Preparing text for web pages
The majority of web users tend to scan the web pages they visit for keywords and phrases of interest to them rather than reading text word for word. With this is mind, we have put together some simple guidelines which will help increase the effectiveness of any text you are called upon to write for web use.
It also follows that any existing text you intend using which was originally written for distribution in print form, will benefit from amending and arranging for use on the web.
Make your most important point first.
The inverted pyramid model maximises the impact of your page. This is the way in which journalists write for newspapers. As its name implies it turns on its head the traditional method of presenting a detailed text and concluding with a summary of main points.
The inverted pyramid approach is ideal for web pages because your main message, being up front, is going to register on an initial scan. If that message is what the reader is looking for, the supporting information you provide is much more likely to be read.
Background material, traditionally used as an 'introduction', may be of interest but it is of least direct value. Leave it until last.
Here are some simple and recommended guidelines to apply when writing or editing content for a web page:
- Keep sentences short. This does not mean 'dumbing down' content. It does mean avoiding over-long, compound sentences. As a general guide, longer sentences should seldom exceed 25 words.
- Vary sentence length. Separating longer sentences with short ones makes your text much more readable.
- Avoid jargon. Terms and phrases familiar within your organisation may be incomprehensible to the reader of your page. Abbreviations other than those which are very familiar (eg BBC) should be written in full when first used.
- Make one main point per paragraph. Lengthy and complex paragraphs are unlikely to be read.
- Use bulleted lists like this one in order to make a number of important points clearly and concisely.
Some useful websites:
- The Guardian style guide. An excellent and indispensable reference source for guidance on word usage.
- The Economist style guide. Does for grammar what the Guardian guide does for words. Excellent.
- Writing for the Web. This site is not a model of design, but it contains much useful information about
how text should be prepared for the web. It also quotes the results of research into the way web pages are
accessed and used. For example, it says this of teenagers:
[they] like cool-looking graphics and they pay more attention to a website's visual appearance than adult users do. Still, the sites that our teen users rated the highest for subjective satisfaction were sites with a relatively modest, clean design. They typically marked down overly glitzy sites as too difficult to use. Teenagers like to do stuff on the Web, and dislike sites that are slow or that look fancy but behave clumsily.
- The BBC News styleguide. Page link is to a BBC training and development page from which the News Styleguide is linked as a pdf file. Packed with useful pointers to maximising clarity.