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Writing for the Web

10 tips for crafting effective, user-friendly content.

1. Keep your audience in mind.

Consider who will be reading and using your web content.

  • Prospective students / parents
  • current students  / parents
  • alumnae
  • faculty
  • staff

What are they looking for, and what do they need? Be sure the tone, language and organization of content is appropriate for your audience.

2. Keep your objective in mind.

What is the desired outcome of someone visiting your page?

It can be as simple as finding and understanding the information.

Here are some other possibilities:

  • make a gift
  • rsvp or register for an event
  • download a form
  • go to another page or site to complete a task

The above options are what we consider “calls to action”. These need to be very clear to the visitor and stand out from the rest of the text somehow. It’s also good to repeat them. For example, if a link to download a form is within the overall text explaining the form, it is also helpful to place it in the right sidebar under a header.

3. Be concise.

Web writing should be clear and direct. Avoid the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) pitfall – this applies to email too.

As a higher educational institution, we tend to favor long, academically-oriented prose. On the web, however, we want to keep sentences short. Remove words or descriptions that don’t add value to the content. As Thoreau instructed, ‘simplify, simplify.’

Hemingway, an author known for being bold and direct, provides a great example. The Hemingway App is a handy litmus test for whether your content could use some editing.

Also consider leading with the lede. If the page can be summarized in one or two sentences, enter that in the area for “lede” copy.

4. Make content scannable.

Readers scan web pages before they read. If they don’t recognize useful, relevant content, they often move on.

Elements that enhance scanning:

  • Headers and subheaders
  • Use these to create digestible chunks of information
  • Links
  • Block quotes
  • Bulleted lists
  • Graphics

5. Write meaningful headers.

Readers rely on headers to navigate on-page content. Choose words for headers and subheaders that clearly describe the content they introduce. Most of the time it is best to avoid clever or cute language. The meaning may be obvious to you, but not to the visitor.

6. Use bulleted or numbered lists.

Bulleted lists are easier to scan and read than full paragraphs. If you are listing three or more items, consider using a bulleted list. For instructions or long lists like this one, consider using numbered lists for easy reference.

7. Use active voice.

Writing in the active voice is more clear, conversational and engaging than the passive voice. Just ask Strunk and White: "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive." Also, "when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor" (The Elements of Style, Third Edition, pages 18-19).

8. Tone: Be professional and human.

Think like a publisher and less like an administrator or marketer, depending on the information. Use a more conversational tone. Users are turned off by content that talks at them instead of with them. Consider how you would communicate with someone standing in front of you instead of via a formal letter or traditional advertisement.

9. Include valuable links.

If additional useful, relevant and appropriate content exists elsewhere—either in the college site or elsewhere—link to it. Consider what content elsewhere might add value to yours and improve usability. When possible, include links within your page copy to make them contextually relevant.

Avoid using “click here” as your linked text. Active, descriptive text helps users using screen readers and contributes to improved SEO. If you must use “click here”, please link the whole phrase, e.g., Click here to register. Better: Register here. Best: Register now.

10. Keep content fresh.

Schedule regular reviews of your content. Keep it up-to-date and aligned with your objectives. Check links to make sure they are still active and useful. The college site aims to provide a dynamic and interesting experience for our visitors by cross-linking and displaying content from across the site. Don’t be the weak link!