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Writing for the Web

Three main guidelines

Be succinct. Write no more than 50 percent of the text you would have used to cover the same material in a print publication.

  • Write for scannability. Don't require users to read long continuous blocks to text; instead, use short paragraphs, subheadings, and bulleted lists.
  • Use hypertext to split up long information into multiple pages.
  • A fourth guideline is more of a process or management rule: Good content requires a dedicated staff that knows how to write for the Web and how to massage content contributions into the format required by your design standards.

Keep Your Texts Short

Research has shown that reading from computer screens is about 25 percent slower than reading from paper. Even users who don't know about this human-factors research usually say that they feel unpleasant when reading online test. As a result, people don't want to read a lot of text from computer screens. Therefore, you should write 50 percent less text-not just 25 percent less-because it's not only a matter of reading speed but also a matter of feeling good. We also know that users don't like to scroll: one more reason to keep pages short.

Scannability

Because it is so painful to read text on computer screens and because the online experience seems to foster some amount of impatience, users tend not to read streams of text fully. Instead, users scan text and pick out keywords, sentences, and paragraphs to interest while skipping over those parts of the text they care less about.

  • 79 percent of test users always scanned any new page they came across; only very few users would read word-by-word.

The following table shows five different ways of writing the same web content for a site about tourism in Nebraska (see facing page). The table shows how much better each variation was compared with the original text, which served as the control condition in the study.

Skimming instead of reading is a fact of the Web, and it's been confirmed by countless usability studies. Those who write for the Web must acknowledge this fact and write for scannability:

Structure articles with two, or even three, levels of headlines (a general page heading plus subheads-and sub-subheads when appropriate). Nested headings also facilitate access for visually impaired users with screen readers.

Site Version

Sample Paragraph

Usability Improvement (relative to control condition)

Promotional writing (control condition)

using the "marketese" found on many commercial websites
Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).

0% (by definition)

Concise text

with about half the word count as the control condition

Scannable layout

using the same text as the control condition in a layout that facilitated scanning
In 1996, six of the best-attended attractions in Nebraska were Fort Robinson State Park, Scotts Bluff National Monument, Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum, Carhenge, Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park.

Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were: Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors) Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166) Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000) Carhenge (86,598) Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002) Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).

58%

47%

Objective language

using neutral rather than subjective, boastful, or exaggerated language (otherwise the same as the control condition)
Nebraska has several attractions. In 1996, some of the most-visited places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).

27%

Combined version

using all three improvements in writing style together: concise, scannable, and objective
In 1996, six of the most-visited places in Nebraska were: Fort Robinson State Park Scotts Bluff National Monument Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum Carhenge Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park

124%

Nielsen, Jacob. "How Users Read on the Web"
1 October 1997. 19 February 2009
<http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html>

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