Writing for the web

Introduction

Anyone can put information online, but writing well for the web is very different. Look at popular information sites like the BBC, The Guardian, Oxfam or Lonely Planet. You’ll see their content is easy to read and understand.

They use:

  • short sentences
  • subheaded sections
  • simple vocabulary

This helps users find what they need quickly and absorb it effortlessly. But most of all, we’re not a media outlet, charity or travel site. We provide information, pure and simple.

What the user wants matters most

Users don’t usually read text unless they want information. When you write for the web, start with the same question every time: what does the user want to know?

Front-loadings

Web-user eye-tracking studies show that people tend to ‘read’ a webpage in an ‘F’ shape pattern. They look across the top, then down the side, reading further across when they find what they need.

So ‘front-load’ sub-headings, titles and bullet points. What this means is: put the the most important information first.

For example, say ‘Canteen menu’, not ‘What’s on the menu at the canteen today?’

Make sure your bullet points are all in the same tense and verb form, with any common information in the preceding sentence.

Good example

At the activity centre you can:

  • swim
  • play
  • run

Bad example

At the activity centre:

  • you can swim
  • you can play
  • you can run

Common words

By the time a child is 5 or 6 years old, they’ll use 2,500 to 5,000 common words. Even as adults, we find these words easier to recognise and understand.

When you use a longer word (8 or 9 letters), users are more likely to skip shorter words that follow it, words of 3, 4 or 5 letters. So if you use longer, more complicated words, readers will skip more. Keep it simple.

Look at this sentence: “The recently implemented categorical standardisation procedure on waste oil should not be applied before 1 January 2014.” It’s just an example, but you can imagine people missing that ‘not’. This is a big deal.

How about: “Do not use the new waste oil standards before 1 January 2014.”

Titles

The ideal length of a title is 6 words and less than 65 characters (including spaces). This is because search engines truncate (cut off) titles search results over that number.

Front-load keywords and use colons to break up long titles (it helps users to scan). ‘Planning appeal procedures: technical review’ works better than ‘Technical review of planning appeal procedures’.

Sentences

Concentrate on average sentence length of 14 words.

Studies show that sentences of 11 words are considered easy to read, while those of 21 words are fairly difficult. At 25 words, sentences become difficult, and 29 words or longer, very difficult.

Paragraphs

We recommend keeping to 1 thought per paragraph.

Paragraphs limited to 3 sentences work best.

Subheads

Subheads need to be considered carefully because users scan them to find out what a page is about and to navigate to specific information. This is why it’s important to make them meaningful, and not clever or confusing.

If a subhead is used every 3-5 paragraphs, it helps users orient themselves.

Length of page

A study showed that users only read 20 to 28% of text on a web page, so you may think: ‘the shorter the page – the better’.

This is generally true. Remember that the pressure on the brain to understand increases for every 100 words you put on a page. The quicker you can get to the point, the faster a user will consume the information, understand and either leave or engage.

Keep your body copy as focused as possible. Publish only what the user needs to know so they can complete their task. Nothing more.

Word counts don’t help if you write text full of caveats, jargon and things users don’t need to know (but you want to say). You can have a single paragraph on a page, but if it’s not written in a user-centred way then it’s too much.

7 golden rules for writing for the web

You should observe these rules:

  • make it brief and to the point
  • break up text into subheaded sections
  • use bullet lists
  • ‘front-load’ subheadings, titles and bullet points to put the most important information first
  • include links to external sites and relevant pages
  • use words that are easy to understand
  • use active, not passive, voice