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Writing for the Web


Here are the main things to keep in mind

  • People come to a site with a task in mind: to do something or to find information. Make it easy for them.
  • The fewer the words, the better.
  • Think in terms of chunks of content, not pages, and organize appropriately.
  • Take advantage of white space to help separate sections of content and use the header styles.

Users don’t read on the web, they scan. (Until they find what they’re after.) The more words on a page, the less people will read. See the writing for the web video tutorial for more information.

Here’s what happens when a user sees a page.

  • They scan the page for key terms, for copy (information) that sounds like what they’re after.
  • They click on the first (not necessarily the closest) match.
  • Repeat #1 and #2 until they find what they’re after or give up.

Here’s how you can write to help them succeed.

  • Use headings and space.
    • If you can chunk content, do so
    • Put chunks under the most succinct header
    • Separate the chunks (use either vertical or horizontal space)
  • Use lists.
    • Bulleted lists are easy to scan when the bullets are kept short.
    • Use numbered lists only when sequence or hierarchy is crucial.
  • Use plain language.
    • Use “you” (address your reader directly)
    • Use verbs (“Joe makes the widgets”, not “The widgets are made by Joe” or “Widget construction is the responsibility of Joe”)
    • Use minimum jargon (acronyms, terms of art, buzzwords)

A word about search

People will search when scanning fails. (Some people default to search, but they’re the minority.) People will also come to your site from a search engine like Google, so don’t assume that a person has navigated from your home page to whatever page they’re on.

Wait! What’s a content chunk?

Think how hard it would be to navigate a book without chapters or an index. Both the chapter divisions and the index are kinds of content chunks.

How you organize your content into chunks depends on what your users need and the kind of content you have. There are two ways to begin organizing.

Think about what your users need and what content fulfills that purpose or Think about what content you have and how your users might mentally categorize or interpret that content.

In both cases, you should end up with a categorization of your current content and an understanding of what else your users might need.

To see how it works, think about shopping for a book at your favorite online store. The book site will organize their products in a number of chunks of different sizes:

  • Fiction or nonfiction
  • Book genre
  • Book title
  • Book description
  • Author name
  • Publication date

to name just a few. The categories “fiction or nonfiction” and “genre” are large, the book description is medium-sized, and the title, author, and date are smaller. All these are chunks, and they help you drill down to the book you are looking for.

What goes where?

There are basically three types of pages:

  • Portal
  • Navigator
  • Destination

Each type has a different function. The first two types should have minimal text.

Portal pages

Portal pages encapsulate information available in that section of the site—for example, a home page or section heading page. Portal pages should have the least copy and be the most scannable—you’re not informing them on this page, you’re guiding your users toward their goal. In the example of a book site, copy and links on this page might be divided by fiction and nonfiction, and subdivided by genre.

Navigator pages

Navigator pages narrow a user’s options. Navigator pages should still be highly scannable, but can contain more copy. Headings and space are most useful here. For the book site, this page might contain mystery books by title with a short description.

Destination pages

Destination pages should contain your full copy, but be sure that copy is still honed. For the book site, this page might list each mystery with full description and publication information.

Now what do I do?

Take a look at your content and what you’ve identified as needed but nonexistent.

  1. Remove anything out of date or unused.
  2. Chunk (categorize) the survivors and the new items.
  3. Start with your Portal page. Arrange your broad categories and links according to what’s most crucial for your users.
  4. Next, tackle the Navigator pages. Arrange your finer-grained categories and add brief descriptions to each.
  5. Last, mercilessly edit the copy on your destination pages.

How to comply with Section 508 laws

Section 508 laws cover web accessibility for people with disabilities or impairments. All government websites (including web-based attachments, PDFs, Word documents, etc.) must adhere to accessibility requirements.

More information about 508 compliance is available on the Accessibility - Section 508 page of this website.

Checklist for Site Design

  • Identify your users.
  • Identify your most frequently visited pages or downloaded documents.
  • Identify what your users need that isn’t currently there.
  • Remove the dead content.
  • Chunk (categorize) your content.
  • Edit your content so that the minimum remaining is still useful.
  • Remove or explain jargon.
  • Make sure your site complies with Section 508.