Writing for The Web
When creating, editing and designing
content for the web, get the message across as quickly as possible.
To do that, say as little as
possible, and put the most useful and relevant content first.
Speak plainly and openly and use a
tone of voice that's appropriate to the audience.
Guidelines for better web copy:
- Say LESS
- Put more important
- Use clear headlines
- Consider the
- Use active voice
This is the most important thing
for the web.
Because web users are generally
scanning, not reading, the more concise the content, the easier it is
A good approach is to write
concisely, then cut, edit, boil down, paraphrase and finally trim.
The Inverted Pyramid
Pyramid-style may be good for
The classic academic writing format
is like a pyramid. It starts by laying the foundations - lots of
supporting information from other research, and other data. It sorts
and summarises the supporting info into smaller summaries. Finally, it
caps the work off with a brief conclusion. The pyramid style educates
the reader by making them do lots of work along their way up from
ground level to the pinnacle.
This style is totally inappropriate
for the vast majority of web content. The right way to write for the
web is to use the
inverted pyramid style, which comes from journalism.
Use inverted pyramid for web content
The Inverted Pyramid reverses the
workflow, by putting the essential information first,
which it follows with further detail. The quick overview helps the
reader get the point and purpose of a page instantly, letting the user
make a quick judgement whether to read on for a bit more detail. (Note
on the intro block at the top of each page on WDFS.)
Put more important content first
When a page is longer than its window,
putting important content first gets it above 'the fold'.
Aids scanning - when scanning, you
take in titles, the beginnings of paragraphs and first words of
Helps the user decide quickly whether
they're in the right place.
Short and succinct
paragraphs, sentences and words that don't directly help get your point
Can you find ways to say something in
Front-loading also applies to
paragraphs and sentences. Start paragraphs with the most relevant
words, to work like a header to the paragraph.
Use headlines and headings
A strong, attractive headline at the
top of a page can make the difference between the page being read or
ignored. Headlines and lower-order headings benefit from being large
and high-contrast, so they attract the eye. Once you've attracted the
eye, a headline needs hooks to catch your reader's attention.
Examples of compelling headlines from Sitepoint.com.
Use headings within a document to
make it easy to scan the document's meaning. Good journalistic headings
read like a bullet-point summary of the document's contents, so a
reader can scan down the page, get a quick idea of what's on the page,
and decide whether to read in more detail.
Consider the user's goals
When describing something they can do,
describe it in those terms. The imperative voice (commanding) is
attention-grabbing and helpful, so it should go at the front of a
phrase. "Get blah here" "Subscribe
to blah" "Place order" "Quit"
(Remember, the user should be in control, and likes to feel in control)
Be factual, not cryptic
of voice should be immediately appropriate to the audience,
and their relationship with the site.
Don't be cryptic. Don't assume you
have your audience's undivided attention. You probably don't. You
really have to work to grab someone's attention online.
Being factual means avoiding starting
with questions (e.g. "Have you ever found
blah? Well, this is the thing for you!"). Start in the tone
of voice you mean to use. You don't have the time to expect your users
to work out what you mean - TELL THEM QUICK, before they GO.
I just reviewed a site that opened with quotes from advertisements. In
fact, the purpose of the site was actually to counter the claims of
certain internet get-money-quick schemes. By using the tactic of
heading up its home page with precisely the tone-of-voice of its
opposition, it risked coming across complete wrong at the first scan.
Remember you're operating in an
environment of low trust, and you only have a short opportunity to get
your message across. Imagine you're stopping people on the street.
Don't oversell, set out the facts plainly and clearly. Be enthusiastic,
but not pushy.
The following text came off a 'Contact me' page.
"Hello, and welcome to the contact
page. It is on this page that you can email me via the form on the
left, or you can use the means of contact below"
You could replace all that with:
a) A title somewhere saying "contact
b) A title next to the email box saying "email me"
Use Active voice
English grammar uses two 'voices':
active and passive.
Active voice is when something does
voice is when something is done to something. e.g. "The user
clicks the 'About Us' link" is Active, whereas "The 'About Us' link is
clicked by the user" is Passive.
Active good, Passive bad. This is
because passive voice uses slightly more words than Active, and takes
slightly more decoding.
"Upload new contact information on
the contact us page"
is better than
"New contact information can be
uploaded on the contact us page"
- It takes less mental decoding: it's
more linear, it feels simpler
- It's front-loading: "This is
telling me about something I can do"
- It's more specific: "It's telling
me *I* can do something"
- It keeps the verb/object order
"upload new contact information" (like a good hyperlink!)
- It's slightly shorter, and big