How to write for the web

Your website is only as good as its content. Your content should be clear, concise, easy to read and grammatically flawless or your reader may never return.

Many websites do not work because they are written in the same style as print media. There is no point in publishing your standard print publications or articles as-is on your website. On the web, you are communicating with a completely different and unforgiving audience.

The key is to understand how a web reader reads and to adjust your writing accordingly.

About web readers

Most web readers do not ‘read’ - they scan. They want information and they want it fast. Eye-tracking studies show that web readers generally read in an F-shaped pattern - two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe. The reader’s eye travels from headline to captions to introductory paragraphs - not to pictures or graphics. So your content needs to be well structured, written in plain language, concise and to the point, with the most important information at the top.

Website structure

Break your content into small blocks. Arrange the blocks hierarchically, with the most important information up the top. Use hyperlinks to drill down for more depth.

Unlike printed publications, the web reader can read your web pages in any order. So make sure that each page can stand alone—it may be the first page they read.

Page structure

Limit each page to one concept. Web readers do not want to be confronted with huge wads of text. Keep paragraphs short and vary the length of your sentences. At the page level, use the journalistic ‘inverted pyramid’ structure—state the most important information in the first two sentences (or short paragraphs).

Consistency

Web readers like consistency—it reduces distractions. Be consistent throughout your site with writing style, especially capitalisation, punctuation, tense, person and tone.

Use navigation labels and visual cues consistently. Readers like to know that they have arrived at the destination they selected - inconsistent wording can cause confusion.

Credibility

A simple spelling error can destroy your credibility. It plants the seed of doubt about your organization’s professionalism and credibility. To build and maintain credibility, make sure all content is written to an in-house editorial style sheet, and get a professional to edit and proofread all content.

  • Try not to write in an overly promotional style - marketing repels web readers.
  • Get personal - this is a one-to-one medium. Use ‘you’ and ‘we’
  • Check for broken links regularly
  • Include references where appropriate
  • Be discerning in the websites that you offer links to
  • Schedule regular reviews to check that all content is current. Put a date-stamp at the bottom of each page to indicate when it was last updated/reviewed.

Writing for scan-ability

  • Write half the amount you would write for a printed publication.
  • Put the most important information first (summary or conclusion).
  • Keep your paragraphs and sentences short.
  • Write in plain language using everyday words.
  • Use bulleted or numbered lists.
  • Use bolding to make a word or phrase stand out. Don’t use underlining - web readers expect underlined words to be hyperlinks.
  • Avoid italics - they are hard to read on-screen.
  • Use short, meaningful labels—headings, page titles, navigation terms. Avoid ‘cute’ headings and puns - they are not universally understood.

Hyperlinks

Take advantage of hyperlinks when structuring your content. Not everyone wants all the detail. Put more in-depth information on a separate page and link to it.

  • Never say, ‘click here for more about native vegetation. Instead, say, for example, ‘Read more about native vegetation’.
  • Don’t say, ‘more information is available at http://www.lwa.gov.au/nativevegetation/Publications/Thinking_Bush/index.....
  • Instead, say, ‘more information is available in edition 4 of Thinking Bush’.
  • Avoid peppering your text with too many links, which can be distracting. You might instead have a ‘related information’ section where you list the links.
  • Test all links, broken links erode your credibility.

Repurposing print documents for the web

Consider repurposing print documents to make them more suitable for web readers. Convert the document to HTML, splitting it into different sections (pages) and adding a hyperlinked table of contents. Provide a print-friendly version.

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