Writing for the Web

Problem

Your organization is preparing to launch a brand new website and you’re in charge of its content.  You’re confident about your writing skills, but this is your first opportunity to create content for a website.  How is writing for the Web different from other kinds of writing?  Are there things you can do to make your website more readable?

 

Strategy

It’s true that writing for the Web is not the same as other kinds of writing.  Web users often have short attention spans and “scan” rather than “read” websites.  According to Dr. Jakob Nielsen, a former Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer, you can cater to these “general web users” by keeping your writing concise, making your page easily scannable, and using hypertext links to break up long, complicated subjects.  Creating a more credible site will also contribute to increased traffic on your webpage.  Most importantly, however, if you can stick to the three key points – short, scannable and linkable – you’ll have a strong base for a well written and well surfed website.

 

Keep it short and simple

Research posted on the Sun Microsystems website claims that reading from computer screens is 25% slower than from paper.  Consequently, web content should have half of the word count of conventional writing.  Use the fewest words possible to deliver your message.  One way to eliminate extra words is to make sure that terms such as “click here” or “follow this link” do not appear on your webpage.

 

Also, always try to write in an informal style and stay away from web jargon.  To test your page for excessive web jargon, print it out and read it.  If it reads just as well on paper as it does on the web, it is likely well written.

 

Another reason to limit your writing is that most people do not like to scroll.  The less you write, the less surfers will have to scroll.

 

Make it scannable

Since the vast majority of web users scan pages rather then read them word for word, your page must be scannable.  Several techniques can help web users scan your website:

 

  • Highlight keywords using different colors, bold or underline.
  • Provide headlines for each topic on your page, even if some themes include only one paragraph.  Don’t be afraid to use two or three levels of headings on a single page.  This will help people who are quickly navigating your site.  Also, include only one idea per paragraph, and try to avoid long narrative paragraphs.  Finally, keep paragraphs short.
  • Write in the inverted paragraph style, with the conclusion as your lead sentence.
  • Use bulleted lists.
  • Use tables when making comparisons.
  • Use hypertext links in a long page to allow readers to quickly skip from one part of the page to the next.

 

Use hypertext to your advantage

You can keep pages shorter by dividing up information onto multiple pages and connecting the pages with hypertext links.  By using hypertext links you can place background information on secondary pages.  You can also use secondary pages for detailed studies or information that will not interest a majority of web surfers.  Hypertext allows readers to choose the topics that interest them most.  The better you know your audience, the better you’ll be able to divide your pages to target the various users of your website.

 

Hypertext, however, is not always the perfect solution for creating shorter pages.  When you have a long linear story keep it on one page.  Do not use hypertext links to shorten it into several segments.  Many people don’t like to upload various pages of the same story, and it can also make printing more difficult.

 

Increase your credibility

Web users are often concerned about a website’s credibility.  There are rarely good references on websites, and users often don’t know who is responsible for the information posted on the web.  There are, however, a few things you can do to increase your credibility.  First, people often trust sites with high design quality.  High-quality graphics, good writing and current information all contribute to strong design quality.

 

In addition to design quality, users often look at the links between your site and the rest of the Web.  Linking to other sites shows users that the information on other sites supports the information on your site.  When other organizations link to your website it proves that they also consider you a credible source.

 

Finally, attempt to keep the tone of your website objective.  Choose language that is neutral rather than subjective, boastful, or exaggerated.

 

Proofreading is still important

Just because most readers will only scan your website does not mean that proofreading is less important on the internet than with other written materials.  Before posting anything on the Web proofread for grammar and spelling, just as you would for anything else that you publish.  Ask a co-worker to also proofread your website, in order to ensure that you don’t overlook any mistakes.  Then view your website on as many different browsers and computers as possible.  At the very least, look at your page on both a PC and a Mac, using both Internet Explorer and Netscape.  If you have more time, check out your page on alternative web browsers, such as Mozilla, Opera or Avant Browser.

 

Download the Document:

April 2004

 

References and Additional Information

 

 

This Media Tip is sponsored by The Mountaineers Foundation.