How to Write for the Web
Format and Structure of Writing
Writing Rules of Thumb
Website Structure Hints
You have been assigned the task of developing the contents of your
school's or department's website. Don't panic! Step-by-step planning
makes the task less overwhelming and results in a site that is of maximum
benefit to your audience. Before writing the first word, ask yourself
the following basic questions:
Who specifically is your audience? What specifically
is your goal?
Unlike commercial websites, college and university websites have the
tough task of addressing many different internal and external audiences.
Pages can easily become navigational nightmares, with critical links
and information buried too far inside the site.
Who is your main audience and what is your
main goal for the website? Set your sights
on that group and make them first throughout.
What content will you include on your site, and
in what order?
What particularly are your readers looking for when they come to your
site? Many departments make the mistake of listing items according to
their internal organizational structure. The order makes sense to them,
and after all, someone has already mapped it out. Most likely, though,
the audience will not find it helpful.
Readers don't want to read a long description of your school on the
first page, followed by a long list of administrative officers. They
want to know immediately:
- where your school is
- how to contact someone with questions
- what background qualifies them to apply
- where the application form is on your site
- if financial aid is available
- what courses are required.
This information should appear on your main page, or at least be referenced
in links on your main page.
In what form should the information be presented?
There is a question behind this question:
Q.: How do readers read on the web?
A.: They don't read. They skim and leave. Usually in under two minutes.
Why is this?
Reading gray text on a 15-inch-wide computer screen two feet away from
the eyes is very taxing. In fact, when people attempt to read a computer
screen, they read 25 percent more slowly than they read a written page.
(Are you reading this page as quickly as you read a page in a book?)
Also, readers are perpetually in a hurry.
Visual aids can help your readers scan information more easily. Consider
using the following tools to help readers find the information they
- Short paragraphs, no more than three average sentences long, with
one point only per paragraph ...
- ... where possible, presented as list items with bullets
- Highlighted words sprinkled throughout
- Frequent, clear, concise subheads -- i.e., no clever or mystery
subheads that leave readers wondering what the following text really
- list of short, self-explanatory links that lead people to other
pages within your site (as opposed to trying to explain everything
on one page)
Some of your pages will necessarily have to be text-laden. Relegate
them to the inside. Your opening page and first-tier subpages must be
clean and sparse. Keep in mind these rules as you write:
- Good web writing is organized differently than conventional writing.
Use the inverted pyramid style that journalists use: present your
conclusions first, followed by background. Readers want to know within
the first two sentences or so why it's important to read further,
otherwise they skip to something else. Synopsis-style conclusions
up front give them what they need immediately.
- Use at least half the word count that you would normally use in
- Don't use "marketese" such as superior,
excellent, state-of-the-art, etc. These words present a layer
of mental processing that readers don't want to have to wade through
(i.e., they have to decide if you're telling the truth or not). If
you must crow, provide links to sources outside of the University
environment that corroborate the praise. Otherwise, credibility may
- Don't use academic jargon that makes sense only to an internal audience.
Be clear and concise.
- Pay attention to what's called the "fog index":
Is your writing foggy? A tried and tested formula
Fog Index) can measure the density (readability) of your prose.
Components of the formula include word length and sentence length.
Too many words of three syllables or more plus too many long sentences
The outcome of the formula is expressed as a grade level. Text
analyzed at a grade level of 13 or more runs the danger of being
ignored or misunderstood. Even though your readers are college-level,
at a level of 13 they are being unnecessarily slowed down, especially
given that this is web reading.*
No popular magazines, and even the more intellectual magazines
such as Atlantic Monthly and The
New Yorker, score higher than 12. Lincoln's Gettysburg
Address has a level of 10.**
* This paragraph is written at a level of 10.8,
** ... this paragraph clocks in at 14.2! Can you
To meet people's need to scan and click quickly:
- Put a link to a site-specific search engine, or at least a link
to a site map, on every page, including your main page. (Make sure
the site map doesn't just repeat all the same links on your main page.
Make it as detailed as possible.)
- On your main page, try to include everything on one screen, so that
readers don't have to scroll. (It's best to make sure that as you
are making the page, you have your screen set to 800 pixels wide by
600 pixels deep.)
- When creating tables that will include paragraphs of text, do not
specify "100% of screen" for table width. Nothing is more
deadly than reading excessively long lines of text. Instead, choose
a finite number of pixels for your table width, or choose 50-75% of
your screen width. No table should be wider than (the equivalent of)
600 pixels; textual cells inside the tables should ideally be (the
equivalent of) 300-400 pixels wide.
- Use one or two carefully selected, relevant, fast-loading pictures
-- no more (unless they are very small). 72 dpi is the optimum
resolution for the web. Many image-making software programs will tell
you how long it takes to load a picture at 28K, 56K, etc. modem speeds.
- For disabled readers or readers who have their graphics turned off,
try to include a text-only version of your site. Put a "text-only"
link at the very top of the page. Or use the "alt" feature of HTML
coding to provide text descriptions for all of your graphics.
- A word about Adobe PDF vs. HTML files:
Don't overdo with PDF! These files stop readers in their tracks.
There is nothing more frustrating than to be looking for a certain
small piece of information and then discover that you have to
download an entire file in PDF in order to find it. Give your
readers the choice of both PDF and HTML, especially with application
forms. It's more work, but it's definitely more user friendly!
If you must use PDF, warn readers that they are about to download
a PDF file, and include a link to the free Adobe Acrobat Reader
- Proofread your site! Nothing looks quite as bad and undermines credibility
quite as much as an academic website with
typos and misspellings.
- Test your site before launching it, getting the input of everyone
who has a stake in the site. Also have end users test it. However,
make sure your users' hardware and software match what's typically
found in the external community. Most colleges and universities are
infinitely more "wired" than the average user out there.
Think of 28K and 56K modems, 15-inch screens, different browser types,