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How to Write for the Web

Getting Started
Format and Structure of Writing
Writing Rules of Thumb
Website Structure Hints

Getting Started


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.

Format and Structure of Writing

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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 want quickly:

  • 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 is about
  • 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)

Writing Rules of Thumb

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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 conventional writing.
  • 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 suffer.
  • 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 (the Gunning 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 equals fog.

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, however ...

** ... this paragraph clocks in at 14.2! Can you tell why?

Website Structure Hints

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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 installation page.

  • 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, etc.