In the third installment in a series of articles summarizing the results of my thesis, “Effective Content Strategy for Campus Websites at Career Colleges,” I synthesize the best practices of writing for the web.
Better web writing in 4 minutes
In a study of how web users experienced a group of websites, the author found that the use of jargon or inclusive language made the sites more confusing. In fact, 72% of participants were adversely affected by ambiguous language found on the sites. “Content that was too long or wordy, or contained information that was not relevant to the participant adversely affected 28% of participants” (p. 12).
This particular study, by Dey Alexander, happened to focus on college websites, but his results could easily be replicated on websites across multiple industries. So much of what mars an otherwise good site and great navigation is poor web writing.
Tips for better web writing
Ginny Redish addresses what it takes to write great content in her book Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works (2007). Noted below are her guidelines:
- Talk to your site visitors. Use “you.”
- Show that you are a person and that your organization includes people.
- Write in active voice (most of the time).
- Write short, simple, straightforward sentences.
- Cut unnecessary words (usually an editor helps oversee content).
- Give extra information its own place.
- Keep paragraphs short; chunk the information.
- Start with the context—first things first, second things second.
- Put the action in the verbs, not the nouns.
- Use your web users’ words. (p. 172)
In Figure 1, an excerpt from a page on one of my organization’s websites shows copy written in active voice and liberal use of personal pronouns. The sentence length of 25–35 words makes for quick and easy reading.
Since users spend so little time on a web page (Nielsen & Loranger, 2006), it’s up to content managers to create content that is easy to read and easy to find. Nielsen also reported (1997) that 79% of his test subjects in a reading-habit study scanned web pages; only 16% read word-by-word.
Web readers scan
Web readers spend most of their time scanning pages looking for relevant information—called “foraging.” To accommodate web user habits, break your copy into easy-to-read and comprehend chunks. Chunking copy into two- or three-sentence chunks helps make web pages look more approachable and less dense on the page.
Use subheads to capture the key message or topic of the copy chunk. When appropriate, list items using bullets or callouts. Both of these tactics will help your reader find and comprehend information much more quickly.
The inverted triangle of good web writing
Web experts recommend content writers cut to the chase when writing for the web. Citing journalism’s practice of shaping content to conform to an inverted triangle (Figure 2) that packs the most important information into the first two sentences of a paragraph, Ann Handley advises writers to simply “Lead with the good stuff” (Handley & Chapman, 2011, p. 110). Redish is a fan of the inverted triangle and cites its importance in her web-writing book (2007, p. 104).
Jakob Nielsen (2009) also provides web writers with solid guidance for writing strong headlines and subheads, which is listed below:
- Short (because people don’t read much online);
- Rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the target article;
- Front-loaded with the most important keywords (because users often scan only the beginning of list items);
- Understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results); and
- Predictable, so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click (because people don’t return to sites that promise more than they deliver). (p. 1)
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- Alexander, D. (2005). How usable are university websites? A report on a study of the prospective student experience. Monash University, Information Technology Services. Victoria: Southern Cross University.
- Handley, A., & Chapman, C. (2011). Content rules: How to create killer bogs, podcasts, videos, ebooks, webinars (and more) that engage customers and ignite your business. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Nielsen, J. (1997, October 1). How users read on the Web. Retrieved March 27, 2011, from Useit.com: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html
- Nielsen, J. (2009, April 27). World’s best headlines: BBC news. Retrieved April 28, 2009, from Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/headlines-bbc.html
- Nielsen, J., & Loranger, H. (2006). Prioritizing Web usability. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.
- Redish, J. (2007). Letting go of the words: Writing Web content that works. San Francisco, CA, U.S.: Morgan Kaufmann.