Writing for the Web

Resources

Hemingway app—Put your web content through this app to test its readability (grade level), length, and other pointers such as where words could be simplified or use active versus passive voice.

Writing for the Webusability.gov

Content Strategy for the Web: the industry's go-to handbook for creating and executing successful web content strategies

A List Apart articles

7 Best Practices for Improving Your Website's Usability 

5 Steps to More Scannable Lists 

113 Design Guidelines for Homepage Usability

Writing for the web is different from other types of writing because of the way that people read online. They skim and scan text, versus reading it in full. Their eyes jump around the page, looking for bold headers that announce the content they came for, and meaningful links to click. They’re in a hurry, and are quick to hit the back button if they don’t easily find what they seek.

The challenge is to create web content that satisfies users and helps them achieve their goals in spite of the impatient, incomplete way they read online. The following web content best practices can help you write more user-focused, successful content. 

Put the needs of your users first

Effective content is user-focused, written with your target audiences in mind. The first step toward user-focused content is exploring their perspectives, pain points, and goals. Once you understand what your users need, you can create content that acknowledges these needs and offers answers or resources.

When considering how to communicate an idea online, ask yourself, “Why is this important to my target audience(s)? Why should they care?”

Follow this advice from usability.gov to "Identify your users' top tasks."

People come to your website with a specific task in mind. When developing your site’s content, keep your users’ tasks in mind and write to ensure you are helping them accomplish those tasks.  If your website doesn’t help them complete that task, they’ll leave. 

Prioritize your audiences and messages

For each web page, decide on a primary message and corresponding audience(s). Display your primary message in the most prominent place on the page. Deliver secondary and tertiary messages lower on the page. 

Make pages scannable

Web users rarely read pages in full—they scan them. They’re hoping to get the gist of the message without investing the time in a detailed read. To ensure your target audiences find the information they need, it’s important to make your web presence as scannable as possible.

Use these strategies to help users scan successfully:

  • Break up big blocks of text. Hefty paragraphs are hard to scan. Keep paragraphs to 60 words or less.
  • Keep sentences brief. Run-on sentences can be hard to read, much less scan. Aim for sentences that are 20 words or less.
  • Use bold headers. As you break up text into digestible sections, give these sections bold headers to help orient readers. Whenever possible, begin headers with active verbs or keywords, as users often only read the first few words. 
  • Use bulleted lists. Bulleted or numbered lists can help make information easy to scan. Bold keywords to make them stand out.
  • Use simple language. Unless you’re writing for a technically savvy audience, avoid technical language or academic jargon. Talk like a real person.

Provide clear directions

When giving directions to complete a task, use simple sentences and provide limited options. No need to explain every single step of a task “just in case.” Forgo unnecessary phrases like “in order to” and “if you want to.”

Lead with active words

Visitors come to your website to accomplish something, whether it’s to gather information or complete tasks. Help them succeed by providing gentle directions along the way. Begin directional statements with active words like findlearndiscover and get started.

Write meaningful links

As a user’s eyes jump around the page, links that say see course schedule or explore degree options carry more weight than the vague click here or learn more.

Adapt print pieces for the web

If you plan to put text from brochures or print articles online, it’s important to edit them to fit the web format. Follow these editing tips:

  • Shorten the text as much as possible. This is especially true in the case of academic articles, which tend to be lengthy in print.
  • Break content into smaller chunks with subheads and bullets. This helps to make it more scannable.
  • Look for opportunities to link to related content. Make sure that web pages aren’t dead ends. When linking, use meaningful words instead of writing out URLs.
  • Layer information in a way that provides brief, essential information with the ability to dig deeper.