Writing for the Web

Writing for the web is about making your writing easier to read and use, not dumbing down your ideas. It's also means thinking about your content from the user's point of view.

When writing website content, ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Is it clear?
  2. Can it be simpler?
  3. Can it be shorter?
  4. Is it necessary?

From Tulane University, Writing for the Web (2015)

Organizing Content

  • Use the inverted pyramid model for organizing your page. Answer who, what, when, where, how, and why in your first sentence or two, and use the paragraphs that follow to include colorful details and less important information. Readers will scan and scroll, especially if they can tell there's content that interests them lower on the page. It's still a good idea to ensure that the first thing they see is the content you most want them to see!
  • Use subsections to chunk information. Breaking down information into "bite-sized" pieces helps the reader more easily digest new information.
  • Use one idea per paragraph and keep it short. As in newspapers, one-sentence paragraphs are perfectly legitimate on the Web.
  • Structure similar content areas in similar fashion, whenever possible. A consistent approach will reinforce the readers' sense of context within your site. For example, program pages should contain the same information presented in the same way.

Choosing Words

  • Be succinct and use short sentences, whenever possible. If a shorter, simpler way to say something exists, say it that way. Don't say "Communicate with our team" when "Contact us" will do just fine. Five to 10 words per sentence is ideal.
  • Write descriptive, concise page titles. A good page title is brief, descriptive, and refers to the contents of the page. It contains the most important information at the start of the title and uses short, concise words.
  • Use common wording. Rather than thinking about new and different turns of a phrase, employ the words that users would mostly likely use to describe or search for information. Incidentally, using those words in your copy will also boost your pages in search engine rankings.
  • Make navigation labels clear. Your navigation labels should be to the point and easy to grasp. Users care more about clear than clever.
  • Use active voice. Rewrite any sentences that begin with "it is" or "there are," choose strong verbs, and eliminate passive sentences. 
  • Use authentic voice and tone. Authentic voice sounds true and genuine, the way we speak in a conversation. Readers pay attention and listen to writing that sounds like a person is talking. Use inviting and professional language. Write to your readers in the second-person narrative: Address your audience directly, using "you" and "your."
  • Introduce acronyms appropriately. If you must use an acronym, handle it as you would on paper. Spell it out in the first usage on each page and then use the abbreviation thereafter.
  • Provide context to the page. Remember that you're in a nonlinear medium, and its likely visitors will reach your page directly from a search engine. Thus, top-level pages in particular should accommodate that visitor who may need context. This is why the "Admission" page has introductory copy even though an "About" page with introductory copy also exists. (Of course, you don't want to restate everything, so be brief.)
  • Avoid "Welcome to our site" and "fluffy" introductions. Readers typically avoid the generic, "feel-good" material and, instead, go directly to more actionable content. As Jakob Nielsen suggests, "Kill the welcome mat and cut to the chase."
  • Make your pages actionable. You should give your users options to learn more or take a next step. If your entire page contains no hyperlinks or calls to action, you may be missing multiple opportunities to engage your audience.
  • Make your text scannable:
    • Use page headings and subheadings. Write headings so readers know exactly what the page is about without reading it word for word. As readers scan down a page, they read the beginnings of headings more than the ends.
    • Highlight key phrases and words to draw visitors’ attention.
    • Use bulleted lists to pull out key ideas.
  • Use formatting for emphasis sparingly. Do not use bold or italics all over your pages. If you try to emphasize everything, nothing is emphasized.
  • Avoid using the underline format. When it comes to online communications, underlining is associated with hyperlinks.

If you don't have experience writing for the Web, please contact a member of the Web Team for help.