Writing For The Web

By Nicole Aebi-Moyo

Writing for the web is different to writing for print. People usually jump around a web page looking for the information they're after and get bored very quickly. This article outlines steps you can take to improve the readability of your website.

Reading the Web

Nearly 85% of website users skim-read pages: they don't read them word for word. People also read website text much slower than they read the printed word, are reluctant to scroll, and often read just the first paragraph of each page. Even when they've decided that the page contains something they're interested in, they'll only read the first line of each paragraph.

This article covers how to:

  • Structure your content
  • Write text that's accessible
  • Write text that's easy to maintain
  • Deal with numbers on the web
  • Write copy that gets you noticed by search engines
  • Deal with editorial control.

Structure you content

Writing for websites is a bit like writing press articles or releases. You should start with your conclusion and then go on to give more details, linking to more in-depth information, if necessary. Put your conclusion first, everything else second.

The main heading of the page should provide an overview of what the page is about, the opening paragraph is a brief conclusion of the page, and then come the various subheadings to give more detail: a bit like this article really.

Here are some handy tips on writing great, easy to read text:

  • Use shorter paragraphs than you normally would
  • The first sentence of each paragraph should suggest what is to follow
  • Deal with just one idea per paragraph
  • Use fewer words; roughly half the number you would use in print
  • Make sure the "who", "what", "where", "when" and "why" appear at the top of the page, a bit like a press story
  • Use bulleted lists
  • Make headings meaningful
  • Left-align text, it's easier to read
  • Never underline text - links are usually underlined, so text that is underlined but isn't a link could be confusing
  • Never type in all capitals as this suggests that you are shouting and capitals are hard to read
  • Use plain language without being patronising
  • Using non-standard English can confuse those for whom English is a second language so avoid using slang
  • Think globally - your website will be seen by people all over the world. Avoid cultural references or things that wouldn't make sense out of context
  • Avoid jargon
  • Use active rather than passive phrases - "Indira will present her research findings at the conference" not "Research will be presented by Indira at the conference."
  • Use bold to highlight key phrases - as people skim-read your page, these bold key phrases will stand out

Writing accessible text

There are nearly 10 million people in the UK with a disability. Given these figures, having a website that is accessible to as many people as possible is not only a legal requirement, it is fundamentally important. Whilst a lot of what makes a site accessible is down to design, there are some things that a website content writer can do to help.

For example:

  • Use descriptive text for links - don't use "Click here" use "Download our Annual Report" for example
  • Use images such as photos, drawings or symbols to support the text for those with learning difficulties
  • Include descriptions of all images to help those who are visually impaired

You can find out more from the following Knowledgebase articles:

Make Your Website Accessible to Visually Impaired People and Web Accessibility Resources

The Exception to the Rule

There are 7 million people in the UK with literacy problems. People with low-literacy can read but have difficulties doing so. Many low-literacy readers can't understand text just by glancing at it; they must read word for word. They focus on each word, slowly moving their eyes across each line of text. Low-literacy users don't skim-read websites.

For many low-literacy users, this can make accessing websites difficult. Often users will skip over large amounts of text, get lost in complex navigation or choose the first search result, irrespective of its relevance.

As content writers, we can help those with low-literacy by doing some of the following:

  • Simplify your text - use text aimed at those with a reading level of year 6 on your homepage and other key pages
  • Avoid text that moves or changes such as animations
  • Simplify navigation
  • Make your search tolerant of misspellings and try to make the first result, the right result

Content maintenance

Make sure your content remains up-to-date:

  • Review all your pages regularly, once every three months or so
  • Review the more important pages, like the homepage, more often; every month or even every week
  • Be specific with times and dates: instead of saying "Last week we launched our new campaign" put "In March 2007, we launched our campaign on domestic violence" that way, the text will never go out of date, although that doesn't mean you won't want to update it at some point!

Numbers on the web

When writing for the web:

  • Write numbers with digits, not letters (17 not seventeen)
  • Use a combination of digits and letters for very large numbers (3 million, 10 billion, etc.)
  • Use digits even when the number is the first word in the sentence or bullet point

Why? Numbers represent facts and can break up a page. If someone is scanning your page, chances are their eyes will stop on the digits as they look for their facts.

Writing copy that gets you noticed

There's no point in having a website if people can't find you. Your content makes your website findable. Search engines will categorise and prioritise your site based on your content (amongst other things). This means you should:

  • Use the reader's language - use keywords that will match your audience's search queries
  • Put keywords in your headings - search engines like headings
  • Use keywords in your text: if your page is supposed to be about domestic violence, make sure the words domestic violence appear in the text.
  • Include links to other websites and get people to link to your site - this gives your content and website as a whole, credibility

Editorial control

Someone in your organisation should have editorial control of your website. This person is responsible for ensuring that each page on the site reaches certain standards. The organisation needs to agree these standards and include them in any training or induction around writing for the web.

Think about your audience and decide on a tone of voice, and even a writing/reading age. An editorial style guide will help to enforce these agreed standards including using uniform language across the site.

You can find out more from the Knowledgebase article Developing a Web Publishing Policy.

Useful links

Webcredible Resources - a useful website of resources around usability and accessibility

Useit.com article about people's eye movements when reading web content

Webstyleguide.com - a detailed look at how to plan a website and style guide

That Standards Guy - useful site for those interested in website accessibility

Copyright © 2007 Nicole Aebi-Moyo

Some rights reserved

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.



Helpful Advice from those Friendly People at DOT-COMmunICaTions