Writing for the web

What's related > Editorial web style guide | Accessibility and usability | Best practice for web pages: summary

NEW 2009 To all web editors:
See important new website about the migration of LSE websites into the Content Management System: CMS: migration

Writing for the web is not the same as writing for print.

People who use the web do not behave like people reading a book. They are usually looking for specific information. Web authors must make it easy for them to find what they want.

Studies show that people read online text a lot slower than printed text. Reading from a screen for an extended period of time is generally an unpleasant experience for most users. Web authors can make the experience easier by adhering to a few simple rules:

Write for your audience

Always bear in mind who you're providing your web page for. Are you providing them with the information they need? Are you allowing them to complete the tasks they want to achieve?

Use your readers' language, not yours. Try to use the words people are searching for. Remember that the thing you care about most may be a turn-off for your audience. To your audience, you are not the centre of the universe, your website is one among many.

Put important information at the top of the page

The reader needs to know at a glance what the page is about and whether it will interest them. Make sure your first heading and paragraph make this clear.

Be relevant

Is there any content on your page that might make someone say, 'So what?' If so, get rid of it. Don't provide information they already know, such as 'This is the Department of X' when the title already makes that clear.

Use simple language

Don't use long words where short ones will do. The purpose of your website is to provide people with information - make it easy for them. Avoid convoluted syntax, specialist vocabulary and over-use of acronyms.

Be consistent

Follow the Editorial web style guide. A consistent approach will help people navigate your site, and make the site look more professional.

Use bold and italics sparingly and never underline or type in CAPITALS

Most default browser settings underline links on the page, so underlining text that is not a link causes confusion. Remember too, that large amounts of text in bold or italics are difficult to read on screen. Typing in CAPITALS makes it seem that you are shouting.

Check grammar

Grammar and spelling are important for the same reasons as consistency. Your content is important so follow the rules to make sure you get your message across. Remember, you may well be writing for users for whom English is a second language. Non-standard use of English can only confuse users.

Think globally

Remember that your website can be accessed by everyone in the world with a modem, so choose both appropriate content and words.

Be concise

Make your pages scannable

Write objectively

Avoid promotional hyperbole. Sometimes, as is the case with this guide, the second person and a more informal approach may be appropriate. Consider your target audience and use your common sense. Avoid using the passive tense where possible - users will engage more readily with content written in the active tense. Eg 'It was decided' is less engaging, and inspires less confidence, than 'We decided'.

Include context

Consider that any web page can be accessed out of context. For example, a user may come directly to a web page through a search engine rather than from the home page of a site. Keep this in mind when writing the content for your pages.

Ensure that each page carries enough information to let the user know where they are and what the topic is. Don't worry about repeating yourself from one page to another. You can never assume that a user has seen any of the other pages on the site.

Provide a call to action

All useful web content drives an action and should end with a call to action, such as a link, a phone number, a form, etc. After reading a good piece of web content the reader should either know something they didn't know before, or be able to do something they couldn't do before.

Use of images

Although having images on a web page suits most web users' style of reading, they should be used relatively sparingly, especially on higher-level pages. Images can be large files, and increase page download time. It is up to the author to decide whether the illustrative value of an image outweighs the disadvantage of longer download times. Images should always be associated with your text.

Further reading

For more information on writing for the web, please see Writing for the Web at useit.com.

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