Writing For The Web

by Garrett Nafzinger

Updated on May 23, 2024

Note: This is an article I originally wrote in January of 2011. Much has changed, and much remains the same. I’ve made some minor edits to the article below.

Users Come to Your Site to Complete Tasks

The Web is Task-Oriented

People use the web to complete specific tasks. They want quick answers and efficient solutions. For example, when you visit your bank’s website, you probably have a specific goal, like checking your account balance or viewing interest rates.

The Web Lacks Context

When users arrive at your site, they already know what they’re looking for. Unlike print, which provides context through lengthy narratives, the web is direct. If visitors don’t find what they need quickly, they will leave and look elsewhere.

Understanding How Users Read on the Web

Writing for the web is different from writing for print. Users don’t read web pages word for word; they skim for relevant information. To be effective, web content must be easy to scan and understand.

Research on How Users Read on the Web

In 1997, studies at the SunSoft usability labs showed that users prefer scannable, concise writing. The research found that 79% of users scan web pages instead of reading them fully. This highlights the importance of clear and direct web content.

Writing Clear and Concise Web Content

Web writers should use various formatting options to make content clear and concise:

  • One Idea Per Paragraph: Stick to one idea per paragraph for clarity.
  • Use Subheadings: Subheadings summarize paragraphs and help users navigate the content.
  • Lists: Use numbered or bulleted lists for key points to enhance readability.

Eliminate wordy sentences and aim to cut the word count in half compared to conventional writing. Use simple words and straightforward sentences.

Formatting Options for Web Copy

  • Subheadings: Break up content into meaningful sections.
  • Short Paragraphs: Keep paragraphs short and focused.
  • Lists: Use bulleted or numbered lists for key points or steps.
  • Experiment: Try different styles to see what works best for your content and audience.

Real-Life Web Writing Examples

Example 1: Healthcare Reform Information

Original Version:

With the health care reform debate entering its most critical period, patients across the country are asking their family physicians for answers to questions such as — “Which health reform claims are true? Where can I find a bipartisan source for more information? Why are the reform proposals being reviewed by Congress important to me, your patient?” The AAFP has created a one-page information sheet (1-page PDF) that physicians can download and share with their patients.

Rewritten Version:

With health care reform entering a critical point, patients are looking for answers to health care reform questions. Provide them with the health reform patient handout (1-pg PDF).

Summary of Changes: The sentences are more concise, and unnecessary questions are removed. The focus is on providing quick access to the needed information.

Example 2: Online Banking Information

Original Version:

Internet Home Banking – The Credit Union Way

Developed exclusively for FLEX Credit Unions, FLEXTeller is the latest in Internet Banking technology. Accessible through any web browser, FLEXTeller provides a real-time connection and a secure site to view account information. Members may make transfers between accounts, view and download account history, view recent check clearings, view cleared checks, and even apply for a loan, all online. FLEXTeller gives you access to your financial information 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Rewritten Version:

Poplar Bluff Federal Credit Union uses the latest secure technology so you can safely bank online. With online banking, you can:

  • Make transfers between accounts
  • View and download recent transactions
  • View recent and cleared checks
  • Apply for a loan

Summary of Changes: The text is concise and the list of tasks is presented in a bulleted list for easy scanning. Redundant information is removed.

Writing Meaningful Link Names

Avoid using “click here” for links. Instead, use descriptive link names that naturally fit into sentences. Descriptive links help users find the information they need without reading entire sentences or paragraphs.

Examples:

  • Original Link: Click here for information about the XYZ ballot initiative.
  • Descriptive Link: Information about the XYZ ballot initiative.

When linking to a document, include the file type in parentheses after the link name.

By following these guidelines, you can create web content that is clear, concise, and easy to navigate. This will help users complete their tasks efficiently and improve their overall experience on your site.

References

  1. McGovern, Gerry. “How the web is different from print.” New Thinking 08 Dec 2008: web. 21 Sep 2009.
  2. Morkes, John, and Nielsen, Jakob. “Concise, SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web.” Useit.com: Jakob Nielsen’s website. 01 Jan 1997. Nielsen, Jakob, web. 21 Sep 2009.
  3. Brinck, Tom, Darren Gergle, and Scott Wood. Usability for the web: designing websites that work. Illustrated. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2002. Print.