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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Writing for the Web

By Jessica Gramp, on 17 May 2011

A JISC netskills training course on effective and communicative writing for the web was held at UCL on Tuesday, May 17 2011. This post will summarise what was covered and offer some tips for effective writing for the web.

Effective web writing has more in common with TV, advertising and newspapers than the stories we learnt to write at school. People tend to read only 20% of the text on a web page. They also don’t read from top-to-bottom, but jump around the page skim reading and tend to focus on the top, middle of the page in an inverted pyramid, as shown in the diagram on this page: Eye-tracking studies show how users scan a web page

Front-loading information

Important information should be at the top of the page, so people don’t need to scroll down to find it. This is known as being “above the fold”; a term derived from the days of the broadsheet newspaper. This is also known as front-loading, which means putting the key information first. Entire texts, paragraphs, sentences and  links can follow this rule.

Pyramid information structures

Traditional stories and academic writing follows a pyramid format:
1. intro 2. details 3. conclusion

Web writing and newspaper articles follow an inverted pyramid format:
1. conclusion 2. explanation 3. details

This diagram shows these two information structures and how the inverted pyramid format allows the important information to be shown “above the fold” –  in the area of a web page that is viewable without having to scroll.

pyramid information structure

(Image sourced from: http://www.kerryr.net/webwriting/structure_content.htm)

The inverted pyramid format allows someone to quickly identify what information the page contains and lets them decide if they want to read more or move on.



Your website should consider:

  • the audience
  • the benefits to the user
  • the purpose of the page

How to evaluate your web site:

  • Does this page cater for the first time visitor?
  • Are the benefits of accessing this page clear?
  • Inward looking v Outward looking:
    • Is the content aimed at end-users or the institution?
  • Hidden v Visible information:
    • Does the page link to further information clearly?
    • Is the information lost in too much text?
  • Are the graphics credible?
    • Is the quality poor (pixelated, amateur?)
    • Are they relevant to the content?

Removing redundancy

Web writing should allow users to quickly find what they are looking for. Shortening the text is an important part of this.

  • Repeated words can often be replaced or removed
  • Try removing single words from sentences that won’t change the meaning of the text:E.g. “The manager has plans to accept the offer”
  • Remove multiple words and if necessary replace them with less words:E.g. “These findings posed a great number of [many] problems” TIP: The term “…of the…” can often be removed
  • Download a list of common redundancies (PDF) that can be removed from your text

Effective Web Writing Tips:

  • Content
    • Have one clear intent per page – with key information clearly in sight (at top)
    • Does your home page pass the 10 second test?
  • Style
    • Avoid repeating text / information (stay succinct)
    • Use the active voice (rather than passive) to keep sentences short BUT
    • You can still use the passive voice to front-load a sentence
    • Replace jargon using a tool like http://unsuck-it.com
    • Use short words  over long ones (unless the long word helps keep it concise)
    • Don’t make assumptions (link to further information for people who don’t know about it already)
  • Aid skim reading:
    • Write short paragraphs
    • Chunk text into blocks
    • Use heading and subheadings to break up text
    • Bold, colour and enlarge important text (but don’t over-use or it loses its effectiveness)
    • Use sans-serif fonts
    • Use bulleted lists for key links and information
  • Add a catchy title:
    • Use key search terms in the page titles (these will appear higher in search engines)
    • Grab attention with trigger words (e.g. “free” or “deadline”)
  • The introductory sentence is key:
    • Use 20-25 words
    • Write about people before things (people are interested in other people)
    • Can you say it in 1 breath?
    • Generate urgency if action is required (e.g. “last few places available….”)
  • Guide users through your information:
    • Link to related articles to avoid verbose writing (and allow people to find out more about a specific topic, but only if they want to)
    • Tell the user what they need to do next (e.g. “Sign up here” or “Click here to find out more about our services”)
  • Credibility
    • Keep your web pages up to date
    • Use links to backup your argument

Further reading:


More information about the Writing for the web training is available here: http://www.netskills.ac.uk/content/products/workshops/theme/webtech.html#webdes

One Response to “Writing for the Web”

  • 1
    Justa Vandon wrote on 3 June 2012:

    This informative post was great for the actual “instructions” I became seeking.

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