Guidelines for web writing

Web writing should be concise and easy to scan. Jakob Nielsen, a leading researcher in the area of Web usability suggests you write with a Web audience in mind. People tend to scan Web pages rather than reading every word and prefer not to scroll, so Nielsen suggests you use the following to break up the text:

  • Highlighted keywords (typeface and color variation emphasize important phrases).
  • Meaningful subheadings.
  • Bulleted lists.
  • One idea per paragraph.
  • Inverted pyramid style of writing (news-style writing: start with the conclusion, follow with support and end with background information).
  • Half the word count (or less) than conventional writing.

These methods of breaking up the text allow Web users to easily scan through the information. Crawford Kilian's book "Writing for the Web" adds the following guidelines:

  • Keep paragraphs and sentences short.
  • Use strong verbs instead of weak ones ("Decide" instead of "make a decision").
  • Avoid the passive voice ("A serious mistake was made") in favor of the active voice ("You made a serious mistake").

In addition to being concise and easy to scan, Web writing should follow the five evaluation criteria for Web sources by being accurate, credible, objective, current, and have an appropriate scope of coverage. To meet these goals ensure your Web writing follows these criteria:

For accuracy:

  • Include hyperlinks to useful sources that can verify your information .
  • Cite all references used.
  • Print out a copy of your Web page and check for errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Read the page out loud to find awkward phrases and additional mistakes.
  • Have someone else edit your page to make sure that the information is correct and free of errors.

When writing for the Web, try to find information from the best sources. Information from Web sources are not always accurate since anyone can publish on the Web. The quality of the sources you use has a direct effect on the accuracy of the information on your Web page. Always evaluate the quality of Web sources before using information found on the Web. Use a mix of printed and online resources.

Web writing should be error free and well-written. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, written in 1918 is a classic but still useful guide.

For credibility:

  • Clearly state your name, contact information, and credentials, as well as the organizations or businesses you are affiliated with. Consider including a brief biography.
  • Avoid using what Nielsen calls "marketese" -- hyping your page and bragging about your information or product. A credible site does not exaggerate.

Anonymous Web pages have low credibility. Provide information about all authors and creators to give users a way to judge the quality of your information and allow them to contact you.

For objectivity:

  • Keep bias to a minimum and present alternate points of view.
  • Clearly state why your site was created and for whom.

Writing objectively is especially important for news stories and scientific reports. Remain impartial, or state what biases you have. Show both sides of a story and present alternative viewpoints to opinions.

For currency:

  • Update information regularly.
  • Clearly state the page's date of creation and most recent update.
  • Replace broken and expired links.

Web users will want to determine how current your information is. Having expired links indicates your page may be outdated.

For coverage:

  • The purpose and scope of your Web page should be specific and well defined.
  • Cover a variety of topics and/or cover a topic in-depth.
  • Provide an index, sitemap, or FAQ to help users navigate.
  • Maintain high interactivity.
  • Offer services and information not found elsewhere.
  • Cite information correctly and obtain permission and/or licensing for the use of copyrighted images and multimedia materials.

State what your page will cover and organize it well. The purpose of your Web site should be clear — if your site were an essay what would the thesis statement be? Make your site easy to navigate and entertaining with creative content so users will enjoy themselves.

Following the guidelines listed above will give your site a higher level of usability and increase the quality of your information. Please see our Writing Links for more information.