Web Development Laboratory

Writing Effectively for the Web

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Letís face it. People have a lot of trouble trying to read a lengthy paragraph on a computer screen. Web usability experts have studied this situation to find out how people cope. The studies showed that users donít read, they scan. To make your Web pages easier to read, you must write material that can be scanned easily. Here are a few tips on how to write effectively for the Web.

Have a clear strategy. Every page needs a clear goal and a clear target audience. Why are you writing this page? What is your primary message? Who are you writing for? How do you want them to respond? “For some companies, the whole point of being on the Web is to demonstrate their technical expertise or sophistication.” (McAlpine, p.24, below)

Use fewer words. Let's say that you have written a paragraph that looks good in print. To make it work on the Web, cut out at least half the words. Make each word count.

Use short sentences and short paragraphs. Choose each word for its clarity. Remove the fluff. Keep paragraphs limited to one main idea told in 65 to 100 words.

Break up your ideas and use subheadings.
     ®     Bulleted style works well
     ®     Page length limited to no more than a screen and a half
     ®     If your page gets too long, create a second page and link to it
     ®     To present further details, link to another page
     ®     Limit bulleted lists to 3 to 5 items. Having more than 6 or 7 items destroys the point of bullets
     ®     Use subheadings to help the readers see the big picture
             o   Use two or even three levels of headings
             o   Arrange your material in a logical way
             o   Make your page organization clear to the reader
     ®     When the bulleted list gets too long, the user slows down to figure out why certain items are listed together

Choose clear page titles, headings and links. The reader scans for what is important. Make his task easier by clearly labeling pages, sections and link topics. Help readers sort through links within paragraphs by using a descriptive phrase rather than one word for the link (e.g., if you were linking to more information on a topic, the link more information on this topic would be easier to locate and understand than if you merely used the one word more)

Use the Inverted Pyramid structure. Widely used in newspaper articles, this method places the most important information first, followed by decreasingly important material. When written this way, an article can be shortened section by section starting from the bottom. The reader can stop reading at any point and be sure that he did not miss the main idea. By keeping the main idea at the beginning of each paragraph, readers can skim through the document reading only the first part of each paragraph.

Use the proper method for emphasis. On the Web, underlining is reserved for links. Use bold instead. Avoid italics. They are hard to read on a computer screen.

Be sure that your work is legible. Use ten to fourteen words per line. Use screen-friendly fonts like Verdana, Georgia and Trebuchet MS. Avoid fancy fonts. Serif fonts are good for long text sections because they help people read more quickly. Sans serif fonts work well for headlines. Donít use all caps because they slow down reading speed. Avoid tiny fonts. Avoid italics. Use left alignment. Donít use justified text.

Enthusiasm is desirable, but exaggeration is suspect. Advertising and commercials tend to mix fact, opinion and persuasion. Stick to the facts, but write with enthusiasm. Use a friendly, lively, individual tone. Be human and straightforward.

Check your speloling and grammar. Use a spell checker. Have someone else proofread your work. Misspelled words poor grammar slow the reader down and ruin your credability.

Make sure your Web pages are printer friendly. If they donít print out properly, provide a printer-friendly version that the user can print. This is especially true for longer pages. Many users find it easier to read the material in print form.

Study the subject in more depth. Three excellent resources are “Web Word Wizardry” by Rachel McAlpine, “The Web Content Style Guide” by McGovern, Norton and O’Dowd and “Designing Web Usability” by Jakob Nielsen.

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