A&S Online Style
A Guide to Writing for the Web
Scanning vs. Reading:
Online reading can be tiring for the eyes — small mobile devices and backlit screens make it harder to concentrate for long periods of time.
People generally scan the copy first before settling down to read — if they read closely at all — so layout dictates style. Break up text with headlines, subheads and bulleted/numbered lists. Short, concise chunks of information are much better than long explanatory paragraphs.
Characteristics of Good Web Writing:
Entice readers by making it as easy as possible for them to absorb your message.
- Brevity: Be brief and concise.
- Clarity: As with all good writing, use clear direct language. Avoid jargon, abbreviations and technical terms whenever possible.
- Inverted Pyramid: State your main points immediately, and then expand on them, especially if you’re presenting research findings or factual information. This approach ensures that even readers who are scanning will get the gist of your argument.
- Short Sentences, Short Paragraphs: Again, the web is geared more to getting factual information to the reader than to elegant, elaborate prose. Keep it simple and break the copy into bite-sized chunks for easy reading.
- One Idea Per Paragraph: Since your readers are scanning first, make it easy for them to pick up the major ideas or arguments.
- Conversational Approach: The web is fairly informal, so, in a departure from standard news writing, it is okay to address readers directly. For example: You shouldn’t be too stuffy when writing for the web.
- Active Voice: Use the active voice, not the passive voice. Your subjects should take ownership of their actions. For example: The president will award deserving students an honorarium, rather than Deserving students will receive an honorarium from the president.
- Beware Excessive Punctuation: If your sentence contains more than two punctuation marks — an exception is made for quotations — it is a sign that it is too wordy. Break it in two, or state the idea more simply.
- Highlight Action: If you want readers to take a specific action, such as registering for a new campus service, tell them so up front, rather than four paragraphs into the story. Make it immediately clear how they can do so with the appropriate link or button.
- Listicles — or list-style stories — are popular online, but should be used only if your content fits the form. For example: The top 10 reasons to choose the Faculty of Arts & Science.
- Edit Ruthlessly: This can’t be said often enough: brevity is essential. Pare down the text, excising unnecessary words.
- Track Down Typos: Readers judge you if your copy has mistakes in it; they are as critical as they are of a print document. Mistakes may be equated with a lack of credibility, so check your spelling and check it again.
Format and content are equal partners on the web, working together to make sure readers don’t ignore your message. Layout and style tips are more than simple afterthoughts; they may be the keys to whether people read the story or not.
- Headlines: Make headlines brief — try to keep them to one line — and to the point. Subject, verb, object is a good basic rule. For example: New drug offers relief for cancer patients.
- Subheads: Use subheads throughout the story to give readers an indication of the story’s trajectory or some of its key points. Remember, most people will be scanning first, reading second, so tempt them to dig deeper. For example: If headline reads, New drug offers relief for cancer patients, subheads might say, Reduction in pain and Few side effects.
- Strong Opening: People tend to read in an F shape, starting at the top left of a document and reading the entire first line, then scanning as the shape of the letter indicates. Make your first sentence engaging and include some keywords.
- Bulleted Lists: Whenever possible, list items using bullets, rather than employing a string of words separated by commas. Lists draw the eye more easily, which makes them more likely to be read.
- Links: Links are a standard component of online writing. They allow the writer to give readers an opportunity to explore aspects of a topic more deeply without breaking the flow of the copy.
- NEVER link words Click Here or Read More; it is clumsy and suggests a lack of familiarity with web conventions. For example: The Faculty of Arts & Science is housed in Sidney Smith Hall, NOT, the Faculty of Arts & Science is housed in Sidney Smith Hall. Click here for more information.
- Integrate links: Incorporate the actual link into the copy, either by linking the keywords directly to a URL or making it possible for your editor to do so by providing the URL.
- URLS: Remember to use lowercase for your URLs and never use MiXeD case URLs. This is important for technical, usability and SEO reasons.
- Photos and other visuals such as charts, graphs and tables: Visuals draw the reader’s attention and help break up blocks of copy as effectively as short paragraphs. Include images whenever possible, but be sure to use information-carrying images that show content that’s relevant to the task or topic at hand. Avoid fluff. And don’t forget the alt-tag — accessibility is key.
- Accessibility: Learn more about creating accessible documents and websites on the Council of Ontario Universities’ Accessible Campus website.
- Usability: Visit Usability 101: Introduction to Usability by Jakob Nielsen for an introduction to this important topic.