A lot of people are terrified of writing, but here’s what I think: If you can speak, you can write. This is especially true for the Web. Some may be better than others, but with the following guidelines and practice, everyone can improve.
Steve Krug, author of the best-selling usability book Don’t Make Me Think, says Web pages should be self-evident, obvious, and self-explanatory. Users should be able to “get it” without expending a whole lot of cognitive energy. Most users scan Web pages instead of reading them, anyway. Even readers with above-average intelligence read only about 20% of text.
So with all that scanning and conservation of mental energy, what do Web users notice?
- Page layout
- Navigation features
- Highlighted keywords, such as links
- Meaningful subheadings
How can you make such features especially noticeable?
- Omit needless words.
Getting rid of unnecessary words reduces the “noise level” of the page, makes the useful content prominent, and makes the pages shorter and scannable. Not sure where to get started? Steve Krug likes to say, “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.”
- Use plain language.
People prefer to read simple and informal writing online. So avoid jargon, use familiar words, define acronyms and abbreviations, and use abbreviations sparingly. Use descriptive words, especially in the first sentence of each paragraph, and use active voice.
- Make content meaningful.
– Group related information and functions.
– Use descriptive headings and subheadings. Style them in bold, so they stand out.
– Ensure that labels clearly reflect the information and items contained within a category.
– Use bulleted and numbered lists.
– Leave plenty of whitespace.
- Match link names with the page they point to.
“Click here” is not very descriptive. A better way to help users understand and use your Web site and its subpages are to clearly label all links. For example, instead of writing “Click here for a map,” you might write, “For help, view a Campus Map.”
Ultimately, try to think about your audience and what their level of understanding and familiarity might be when they initially encounter your Web page, and let that guide your writing. Remember, you want your site to be easy to read and easy to understand.
Here are some additional resources you might find helpful:
- Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines
- 10 Usability Tips Based on Research Studies
- The Nielsen Norman Group: Writing for the Web
- Library Terms that Users Understand
- Usability in the Library: Resources
(For a slide presentation of this post, download the PDF: Writing for the Web, 3.40MB.)