Writing for the Web

It's not uncommon to find Web content that's been cut and pasted from print publications, often past its expiration date by 6 months (or years). People absorb information differently on the Web; it's important to approach writing for the Web in a different way than we would writing for print.

In writing, re-writing or editing for the new site, here are seven things to keep in mind:

1. Be concise.

Keep word counts low, especially on top-level pages that should be telling the story rather than conveying lots of detailed information. Most basic informational pages ought to be no longer than 400-500 words, and top-level pages and section homepages should aim for between 150-300 words. This word count includes both static and dynamic (news and event) content.

2. Use an opening paragraph to summarize page content.

Flipping through the site, any visitor should be able to quickly absorb the most important information on the page to determine whether she needs to take the time to read the entire page.

On primary public-facing pages (that is, all pages one click away from the home page), the text should be written specifically with a first-time visitor in mind. This is because inside page landings are common with search engines (e.g. landing inside a website from a Google search). Every page should be treated as a first entry point to a website.

3. Use plain language.

Reading through a webpage, any visitor should be able to quickly understand what we're communicating to them. Use concrete, common words. Use the simplest tense of a verb possible. Use you/your and the active voice. Use useful headings.

The benefits of plain language are both tangible and intangible: Plain language gets our message across in the shortest time possible. More people are able to understand our message. There is less chance that our content will be misunderstood, so we spend less time explaining it. If our document gives instructions, our readers are more likely to understand them and follow them correctly.

4. Be conversational, but not clever.

The use of contractions (it’s, we’re, you’ll, etc.) is encouraged. Some of the rules that are applied to formal writing don’t apply as strictly to Web writing. For example, if the natural rhythm of a sentence is best suited by ending it with a preposition, so be it. SMC is staffed by an extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful group, and using words like "our" and "we" can help convey that online. Again, one of the best ways to check the style of Web writing is to read it to ourselves out loud.

5. Make use of meaningful subheadings to guide a reader through the page content.

Along with short paragraphs, breaking up a page with subheadings allows a Web reader to quickly determine what information is most important for her needs. This is a good general principle for all content pages of a site; for long, policies-and-procedures-type pages, it’s absolutely essential.

As a general rule, there ought to be a subheading for every 150 or so words of Web content. And top-level pages often benefit from a much more widespread use of headings and subheadings. Many good top-level pages pair small subheadings with short paragraphs to give a visitor a very clear idea of what’s to be found throughout that section of the site. Organize your text so that the hierarchy is no deeper than four levels. Lower-level headings are hard to distinguish and disorienting to online readers.

'Overuse white space' is a good rule of thumb for Web writing. Reading from computer screens is on average 25% slower than from paper, so short paragraphs and frequent subheadings give users more room to read.

6. Use text formatting, like bulleted lists, pull quotes, and paragraph breaks, to quickly convey information.

On most basic content pages there shouldn’t be more than one or two bulleted or numbered lists. If we have a page that is burdened with lots of lists, we may want to consider alternative ways of presenting that content.

7. The text should guide readers around the site.

Links within the text are important means of limiting duplicate information and directing visitors to key content throughout the site. On section homepages these links should complement the navigation as a secondary means of directing readers to section sub-pages. Links to external sites are ok, but should be carefully considered and not overused.

Be judicious: Too many links within a paragraph also diminishes their effectiveness as content guides.