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Writing Online: Best Practices

We all know how to write, right? Well, yes, but writing an official letter is different from writing a journal article which is different from a newspaper editorial. And these are all completely different from writing a blog entry or web page! If your organization maintains a website or blog, and is interested in attracting more attention from around the world to the issues and concerns you are writing about, then listen up. What follows is an excellent primer on "Writing Online" shared via Creative Commons by Groundwire.

  • Keep it short!
  • Break up content into short sentences and bullets
  • Use hyperlinks!
  • Build trust by linking to useful content on other websites
  • Use active voice

 

Here are some guidelines, tips, and hints for writing more effective web content. This is a broad-ranging article, but should provide good information whether you are writing for a web page, e-newsletter, or other online content.

Keep it Short!

Above all other advice, this is probably the most important point. Try to avoid the tendency to load as much information on one page as possible. Avoid using long sentences and long paragraphs. You want to make it easy for your visitors to scan for information quickly.

Large blocks of text are difficult to read online and will not encourage your visitors to stick around. Many web pages still suffer from being too wordy.

Likewise, try not to include lengthy descriptions about your mission, achievements, history, etc on the homepage of your site. The About Us section is usually better for those things.

Break up content

Along with writing content in short, easily digestible bits, you should also make good use of bold. Bold text allows the eye to track quickly down the page and pick out the most important information first.

Another way to break content up on a page is to use a bulleted list. Write a short sentence and then support it with bullet points. Example:

Here's some ways you can reduce your carbon emissions:

  • Commute to work
  • Drive a fuel-efficient car
  • Turn your thermostat down when you leave the house
  • Turn lights off at work when you leave for the evening


You don't need to end sentences in a bulleted list with a period. They tend to stop the eyes from scanning anyway.

Use hyperlinks

Write short, to the point pages and then link to other pages on or off your site to allow visitors to seek more information. The average time new visitors spend on any one page is around 30 seconds. Take advantage of that short attention span by providing lots of links to explore.

Web usability studies discourage using phrases like "click here" for links. Instead use an accurate description of the linked content worked into a sentence. For example, "To see our most recent annual report, click here." Should read, "For more information, see our most recent Annual Report." This is a usability issue because if a vision-impaired person is using a web reader, "Annual Report" will tell them about the content, "click here" gives them no real information.

Build trust

Many people are wary of linking off to other websites for fear that their visitors will simply spend time on other sites instead of theirs. This is not necessarily so. You want people to think of your site as the center for good information whether that information lives on your website or not. The idea here is to build confidence in your site visitors so that if they want information about a subject, they'll come to you first. People prefer websites that provide "click worthy" links to good information.

Use active voice

Never use a construction like, "We are doing" instead write, "We do". For example, "We are developing communications and marketing plans" should read "We develop communications and marketing plans".

A good rule of thumb is to avoid using gerunds (verbs ending in -ing) altogether. The active voice instills more confidence in what you are saying and makes it easier to write shorter sentences.

Use "inverted pyramid" construction on top level pages

Sometimes called the "Model T" method, the idea here is to load your most important information at the top of the page and at the top level of your website. Often this is little more than a few sentences or bullet points. You are trying to capture the interest of your site visitors early on. Save the more specialized and lengthily pages for deeper levels of your site.

Document or Webpage?

We all use word-processing software to generate at least some content. Often, web content is generated from a collection of various Word documents, PDF's and spreadsheets.

When is it appropriate to copy that content onto a webpage and when is it better to simply upload the original document so that your visitors can download it themselves?

You can use two criteria here. First, if the content is very long (like 20 pages or more), it is probably better to post the document for download. It would be cumbersome to deal with that much content as hypertext.

Second, if the original document contains several graphics it would be better to post it for download. Often this is the case with PDF's that are intended for printing. Examples would be color brochures, mail-order forms, and event calendars.

If your content is short and non-graphical, it would be best to copy it onto a webpage. It would be silly to make your visitors download a half page Word document rather than just read it on your website.

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