This article gives hands-on tips on how to write for the web.
It distills the work of web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, featured in my earlier post.
Just to recap, Nielsen’s ‘eyetracking’ studies revealed that web visitors:
- scan rather than read,
- read more slowly than for print,
- read only 28% of a page, often less,
- jump around the page (in an ‘F’ pattern), rather than read in a linear fashion,
- are goal-directed and impatient,
- want credible websites,
- hate ‘fluff’ and marketese.
Here’s how to translate theory into practice.
- Website text should be roughly half the length of printed text. However, research suggests that longer posts get linked too more often than shorter ones. As the rules keep changing, just Google ‘ideal blog length post 201x’ to get the gist. What’s important is to make each word count – check out ‘Top 5 Tips to Cut the Clutter’.
- Make your titles, headings, and links concise, and use keywords at the beginning rather than at the end.
- Keep sentences and paragraphs short but vary sentence length and structure.
- Avoid padding and fluffy words.
- Distinguish between whether your reader is in ‘information snacking’ mode – wanting to complete an action – or information-seeking.
Make your content scannable
- As users only read 28% of the text they’ll scan headings, lists and links to get the gist. So:
- break up articles into chunks of text by using headings,
- use lists wherever possible,
- use bold and italic to highlight key words and phrases,
- in hyperlinks, replace ‘click here’ with descriptive text, with the most important words at the start of the link,
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- Frontload your content – put the most important information first, whether on a page or in a paragraph, heading or link. Nielsen refers to the ‘inverted pyramid’ or journalistic style of writing where the first paragraph summarises the story, with detail appearing further down the page.
- Make it obvious what is clickable.
- Show which links have been visited by making them change colour.
- Avoid stock photographs – only use those relevant to your content.
- Include outward-bound links – these suggest you’re an outward-looking enterprise and integrated with your professional network.
- Cut out ‘marketese’ – users hate it.
Create confidence and credibility
- Restrict technical language to what’s essential.
- Have a professional editor work on your site before it goes live. Text that is unclear undermines your site’s credibility, as do mistakes in grammar, punctuation or spelling.
- Write numbers with digits, even when the number is the first word in a sentence.
- Use the passive voice in key places to frontload important statements.
Break the rules for writing for print when you have to
Nielsen gives the following example of a summary written in the active voice, in the way one would write for print. As web users scan only the first two words in a heading, they may miss the point of this summary. The target audience is interested in design guidelines rather than Yahoo Finance. Change it to the passive voice.
Use the passive voice for short, scannable items – headings, subheadings, summaries, captions, bulleted lists and links.
- Write in fragments sometimes instead of complete sentences. This puts information-carrying keywords at the front of the line and also aids scannability.
- Use contractions (such as won’t, don’t and shouldn’t) occasionally if it sounds more natural.
- Write in a style and tone to appeal to your users.
- Have a conversation with readers. Don’t get over familiar, but use you not we or, even worse, our customers. Speak to your readers – not at them.
- Write about benefits (something of use to the visitor) rather than features (something of use to you).
Write and design for your visitors
- Phrase things positively.
- Use the active voice in body text. It reduces sentence length and is more immediate.
- Choose fonts designed for the web, such as Verdana or Georgia.
- Don’t use more than 2 fonts, typically one for headings and one for body text. You want a unified, unfussy look.
- Restrict the length of lines in body text to 50–60 characters including spaces. Some people say up to 75.
- Avoid creating a ‘wall of text’ that nobody will read.
- Use short words.
- Use one idea per paragraph.
- Restrict your screen width to make reading easier.
- Left-align text so that it’s ragged on the right, not justified. It’s easier on the eye that way.
- Single spaces between sentences are also easier on the eye.
- Ensure you have legible typography – avoid small font sizes or low colour contrast between the text and the background. Make sure you include enough space between lines and paragraphs.
Keep your writing concise – follow the advice from the experts
George Orwell’s third rule in his 1946 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’ gives the following advice: ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ Strunk and White make the same point in The Elements of Style (1959): ‘Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary parts.’
As a guideline online text should be roughly half that of printed text. In Nielsen’s November 2007 article ‘Long vs short articles as content strategy’, he says: ‘A good editor should be able to cut 40% of the word count while removing only 30% of an article’s value. After all, the cuts should target the least valuable information.’
On writing in general
On writing for the web