Writing for the Web

Graphic visualizing different writing content for the web

Create User-Friendly Web Content

Forget everything you think you know about writing. Writing for the web is unlike any other writing you have ever done. It's not like writing for a brochure or poster; it's not like writing a report or a news article; and it's not a place to showcase how cute or clever you are, or how smart you are.

Writing for the web demands brevity, simplicity, and accessibility. It's a unique skill that requires training, even for a communications expert.


Users SCAN. They DON'T READ!

People read differently online than they do when they read print materials, and reading long paragraphs on a screen is time consuming and hurts the eyes.

*Scanning on the web is dictated by the:

  • Users’ motivation
  • Goals they are trying to achieve
  • Layout of the page and formatting of text
  • Page content

It’s hard to control people’s motivation or their goals (see What's in it for ME), but you can optimize content and presentation so that users can find what they need quickly.

Do the work for your users instead of forcing them to do it (hint: they won't).

Dos and Don'ts  Best Practices

*Tips to help your users:

  • Include the most important points in the first two paragraphs on the page.
  • Use headings and subheadings.
  • Start headings and subheadings with the words carrying the most information.
  • Visually group small amounts of related content.
  • Bold important words and phrases.
  • Take advantage of the different link formatting (links, buttons, etc.), and ensure links include information-bearing words (instead of generic “go”, “click here” or “more”).
  • Use bullets and numbers to call out items in a list or process.
  • Cut unnecessary content.

*From Nielsen Norman Group

A great source for insights, tips, and tricks is Wylie Communications' Writing Tips newsletter.

Writing Tips Newsletter

What's in it for me?

You can never forget that the person visiting your website only wants to know, "What's in it for me?"

As you worked through the website redesign and development process, you identified your primary audience. For many of you, that audience is prospective students. Remember that they are always the "me" on your website.

Don't try to write for prospective students ... and your dean and your faculty and your staff and your current students and your donors. You'll just end up diluting your important messages. And that makes the message less meaningful for everyone.

Always go back to your primary audience. Write for them and the messages they want to hear.

Prospective students don't care that some man they don't know named Bob just donated $10 million to your college. Let an internal email, your donor publications, and/or Around the O praise Bob for his amazing donation.

But on your website, let prospective students know that Bob's donation will provide 10 full scholarships that they can apply for to help them pay for college.

So, don't just give them meaningless facts, even if your dean or director says you have to announce those facts. They want to know why those things matter and... what's in it for them.

Shorten Your Content

Use Jon Ziomek’s 1-2-3-4-5 rule:

  • 1 main thought, expressed in
  • 2 to 3 short sentences, taking up no more than
  • 4 to 5 lines on the page

What happens at six lines? Your paragraph becomes more than an inch long. And an inch of type is too thick for most readers. Especially when you’re writing for mobile.

Write for Different Users

In his 30-3-30-3 rule, Clay Schoenfeld suggests that you present each webpage as if your audience will give you one of the following:

  • 30 seconds. With a 30-second attention span, these folks are lookers. They’ll learn whatever they can through an image and a bold headline.

  • 3 minutes. They’re not reading the text. Instead, they’re flipping, skimming and scanning for key ideas. To reach them, you need to lift your ideas off the screen with display copy.

  • 30 minutes. These folks are readers, and don’t we wish there were more of them!

  • 3 hours. These folks are researchers. They dive deep for data. Give them bottomless wells of information — libraries and archives of white papers, detailed product specs, PowerPoint decks, full texts of speeches and presentations, and so forth.

For the web, you need to write shorter, making each webpage as tight as possible. But you also need to deliver additional, longer pieces for your deep divers.

“Open with kernels for the 30-second reader,” write Daniel Cirucci and Mark Tarasiewicz. “Break to bits for the three-minute reader. Branch to detail for the 30-minute reader. Link to verbal and visual feasts for the three-hour junkie.”

30 Seconds: Should I consider the University of Oregon?

Think of the 30-second readers as those who just click on your site to quickly find out the most basic information. They will only be looking at your homepage (or a program landing page) and just noticing the one or two things that stand out the most on that page before they leave.

3 Minutes: Do you have what I want and does it look interesting?

Your 3-minute readers are looking to see if you have a program they might be interested in pursuing, the general types of research you are conducting, if you offer any scholarships, when is the application deadline, etc. Just the basics. They will be looking at your homepage (or program page) and the top-level pages in your navigation, scanning just the section headers and the images.

30 Minutes: I'm narrowing my choices and going to apply.

The 30-minute reader is someone who knows you have the program they want and they are looking into your admissions requirements, curriculum, faculty members, etc., as they decide if they want to apply and prepare to apply. They will be looking three or four clicks into your website and will scan the section headers and read the sections that are relevant to the information they are looking for.

3 Hours: I'm a graduate student or faculty member.

A 3-hour reader is likely a graduate student or academic who is looking for in-depth information and details about absolutely everything—the details about the who, what, when, where, why, and how. These readers are not phased by how many clicks it takes to get to information because they are engulfed in finding out as much as possible.

Content Drives Layout and Design

“‘Content is King’ – you might have a pretty website which will catch someone’s eye, but if the content is no good, you can be willing to bet that they aren’t going to stick around.” — Selene M. Bowlby

After completing your content audit based on the needs and requirements of you and your users, you will write the content for your website knowing what you should keep, remove, add, revise or merge. It is important to know that your content should be written before you determine the look and feel of your website.

Content drives what the layout and design should be because you don't want to be forced to try and fit your content into a predetermined layout and design. If you realize something is hard to describe in words and works better as an image or infographic, you don't want to be stuck in a text-based layout; or if you find out you need something to be written out, you don't want to be stuck in a graphic-based layout.

Writing your content is probably the step that will take the longest because you will probably need to write all of the content and then re-examine that content to determine the best way to give that content to your users. Throughout the process, always refer to the content evaluation questions and the content creation process.