Keep it simple and use plain language. This was the advice in the early days of the web and if anything it’s more important than ever nowadays, because your readers are likely to be using small-screen devices.
Writing for the web or digital media is different from writing for print because people read differently on screen. A lot of the time people don’t really read; they scan. They look at headings and subheadings first. They scan for links and keywords.
There’s no need to make your content unnaturally short, nor do you have to dumb it down. There’s often a case for detailed or long-form content. But do keep it free from verbosity.
These guidelines apply especially to website content but in the main they’re also relevant for print-based content:
- Write for your reader
- Keep it simple
- Be direct
- Write effective headings
- Front-load content
- Use descriptive link text
- Use lists
Write for your reader
Who is your reader?
Be clear who your target reader is. As you write, keep asking yourself: “What kind of people am I writing for and what do I want these people to be able to do as a result of reading the words I’m writing?”
Use reader-centric vocabulary
If you go to a supermarket to buy jam, tea and toothpaste, you look for signs saying JAM, TEA and TOOTHPASTE. It may not immediately occur to you to look for signs saying PRESERVES, BEVERAGES and DENTAL CARE. You know what they mean, but the words are not the ones that you would naturally think to use. It’s the same principle for websites. Beware of using company-internal terminology. Use words that your readers will look for.
Keep it simple
Use mainly short, common words – except if you’re writing for a specialist readership. For example, even well-educated people generally don’t know what edentulism means. So say tooth loss, unless you’re writing for doctors or dentists who would be familiar with the term.
Long or complex sentences, especially ones that contain subordinate or parenthetical clauses (like this), make the task of reading more difficult than it needs to be and tend to put people off reading further.
So write short sentences when you can.
As a rough guide, if it’s more than about 20 words, consider breaking it into two sentences. But this shouldn’t be a hard-and-fast rule.
The space between one paragraph and the next helps the reader to see where there’s a change of subject. It also makes a block of text seem more readable. It’s fine to split a paragraph into two artificially where there isn’t really a change of subject, to avoid long blocks of text.
Something like six lines per paragraph in a full-size desktop screen is generally a good maximum to aim for. Bear in mind that the number of lines per paragraph will vary with the screen size that the text is being viewed in.
Go easy on adjectives and adverbs
Don’t use adjectives which merely tell the reader how you want them to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling them that your service is “excellent”, describe it so that they’ll see how excellent it is. Don’t say you’re “committed” to this or that; make the reader see how committed you are when they’ve read about what you’re doing. You see, all those words (leading, innovative, cutting-edge, flexible, dedicated, high-quality) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
—Adapted from Letters to Children, CS Lewis
Make instructions concise
When you write an instruction, make it a clear call to action. Don’t write “Customers who wish to speak to us directly can do so by calling the following telephone number”. Just write “Call us on…” or even just the phone number alone.
Don’t be afraid to use the imperative form (“do this” rather than “you can do this”).
When to use more words
Do not sacrifice clarity for conciseness. Sublingual analgesic is nice and short, but not speedily understood by a general readership. In this case, it could be better to write eight words instead of only two in order to convey the meaning more readily: a painkiller that you dissolve under your tongue.
Get straight to the point. Try hard to avoid filler text like “Welcome to our products and services section”, “In this section you will find information about…”, “We are delighted to announce…”.
Aim to make the first few words of the first sentence act as a summary of the page. Do not talk about the mechanics of finding information. Do not welcome the reader. Do not say how delighted you are. Do not pass go. Do not collect £200.
Just get to the point.
Write effective headings
The main heading of a page in a website should be the same as, or nearly the same as, the page name in the menu and site map. For higher-level pages it’s usually best to stick to the boring, familiar page names that people actually look for: About us, Services, Products, Careers, News, Contact us, and so on.
Use plenty of subheadings. These provide structure for the reader and give people something to scan. They also help search engines to make sense of your content.
“Front-loading” means putting the conclusion first. Use headings and subheadings to clearly describe what each piece of text is about. Make the first sentence of the first paragraph say it all in brief. Put the detail in the following paragraphs. That way, people can see at a glance whether the information on offer is what they want. They can then either read on or go to another page as they need.
Use descriptive link text
When people scan a web page, they look for link text. So do search engines. Provide brief but meaningful link text that provides some information when read out of context and describes what the link offers.
Avoid using meaningless terms as the sole text of a link – click here, read more, details, download, discover, explore, and that kind of thing. Make the link text exactly or nearly match the name of the page it links to.
Bulleted or numbered lists work well on web pages because they
- provide at-a-glance structure
- help search engines
- convey key points at a glance
- are easier to scan
- are quicker to read
- are less off-putting than blocks of text