“Start with the point, don’t get to the point.”

There are many studies that show that users read differently online than they do on paper.

Typically, users on the web will scan the page for keywords and phrases. They will not read word for word, line by line. It follows that when writing for the web, the writer should adjust their writing style accordingly.

Documents written to be read online must be concise and structured for scanning. People tend to skim Web pages rather than read them word by word. Use headings, lists, and typographical emphasis for words or sections you wish to highlight; these are the elements that will grab the user’s attention during a quick scan. Keep these elements clear and precise — use your page and section heads to describe the material. — From: The Web Style Guide

Strategies for writing

Reduce and re-write

Where possible, remove unnecessary content from your pages. If removal is not possible, move it to another page and link to it accordingly.

  • Re-write the remaining content using plain English, notwithstanding any legal imperative to do otherwise.
  • Write to the reading level of your intended audience.
  • Avoid jargon. It’s better to use a more descriptive paragraph than use terms that only experts understand.
  • Avoid acronyms or abbreviations.

If an acronym or abbreviation will help the user, make sure you spell out the full term before using the abbreviation.

Be brief and simple

Keep your text concise and accurate. We know that people are time poor. We also know that users come to your site looking for something specific.

Make your microcontent actionable

“Definition: Microcontent is a type of UX copywriting in the form of short text fragments or phrases, often presented with no additional contextual support.”

There’s a great article on the Nielsen Norman Group blog by Hoa Loranger and Jakob Nielsen.

They summarise by saying, “Well-written, short text fragments presented out of supporting context can provide valuable information and nudge web users toward a desired action.”

Make use of simple diagrams where possible.

“A picture is worth a thousand words”

The above statement refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single image. Visualisation makes it possible to absorb large amounts of data quickly.

If you have a process that must be conveyed to your users, consider using a simple diagram to illustrate the process. The diagram can be followed by explanatory text but it gives your user the opportunity to understand at a glance.

Example of a diagram replacing text

A process might be described as follows:

“The national consultation process included two stages:

  • Stage One – Stakeholder meeting
  • Stage Two – Public Discussion Paper”

Another way of showing the process could be:

A process diagram replacing text

Complex ideas can be expressed as diagrams to make it easy to understand.

Inverted pyramid

The “inverted pyramid” style used in journalism works well on Web pages, with the conclusion appearing at the beginning of a text. Place the important facts near the top of the first paragraph where users can find them quickly.

What is the inverted pyramid model

Give the user the key message up front. Then you may elaborate if they want to read more.

The “inverted pyramid” model of writing starts with the conclusion (i.e., the point of the piece) then elaborates as needed. It is part of what is considered “best practice” when writing for the web.

The most important information at the top and the remaining information follows, in order of importance, with the least important at the bottom.

This idea “inverts” the traditional model of writing that typically starts with an introduction, has a body of information then presents a conclusion last. It’s a linear process that is at odds with what we know about users reading behaviour on the web.

Here’s a brief checklist for web content authors.