How to write well for the web

People read differently on screens than they do on paper. This means you will need to write differently, too.

Our tips for writing are based on research and user testing.

Meet the user need

Don't publish everything you can on the website. Only publish what people want. Nothing more.

People won't read a lot of text. Always start by asking what does the user want to know?

To answer that question, be

  • specific
  • informative
  • clear and to the point

A website only works if people can find what they need quickly, complete their task and leave without having to think too much.

How users read web pages

Users read very differently online than on paper. They don’t read top to bottom or even from word to word.

Instead, users only read about 20 to 28% of a web page. Where users just want to complete their task as quickly as possible, they skim even more out of impatience.

Eye-tracking studies show that people ‘read’ a webpage in an ‘F’ shape pattern. They look across the top, then down the side, reading further across when they find what they need.

Put the the most important information first. So we talk a lot about ‘front-loading’ sub-headings, titles and bullet points.

For example, say ‘Faculty News’, not ‘What our faculty have been up to lately.’

Start with a summary

Search results show the page title and a 140 character summary. A clear page title and summary will help people find your content.

  • Use the introductory paragraph block on each page to summarize the content on the page.
  • Keep it to 140 characters.
  • Explain the main point of the page in plain English.
  • Use keywords your users might be searching for.
  • Avoid acronyms.

Good content is easy to read

Good online content uses:

  • short sentences
  • sub-headed sections
  • simple words

This helps people find what they need quickly and absorb it effortlessly. Complicated writing gets in the way of people understanding.

Avoid caveats

Do not let caveats get in the way of clear writing.

Do: You can

Don't: You may be able to

Use short words

When you use a longer word (8 or 9 letters), users are more likely to skip shorter words (3, 4 or 5 letters) that follow it. So if you use longer, more complicated words, readers will skip more. Keep it simple.

Use simplest form of words

By the time a child is 5 or 6 years old, they’ll use 2,500 to 5,000 common words. Adults still find these words easier to recognize and understand than words they’ve learned since.

Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’ and ‘like’ instead of ‘such as’.

Words ending in "ion" and "ment" often make sentences longer and more complicated than they need to be.

Use active verbs. Avoid gerunds.

Do: Apply now

Don't: Applying for admission

Short sentences and paragraphs

Short sentences are easier to understand. The longer the sentence, the more time it takes to read and the more likely the user is to skim over it.

Keep sentences less than 25 words.

Paragraphs should be 5 sentences or less.

Write well for smart people

Some people say that because we are a university, it is okay to use large words and complex sentences. This is wrong.

Research shows that even people with high literacy skills prefer plain English, because it allows them to understand information quickly.

We're all very busy. Just because you can read something complex, does it mean you have time to?

Know your audience

Your writing will be most effective if you understand who you are writing for.

You should know:

  • how they behave
  • what they worry about
  • what they are interested in
  • what words or phrases they use

When you have more than one audience, make your writing as easy to read as possible so everyone can understand.

People don't read. They scan.

People also don’t read one word at a time. They bounce around - especially online. They anticipate words and fill them in.

Your brain can drop up to 30% of the text and still understand. You don’t need to read every word to understand what is written.

This is why we tell people to write at an eighth grade level.

Important info first

Because people skim in that F-shaped pattern, you want the key words to appear first. Be aware of this in your titles, headings and bullet points. Be clear rather than clever. Avoid puns and wordplay.

Good example: CSUMB ranked #1 in sustainability.

Bad example: Electric cars, blue bins, and being #1