Writing for the Web

Realize more people scan than read Web content. Experts recommend:

  • Bulleted lists, like this one. (Use parallel structure.)
  • One idea per paragraph; thus, keep paragraphs short.
  • The inverted pyramid style of writing, putting the most- important information first and finishing with least crucial info.
  • Half the word count (or less) than conventional writing. Few users scroll. Divide text into multiple pages, use photos and other visual cues to convey information. Avoid passive voice.
  • Create useful hypertext links. They’re better than footnotes!

Use objective language
Focus on facts. Avoid marketing hyperbole. Adjectives, adverbs and subjective claims rarely match factual information that allows visitors to draw their own conclusions. Remember it’s better to show than tell.

Miscellaneous Web writing advice:

  • Offer useful information. We use the Web to accomplish tasks.
  • Be specific. Write a summary statement as an introduction, but then offer nuts-and-bolts information that helps people act.
  • Write conversationally. Keep your tone casual. Use contractions. Avoid jargon and unfamiliar abbreviations and acronyms.
  • Instructions on the Web often go unread. People prefer to muddle through a task than read about it. Be self-explanatory.
  • Use concise headlines that summarize main points. Headlines can be sentence “skeletons,” with articles a, an and the omitted and the comma replacing the word and. Avoid surnames and words that that aren’t quickly understood in a headline.
  • Follow the same rules in offering 2-3 word “label” subheads every 5-6 paragraphs, if text must go beyond what can fit on one monitor screen. Subheads facilitate scanning.
  • Watch your tenses. Think about when information will become dated and make a note to revise content as needed. The most useful Web pages are updated regularly.
  • Bold text stands out, but use it sparingly. As in e-mail, ALL CAPS is a poor choice for adding emphasis.
  • Also avoid underlining text for emphasis; it’s the default for hypertext links

Create effective hyperlinks
Keep link text short and precise. Use words that characterize information found by following the link. Consider creating anchor tags directly to precise points on an internal Web page. Avoid the click here mentality of creating links. Not everyone accesses a Web page by clicking. It’s better to describe what’s found by following the link.

Avoid the temptation to pepper narrative text with too many links; they can distract the reader. It’s better to set up crucial links as a bulleted list. Then avoid unnecessary words.

Don’t write:

  • Important information for students.
  • Important information for faculty.
  • Important information for staff.

Preferred:

Important information for:

  • Students
  • Faculty
  • Staff

Photo icons and graphics near hypertext links may also serve as links and be more effective. For instance, a photo of the cover of a print publication may link to an online PDF version of the publication. Minimize use of PDFs to convey crucial information Acrobat, or PDF, format documents aren’t search engine-friendly and are often inaccessible to people with disabilities, but they’re useful for: Forms, when it’s impractical to create a Web form. Especially fax-back forms. Brochures and fact sheets. Documents with a short shelf life, such as news releases.

Finally …
Leave most decisions about coding, typography, graphics, layout and colors to experienced designers. That’s partly because of differences in how different browsers (Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, etc.) and operating systems display elements, depending on screen resolution, installed fonts, color settings and other factors. Our Web Team offers many templates within overall guidelines and will try to accommodate special needs.

Other resources available at macalester.edu/whatshappeningservicecenter.html include web templates, style guide, logos, fact sheet, campus beauty shots, and more.

Adapted from Writing for the Web guidelines by Bill Sutley, Public Relations, Columbus State University, Columbus, Georgia.