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Writing for the web

By understanding how people read web pages you can tailor your writing style to deliver your message quickly and elegantly.

How we read on the web

People scan

People will tend to read a book line-by-line. People do not generally do this on the web - they scan the pages.

Scanning involves moving your eyes quickly around a page, seeking specific words and phrases relevant to your interests. Once users have scanned a page, they will typically go back and re-examine those sections that seemed relevant.

People are impatient

The Internet is a highly interactive medium – users are likely to be impatient. They will make quick judgements about a page instead of reading it thoroughly.

Reading online is not a leisure activity

Generally reading online is perceived as work and tends to be very task driven. Added to this, the screen is backlit, so light hitting the back of the eyes can dry them out.

People tend not to adjust their workstations, and because the screen resolution is less than that of printed matter, reading is tiring. For this reason people often prefer to print out longer articles to read offline. However, the relationship between people and their computers is changing all the time.

Web writing principles

Here are 8 fundamental principles which should be followed to produce content which is appropriate for the web.

Use clear and simple language

Reading from computer screens is tiring for the eyes and about 25% slower than reading from printed matter. As such, the easier the style of writing the easier it is for site visitors to absorb your words of wisdom.

Some techniques for using clear and simple language include:

  • Avoid slang or jargon - Get your grandmother and ten year old nephew to read your site - if both can understand the page content you've done well!
  • Use shorter words where possible - ‘begin’ rather than ‘commence’, ‘used to’ rather than ‘accustomed to’ etc.
  • Avoid complex sentence structures - try to include just one idea or concept per sentence.
  • Use active ahead of passive words - ‘We won the award’ is shorter and easier to comprehend than, ‘The award was won by us’

Limit each paragraph to one idea

If you assign just one idea to each paragraph site visitors can:

  • Easily scan through each paragraph
  • Get the general gist of what the paragraph is about
  • Then move on to the next paragraph

All this and without fear that they'll be skipping over important information, because they will already know roughly what the paragraph is about.

Limiting each paragraph to just one idea is especially effective when combined with front-loading paragraph content.

Front-load content

Front-loading content means putting the conclusion first, followed by the what, how, where, when and why. The first line of each paragraph should contain the conclusion for that paragraph, so site visitors can:

  • Quickly scan through the opening sentence
  • Instantly understand what the paragraph is about
  • Decide if they want to read the rest of the paragraph or not

Because each paragraph contains just one idea, users can do all this safe in the knowledge that if they jump to the next paragraph they won't be missing any new concepts.

Front-loading also applies to web pages, as well as paragraphs. The opening paragraph on every page should always contain the conclusion of that page. This way, site visitors can instantly gain an understanding of what the page is about and decide whether they want to read the page or not.

Unfortunately many websites don't adhere to this guideline and end up writing page content in a story-format. On each page there's an introduction, middle and conclusion, in that order. Unfortunately, when scanning through web content we don't tend to read all the text nor read all the way to the bottom of the screen. As such, you may easily miss the conclusion if it's left until the end.

So remember, conclusion first, everything else second! For a great example of front-loaded content, just read any newspaper article. The opening paragraph is always the conclusion of the article.

Use descriptive sub-headings

Breaking up text with descriptive sub-headings allows site visitors to easily see what each section of the page is about. The main heading on the page provides a brief overall view of what the page is about, and the opening paragraph gives a brief conclusion of the page (because you've front-loaded the page content). Within the page though, there are various sub-themes which can be quickly put across with sub-headings.

There's no hard and fast rule for how frequently to use sub-headings, but you should probably be roughly aiming for one sub-heading every two to four paragraphs. More importantly though, the sub-headings should group on-page content into logical groups, to allow site visitors to easily access the information that they're after.

Bolden important words

Another way to help users locate information quickly and easily is to bolden important words in some paragraphs. When site visitors scan through the screen this text stands out to them, so do make sure the text makes sense out of context.

Bolden two to three words which describe the main point of the paragraph, and not words on which you're placing emphasis. By seeing these boldened words site visitors can instantly gain an understanding of what the paragraph is about and decide whether or not they want to read it.

Use descriptive link text - don't put 'click here'

In the same way that bold text stands out to screen-scanning web users, so does link text. Link text such as ‘click here’ makes no sense whatsoever out of context so is useless to site visitors scanning web pages. To find out the destination of the link, site visitors have to hunt through the text both before and after the link text. Descriptive link text is also beneficial for search engine optimisation.

Use lists

Lists are preferable to long paragraphs because they:

  • Allow users to read the information vertically rather than horizontally
  • Are easier to scan
  • Are less intimidating
  • Are usually more succinct

Left-align text

Left-aligned text is easier to read than justified text, which in turn is easier to read than centre- or right-aligned text.

When reading through justified text the spacing between each word is different so our eyes have to search for the next word. This slows down our reading speed. Right- and centre-aligned paragraphs slow down reading speed even more because each time you finish reading one line your eye has to search for the beginning of the next line.