Writing for the web

14 June 2017
Daniel Bradley

If you want to present information online, you need to break some of your old habits you would usually have when writing for print. There are differences in the way information can be presented from a usability and accessibility perspective. Not just this, but people actually read differently on the web than they do when reading print materials, for example scanning for information rather than reading the whole thing. In a study of online reading behaviour it was concluded that on the average webpage, users will read no more than 28% of the page content!

Writing for the web, you have to think slightly differently - using plain language allows users to find what they need, understand what they have found, and then use it to meet their needs. It should also be actionable, findable, and shareable.

It’s important to understand how what you are writing fits into what you are trying to achieve, what the content lifecycle entails, and those involved in the process.

Identify the goal

The first thing you will need to do when writing for the web is figure out what your aim is. For example, if you are a running a consultation you will want users to be able to easily find the section of document they want to comment on, read it clearly, and comment upon it. Your webpage should help the user achieve the goal that you have set out to the best of its ability. 

Knowing your users’ goals can help you identify:

  • Content to feature on your homepage or landing pages (more on this in a previous article)
  • Page headers and sub headers
  • A logical structure to each page’s content

Writing user friendly content

Now you understand the importance of changing how you write for the web, and have worked out what your goal is for your page/pages, we have compiled a list of practical techniques you should employ when writing:

  • Break up your content. Doing this makes your content more scannable by breaking it into manageable sections.
  • Front-load the important information. Use the journalism model of the “inverted pyramid.” Start with the content that is most important to your audience, and then provide additional details.
  • Use pronouns. The user is “you.” The organization or government agency is “we.” This creates cleaner sentence structure and more approachable content.
  • Use active voice. “The board proposed the legislation” not “The regulation was proposed by the board.”
  • Use short sentences and paragraphs. The ideal standard is no more than 20 words per sentence, five sentences per paragraph. Use dashes instead of semi-colons or, better yet, break the sentence into two. It is ok to start a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “or” if it makes things clear and brief.
  • Use bullets and numbered lists. Don’t limit yourself to using this for long lists - one sentence and two bullets is easier to read than three sentences. Make sure these lists are simple and consistent, and are formatted correctly using the tools on your word processor.
  • Use clear headings and subheadings. Questions, especially those with pronouns, can be particularly effective.
  • Use images, diagrams, or multimedia to visually represent ideas in the content. Ensure that images are only used to reinforce the text on your page, and never replace. Images that do not add anything to your content should not be used.
  • Avoid creating large and complex tables. Big tables, tables with many columns, and tables within tables may not fit within the width of the page. They are usually completely unaccessible on mobile devices. Most information that would be displayed as a table for print, can easily be made into a list instead for web.
  • Use a single column layout. it isn't accessible to display a document in more than one column on the web, make sure your paragraphs and images align neatly on top of one another rather than side by side.
  • Avoid PDF documents. From an accessibility standpoint PDF documents aren’t good. Users may not have the software available to open them cleanly, particularly on mobile devices. They are also difficult to read on mobile devices because of their small text, with the user having to constantly zoom in and out rather than scroll up and down (the later of which is a more natural way of using a mobile device).

Looking to improve the way you manage planning consultations? Wanting to make better use of the web for online consultations? Interested in how our system could help you? Why not request a free demo of OpusConsult. Just get in touch!