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Writing Online: Best Practices

Guidelines, tips, and hints for writing more effective web content. This is a wide-ranging article, but we hope it will help whether you are writing for a web page, email newsletter, action alert or anything else that will primarily be read online.

Following are some guidelines, tips, and hints for writing more effective web content. This is a wide-ranging article, but we hope it will help whether you are writing for a web page, email newsletter, action alert or anything else that will primarily be read online.

Do Not Copy Directly from Word!

MS Word and other word processors will add unwanted formatting information to your webpages. Paste content into Notepad (PC) or TextEdit (Mac) to remove the formatting first. Read this article for more information on this topic.

Keep it short!

Above all other advice, this is probably the most important point.  Online writing needs to be much shorter than other writing.  Research shows that people scan much more than they read every word.  Therefore, you want to make it easy for your visitors to scan for information quickly.

Subheadlines, lists and boldface make content easier to scan

Along with writing short, easily digestible chunks of text, you should also make good use of boldface, lists and subheadlines.  These elements help guide readers' eyes towards the most important content, and make it easier to absorb large content.

Another way to break content up on a page is to use a bulleted list. Write a short sentence and then support it with bullet points. Example:

Here's some ways you can reduce your carbon emissions:

  • Commute to work
  • Drive a fuel-efficient car
  • Turn your thermostat down when you leave the house
  • Turn lights off at work when you leave for the evening

You don't need to end sentences in a bulleted list with a period. They tend to stop the eyes from scanning anyway.

Use hyperlinks effectively

Write short, to-the-point pages and link to other pages on or off your site to allow visitors to find more information. The average time new visitors spend on any one page is around 30 seconds. Take advantage of that short attention span by providing lots of links to explore.

Web usability experts discourage the use of the phrase "click here" for links. Instead use an accurate description of the linked content worked into a sentence. For example, instead of

"To see our most recent annual report, click here"

try

"For more information, see our most recent Annual Report."

This is a usability issue because if a vision-impaired person is using a web reader, "Annual Report" will tell them about the content, while "click here" gives them no real information about where the link will take them.

Build trust with citations

Many people are wary of linking off to other website for fear that their visitors will simply spend time on other sites instead of theirs. This is not necessarily so. You want people to think of your site and the center for good information whether that information lives on your website or not. The idea here is to build confidence in your site visitors that if they want information about a subject, they'll come to you first. People prefer websites that provide "click worthy" links to good information. 

It is particularly hard for people to assess the accuracy and quality of information they find online, so consider citing your sources whenever possible.

Use active voice

Never use a passive voice construction like "Marketing and communications plans are being developed."  Instead, try "We are developing marketing and communications plans" that make it clear who is performing the activity.  Using the active voice is one of the best ways to write more clearly and more directly and to avoid getting caught in a dead, dry, bureaucratic voice.

Use "inverted pyramid" construction on top level pages

Sometimes called the "Model T" method, the idea here is to load your most important information at the top of the page and at the top level of your website. Often this is little more than a few sentences or bullet points. You are trying to capture the interest of your site visitors early on. Save the more specialized and lengthy pages for deeper levels of your site.

Downloadable file or webpage?

We all use word-processing software to generate at least some of our content. Often, web content is generated from a collection of various word processor documents, PDFs and spreadsheets.

When is appropriate to copy that content onto a webpage and when is it better to simply upload to original document so that your visitors can download it themselves?  It's a difficult decision, with no clear right and wrong.

We suggest three criteria:

1) If the content is longer than about 10 printed pages, or intended to be read as a whole, you should probably post the document for download.  Few people have the patience to read such long documents online -- they will probably print them out anyway.  Long documents often benefit from the additional formatting that you can do in print.  Finally, it can be very cumbersome to convert that much text to HTML.

2) If your original document contains complex graphics or layouts it is better to post it for download.  Complex documents generally can't be faithfully rendered into standards-compliant HTML.

3) If your content is short and non-graphical, it is probably best to turn it into a straight-HTML webpage. It would be silly to make your visitors download a one-page Word document.  If you have a longer document that visitors may only want to read a short section of, you should consider breaking the document into a series of shorter HTML pages.

Additional reading

Following are some online resources that contain more great tricks and tips for writing more effectively online.

How Users Read on the Web

Writing for the Web

Headlines are Critical Content

How to Communicate Effectively Online (PDF)

 

Got a favorite of your own?  Leave a comment and let us know!

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