Writing for the web: a brief user’s guide
(c) Alan Hancock 2018
Whatever you write needs to be clear and concise. If this is important for print, it is doubly so for the web. Readers tend to scan web text, rather than reading it word-by-word. They look first for key points and essential information. Write less than if you were writing a print document—by about 50% as a rough guide.
Keep it simple
- Aim for a direct, informal style.
- Use everyday, familiar language.
- Choose short Anglo-Saxon words in place of longer words that come from Latin, e.g.
innumerable – many / a lot
ascertain – find out
eventuate – happen
subsequent to – after
endeavour - try
- Avoid ‘weasel’ words. You may think that adding ‘really’ emphasises what you are saying, but it can undermine meaning:
It is important to check your work for words that can undermine meaning.
It is really important to check your work for words that can undermine meaning.
Whenever you use any of the following, ask whether they could be cut: ‘very’ ‘actually’, ‘basically’, ‘really’, ‘simply’, ‘somewhat’, ‘truly’, ‘utterly’, ‘particularly, 'just’.
- Write short simple sentences.
- As a rule, keep to one key idea per sentence, average length around 15 words.
- Don’t pile up clauses and use complicated structure—this can slow down and confuse readers. You will lose your reader if you write something like this:
Before arriving in Australia, Captain Cook had explored the South Pacific, a region which then was little known to Europeans because of its distance from their major sea routes, established principally between Europe, the Americas and West Africa in order to promote trade and project political power.
Vary sentence length and structure, and rewrite it as follows:
Before arriving in Australia, Captain Cook had explored the South Pacific. Because of its distance from their major sea routes, Europeans knew little of this region—most of their sea travel had been between Europe, the Americas and West Africa. They were busy promoting trade and projecting political power.
- Avoid ‘showy’ writing, in the style associated with marketing.
- Favour objective, straight forward language.
- Compare these:
Our offices are conveniently situated within close proximity to a bustling urban hub.
Our offices are close to the city centre.
Use vigorous, verb-centred language.
- Line up sentence structure with the ‘who did what’ story of its meaning.
- Avoid strings of nouns; instead, choose active verbs.
- Check for yourself which of these are easier to read:
Our specialisation is the provision of transport solutions.
We specialise in solving transport problems.
There is a preference on the part of readers for scanning rather than close reading of web text.
Readers prefer to scan web text rather than read it closely.
It is our recommendation that . . .
We recommend that . . .
Choose active rather than passive verbs.
It is common in scientific and ‘official’ writing to use the passive voice. We lose the agent, or subject, of the verb, often in an attempt to sound objective, or authoritative. So, in a formal report we might read:
The subject was observed lying on the ground. (Passive)
But a speaker would say:
I saw him lying on the ground. (Active)
- Use the active voice to bring energy to your writing.
- You will also improve readability.
In the conclusion a large emphasis is placed on the need for action.
The conclusion emphasises the need for action.
An attempt was made to determine the reasons for the failure to complete the work on the part of the contractors.
We tried to find out why the contractors did not complete the work.
Find the shortest and simplest way of expressing an idea. Cut any unnecessary language: there are usually words, phrases and entire sentences that you can take out.
You can cut the words that are underlined:
This information is of a confidential nature.
We update the website on a weekly basis.
It should be noted that market conditions change quickly.
The island is completely surrounded by a shallow lagoon.
It’s not about you. Before you start writing, think about your readers:
- What are they looking for?
- What do they know already?
- What do you want to tell them?
- How do you want to come across?
Stay focused on the reader, their needs and interests, on what they can get from the information you are presenting.
- Don’t write:
Our consultants can be contacted via a dedicated phone help line.
More information is available by clicking on this link.
- Put the reader first:
Call our help line to talk to a consultant.
You can find out more here.
- Get to the point.
- Your reader will look for the key point in the first sentence of each paragraph.
- Keep each paragraph short, with a single topic.
- Use the ‘inverted triangle’ structure.
- This places the most important points first, and gives them most space.
- Cut protracted openings and long-winded endings.
- Move from the particular to the general, from a specific example to a more general idea. Consider these two possible openings for a book. The second version is what the author wrote. It engages a reader from the first few words.
This book will examine the various cultural, moral and institutional meanings that are attached to the financial aspects of personal and social life.
The love of money, so Saint Paul told Timothy, is the root of all evil. If this is true then most of us are evil because most of us do love money.
(Rowe, D. 1998, The Real Meaning of Money)
- Bullet points and sub-headings make it easier to scan material.
- Don’t centre text.
- Create sub-headings and chunk material under them.
- Use bold to high-light key words, but don’t overdo it.
Don’t write ‘web-speak’
Don’t refer directly to the web. Terms to avoid include ‘this web page, ‘click here’, ‘follow this link’.
Writing is rewriting
Print out your text then edit it on paper. Cut anything that is not essential.
Then ask someone else to read it and give you feed-back.
Writing is conversation
If in doubt about the readability of your text, read it out loud and ask yourself if this is what you would say to someone. Take a reader through the material one step at a time in clear simple language. Ask yourself: Have I ‘put on a voice’? If so, why?