ONLINE WRITING GUIDE

Introduction

Studies have found that people assume different reading behaviors in reading online text – and different writing approach is required in order to effectively communicate your site content to the readers . This guide is an overview of writing principles that have been suggested by reputable authorities on online writing, with links to additional resources for further reading.

Nielsen's Principles

Jakob Nielsen, a renowned usability expert, observed that less than a fifth of web users actually “read” new pages they come across; most users scan the information displayed on screen to digest information. Furthermore, users disliked the self-promoting writing style that is often found on the web and preferred concise text with paragraphs reflecting single identifiable ideas. In order to address these issues, Nielsen recommends three simple principles to improve the usability of text on the web.

  1. Use concise text – users do not like long text and scrolling pages. Cut down the word count to about half the paper counterpart.
  2. Use scannable layout – users tend to scan the w eb page for information they seek. Improve scannability by using bullet lists, section headers, etc.
  3. Use objective language – users prefer factual, objective language to subjective marketing/promotional language. Use neutral language over subjective .

Maximizing Hyperlinks

One of the biggest differences between writing on paper and on the web is the availability of hyperlinks. Appropriate use of the text hyperlinks can greatly enhance the readability and effectiveness of a w eb document . At least three goals can be achieved by effective usage of text hyperlinks:

  1. Efficient navigation – the users can be routed to the specific information that they are seeking.
  2. Enhanced credibility – your writing can benefit from added credibility and authority if you reinforce your material with links to validating external sources.
  3. Improved readability – text hyperlinks can act as “guide posts” for the users in their text scanning behavior, allowing for quicker recognition of your site content.

Know the Readers

The characteristics of your readers can have a great effect on how your writing will be perceived. How comfortable are they with navigating w eb pages? How much interest do they have in your subject? Would they visit your site for detailed information, or for quick reference? All these questions need to be considered in your writing order for your w eb page to be effective.

  • Classify and write for your target readers – age, gender, and computer experience should all be considered, in addition to any other particular characteristics that may pertain to your reader group. While fundamental web writing guidelines should be observed for all reader groups, some may prefer one style of writing over another.
  • Write for multiple levels of interest – some of your readers may be searching for a brief overview of your topic, while others may be searching for more detailed information. By taking advantage of navigation tools and hyperlinks, you can easily create tiered content that serve different levels of interest; for example, a summary page your subject that contains keywords for the users who wish to know more about the topic will serve readers with multiple levels of interest.

Additional Resources

Stanford-Makovsky Web Credibility Study 2002 (460 kb)

“Writing for the Web” resources at useit.com

“Content Development/Writing for the Web” resources at websitetips.com

“Writing for the Web” – article by Gerry McGovern

“Writing for the Web” – article from Dartmouth College Web Teachings

“Concise, SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web” – article by John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen

“How Users Read on the Web” – article by Jakob Nielsen

“Web Writing for Many Interest Levels” – article by Nathan Wallace

“10 Rules of Writing for the Web” (92 kb) – article by Gerry McGovern