. On the web, people become impatient more easily, and they are accustomed to having alternatives.

If a page is hard to follow, people will find it easier to search for a new page than to continue reading. If they don’t find what they are looking for quickly, they may leave you site entirely and they may not come back. Because of these circumstances, readers typically scan a page for relevance before committing to reading the details. Effective writing takes these issues into account. By paying attention to a few simple guidelines, you'll be able to create pages that succeed at communicating with your readers.

Text Formatting

  • AVOID CAPS FOR EMPHASIS
  • Avoid overusing Bold
  • Avoid italicizing indiscriminately
  • Avoid underlining unless it is a link

Web Etiquette

The tenets of common courtesy extend to the web, but because it’s a different environment it’s not always obvious how they apply. Make it easy for your guests to find what they need. It sounds simple, but it is often overlooked.

  • Use clear language on navigation labels, rather than clever wordplay or mysterious acronyms.
  • Whenever possible, avoid using graphics for headings.
  • Provide "alt" text for all graphics that convey content, have meaning, or offer interaction.

Writing Tips

  • Be succinct. If there’s a shorter, simpler way to say something, do it that way.
  • Use short sentences. Break long sentences into smaller ones.
  • Keep paragraphs short.
    Keep the total word count down, especially on top-level pages. Some experts recommend 50% fewer words on the web than in printed materials.

Facilitate Scanning

Guide the reader’s eye to key information:

  • Use bullets instead of comma-separated lists.
  • Use subheadings.
  • Choose straightforward, unambiguous language; resist the urge to be clever.
  • Put important content "above the fold" (visible on the first screen without scrolling).

Avoid Web Clichés

  • "Welcome to the Communications website!"
  • "Click here to find out more."
  • "On this web page you will find..."
  • "This page is under construction."

Links

  • Keep link text short and concise, using relevant keywords related to both the destination page as well as the surrounding content.
  • Make links descriptive. Use a descriptive link that indicates where the link goes ("Read more about How to Apply"), which is more helpful to users than a non-descriptive link. Examples of non-descriptive text links: "click here", "website", "download".
  • Be consistent when describing repeated links, or users will be confused by different references to the same content.
  • It’s appropriate to alter inline link text to suit the surrounding content, but the keywords and the way you describe links should be the same.
  • Avoid over linking, as it hinders readability. Superfluous links may distract your reader from what you are trying to communicate.
  • Do not duplicate links on a single page unless your page is long and too cumbersome for readers to locate the first reference.

Organizing Tips

  • Manage the level of detail.
    The top level of a site should be the most general, with deeper pages containing the details. Avoid the common trap of putting everything on the home page because everything is important. Instead, provide a logical and obvious path to the content.
  • Use anchors sparingly.
    Consider breaking long pages into several sub-navigation pages instead of one long page with anchors (in-page links). This helps users quickly find information.
  • Create webpages instead of linking to PDF or Word files.
    Carefully consider why you would point users to a file instead of providing the information on a webpage.

Don’t Make People Wait

  • Make sure images are optimized for the web.
  • When a large file is necessary, tell the visitor how large it is so they can decide whether to download it.
  • Avoid unnecessary use of plug-ins (Flash Player, Adobe Reader, etc.). For example, if a PDF file contains content that can be presented in HTML, use HTML.

Additional Resources