How to Write for the Web

Good Web writing makes a site usable. Training content administrators on how to curate content for the Web is a critical component for making sites that people love.

I had the pleasure of working with California College of the Arts (CCA), and their talented Web Content Manager Jim Norrena, to craft content guidelines for their admissions section. The goal was to lay the ground rules to better equip their decentralized site administrators to manage their content. Upon completion, I found these guidelines to be universal in nature and worth sharing far and wide.

Chief guidelines:

Why write differently for the Web?

People read differently online than in print. In print, readers delve deep and are not easily distracted by things to click on.

People online:

  • Read 20% slower vs. print
  • Are task focused rather than looking for an immersive experience
  • Scan the page rather than read every word

In short, don't expect your content to work if you simply copy and paste from print.


Goals should guide your content creation process

Goals focus your efforts and inform what you should create, keep or delete. Answer the following questions to guide this process. It's best to answer all of these questions with the key stakeholders present.

  1. What are the communication goals of this page?
  2. Who is the audience?
  3. What are the key calls to action?
  4. What is the utilitarian function of this page?
  5. Can this content be shorter or more skimmable?
  6. Can you eliminate redundant content?
  7. Is all the content relevant?

Below are some sample goals that I created for CCA's undergraduate admissions page:

  1. Communicate differentiation
  2. Provide overview of admissions process
  3. Communicate application deadlines
  4. Show the university experience through rich media
  5. Outline next steps (apply, attend an event, etc.)

Usability

Researchers have proven that readers scan content in an F-shaped pattern.

In the image above, heat maps tracking readers' eye movements indicate where readers focus first; they focus mainly on the left side of the page, as well as on the first few sentences of each paragraph.

So what does this mean?

  • Put your most important content at the top of the page.
  • Use sub-headers throughout your text for improved scannability.
  • Make the first two words of your headers the most important.

Content structure

Use the inverse pyramid to structure your content. Start with the most important information, follow with supporting details, and finish with related information.


Write concisely

Get to the point. People don't read.

Instead of... Use...
despite the fact that although
in the event that if
it is important that must, should
has the opportunity to can
it is possible that may
due to the fact that since

Avoid redundant phrases

Say more with less

Instead of... Use...
advanced notice notice
end result result
final outcome outcome
extra bonus bonus
collaborate together collaborate
unintended mistake mistake

Here is an article with a longer list of redundant phrases.


Think like a designer

Develop an eye for aesthetics. For example, if a three column layout displays two headers with one line each and a third with three lines, it won't look balanced. Writers should feel empowered to have opinions about the way their words look and act on those observations. If you notice your copy has excessive line breaks, fix it.


Format smarter

Bullets are a great way to improve the scannability of your text. You can enhance those bullets by adding sub-headers (when appropriate).


Proof everything

Test your links. Remove typos. Get extra sets of eyes to vet your grammar and sentence structure. Copy errors reflect on your business and your reputation. Take this step seriously.


Define content governance

Content governance defines who is in charge of your site's content, who has input, and how content gets published. Answer the following questions and share them with your team.

  • Who writes the content?
  • Who edits the content?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • Who approves the content?
  • Where do the content requests come from?
  • When is this content due?
  • Who uploads the content?

Answering the questions above will help clarify roles and responsibilities.

Note - because of the way that Drupal handles content publishing (hitting publish about 50 times before you're done), a Drupal-specific way to define content governance is as follows:

  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • Where do the requests come from?
  • Who creates and publishes the content?
  • Who edits and publishes the content?
  • Who approves and publishes the content?

Use this blog to create writing guidelines for your clients. Spread this knowledge far and wide to improve the Web!

Reference articles