Writing for the Web is different than writing for print. People do not read the same way on a screen. They scan content and jump from topic to topic. Web writing should be about communicating with words that drive actions. Consider that a low percentage of Web readers read content word-for-word, the rest they just scan it and reading from computer screens is slower than reading from paper.
I’ve compiled some tips to help you prepare Web content.
Write for Scanning
Most readers scan pages rather than reading word by word.
- Do some planning before writing to organize your content as a set of related topics;
- Keep the information short, write in small chunks and stay within one to two pages in length for easy visual access;
- Limit the number of layers to a maximum of three header levels. Use at least half the text you would use in a print product;
- Use “white space”, it’s our friend! White space refers to the area on the page that has no text or graphics. This space makes the content on the page easier to read by providing a rest for the eyes between other elements;
- Help audiences navigate using menus, tables of contents and content summaries;
- Use focussed headings, subheadings and bulleted points to draw attention to important elements;
- Integrate logical hyperlinks; however, don’t use hyperlinks that will interrupt the flow of the text or take the user to another train of thought;
- Limit distracting elements like bold and italics. When a reader scans your page, anything that is different will draw the eye; and
- Guide the reader by highlighting salient points using headings, lists and typographical emphasis.
Keep it Simple and Concise
Keep your message simple and direct. Try to:
- Avoid clutter;
- Write in inverted pyramid style, beginning with the most important and relevant information. Details and background information should come last;
Use a good lead;
- Let the user know what to expect. Provide descriptions of documents, information about links, etc.;
- Integrate meaningful and relevant graphics with text;
- Be clear and concise in your writing style and formatting, using plain language geared at a grade 8 level;
- Use action verbs;
- Use bulleted lists and sub-headings; and
- Use the active voice rather than the passive voice. For example, “I compiled these tips” is in the active voice. “These tips were compiled by me”, is in the passive voice.
Keep it Interesting
Maintain the same stylistic approach across all pages for the purpose of consistency, but use original ideas on each page. Original ideas will increase the value of the message and the organization that delivers it. Striking headlines and intriguing content can get your content noticed and read.
Keep it Relevant
As every person has a certain level of interest in what is on the page, a good Web writer will help readers get their desired level of information as quickly as possible. Knowledge of and writing to interest levels will increase the satisfaction of all readers.
Provide information in precise segments, or “groups”. A well-constructed group provides readers with a comprehensive account, as well as links to related or supporting pages for further reading.
Formatting your Page
- The top of the page should be informative, allowing users to decide if it is of interest to them. Use a large font for the topmost heading and word it so the reader knows why the page is important;
- Try to avoid large graphics at the top of the page as they take up too much space and will almost certainly create a need for users to scroll or follow links through the page;
- Make sure that headings clearly indicate the content of the sections; and
- Organize your text so that the heading hierarchy is no deeper than three levels. Lower-level heads can be disorienting to online readers.
Use lists rather than paragraphs, but only when your content lends itself to such treatment. Online readers can pick out information more easily from a list than from within a paragraph.
- You can include more lists on a Web page than on a printed page;
- Use numbered lists when the order of entries is important;
- Use unnumbered lists whenever the sequence of the entries is not important;
- Limit the number of items in a single list to no more than nine; and
- Generally, limit lists to no more than two levels: primary and secondary.
Captions are sometimes necessary on Web pages that include graphics or images which are relevant to the content.
- Ensure that the caption uniquely identifies the illustration or table. For example, do not give the same name to the caption as you have given to a head on the same page or another page;
- Don’t number illustrations sequentially by chapter or section. If a screen capture has more than one illustration to which you must refer, use a simple numbering scheme (Figure 1, Figure 2). If you follow the “one topic per screen” guideline, however, figure numbers usually won’t be necessary; and
- Don’t include figure captions unless you need them or have a lot of conceptual or reference material.
Hyperlinks are useful for referencing the reader to on-site or off-site background materials. Here are some tips on how to best use hyperlinks:
- Don’t use a hypertext link if the information can be succinctly presented on the current page;
- Don’t mention that you are providing links at all. For example, rather than saying Click here to contact us, say, Contact us;
- Use a description of the information to be found in the link, or perhaps the link address;
- Use hyperlinks to provide supplemental information like definitions of terms and abbreviations, reference information and background reading; and
- Cluster cross-references under a “See also” (or similar) heading where appropriate. Generally, such lists of cross-references are easiest to read if they include only headings or titles with a few words of explanation.
The look, tone and organization of your pages should be consistent. Users should know what they can expect where so they can easily find information.
Additional Web Writing Resources
Here are a few best practices on Web Writing:
- How to write good. Urp. Writing to communicate. Writing and editing for the web. Copy as user interface.
A List Apart Magazine
- Additional information on writing for the Web
Jacob Nielson Web site
- Effective Web Writing
- Writing for the Web
Government of Canada Internet Guide