When you're a busy content moderator, writing for the web can be tough. Perhaps you find yourself asking:
- How do I get users to pick up on our key points right away?
- How do I write in a way that my audience will understand?
- How do I prevent giving users more information than they need?
We've got you covered. Follow these best practices for web writing, and you'll put your department's best foot forward before your audience even steps on campus.
Users aren't reading – they're scanning
Users only read about 20% of the information on a given webpage.
Think about it – when you visit a webpage, you're usually looking for specific information.
Just like you, your users are:
- Hunting for the information they want
- Scanning the page to see if the information they need is there
- Moving on to a different source if they can't find what they're looking for
Your site is the authority for info on your department. Don't let users get frustrated and move on. Give the people what they want – information.
Start with the punchline
Be direct. Give your users the most important information first.
It can be tempting to save the juiciest tidbit for last, but if you're upfront, you'll prevent users from getting frustrated and calling your program in a huff, tweeting angrily about your program's page or leaving your page to look at one of your competitors' programs instead.
Chunk it out
In two short sentences, NYU's web writing guidelines say it well: “Chunk your content. Cover one topic per paragraph.”
Eight words – that's the whole paragraph. That's what you want to do: Keep your paragraphs short and sweet.
Four sentences should be the most you use on the site unless the sentences are really short. One sentence by itself is just fine if it gets the point across.
A great way to chunk your content is in lists. You'll see we've used bullets throughout this guide. That wasn't by accident. Bullets are a great way to break up text so users get info faster.
Make your sign posts count
When you're looking for information on a website, how do you narrow down what you're looking for? Easy. You look for sign posts – headings, subheadings, summaries, links and buttons.
According to user experience specialist Chris Nodder, “people read online content in an F-shaped pattern,” reading across the top, down the left-hand side and across the page again when text catches their eye. The text that usually catches their eye? Sign posts.
Tips for writing sign posts to help users get answers faster:
- Write headings that sum up the section and work out of context. They will help readers figure out if this page will have the information they need.
- Don't use teaser headings. Your users aren't looking for clickbait.
- Be sure your headings are in line with accessibility standards. Federal law requires that colleges and universities make their websites accessible to those with disabilities.
- Keep subheadings simple and straightforward to help users orient themselves within a section.
- Avoid overusing headings and subheadings. If everything is emphasized, nothing is.
- The first paragraph of your page should be a summary of what people can expect that page to be about. You can't sum up everything. Focus on your main points because that's what people want from your page.
- Your lower level pages should be able to stand alone. In your summary, give your page context by including info from higher level pages where it's relevant.
Links and buttons
- Links should give people information about where the link is going. Write a sentence how you normally would, then add the in-text links where they fit best. You'll want links to span 1-5 words, just as they do throughout this guide.
- Never use “click here” to link somewhere. If your users are using a screen reader, as some users who are vision impaired might, “click here” does nothing to tell them where your link is going.
- Linking gives your pages more power. People want to know that you have sources behind your stats, especially if they're credible sources. It also helps with search engine optimization.
- Same thing goes for buttons. We use “Learn more” if describing where we're linking to would make the button's text too long. But we try to describe where the link is going if we can – for example, “Placement sites” or “Contact us.”
We've created some word count guidelines that might come in handy for you, based on guidelines from Rutgers University and NYU.
- Headings: 4-8 words
- Subheads: 1-5 words
- Sentences: 1-20 words
- Paragraphs: 1-4 sentences
- In-text links: Spanning 1-5 words
- Buttons (or calls to action): 1-2 words
- Webpages: 300-700 words
While there are exceptions to these guidelines, make these your goals for most pages.
Skip the buzzwords
Sound like a person; don't sound like a salesperson. People don't like it when they feel like they're being pandered to. So forget marketing speak or buzzwords. Forget the jargon. Forget the five-dollar word when a half-dollar word works just fine.
Instead, write like you're talking to someone one-on-one. If someone asked you, “what is your program all about?” or “what sets your program apart?” what would you tell them? Write that down. You may have to edit it a bit, but it's a great place to start.
Keep it simple
EVMS' website targets a number of groups with reading levels well above average. But a 2017 study by Nielsen Norman Group, a user experience consulting firm, reveals that even experts prefer plain language. On your webpage, it's best to keep it simple.
Consider this quote from Chris Nodder, a user experience specialist:
“Even people who have higher literacy levels don't enjoy struggling through text that's written with a very high reading level. …
“Your readers may just rate you as even more intelligent if they find it easier to read your text, even if that means you actually used simpler, shorter, more common words.”
That's right. Your readers might think you're even more intelligent if your content is easy to read.
Your potential students or research partners are smart enough to know what less common terms mean, but there's no reason to slow them down by giving them superfluous – I mean, extra – words that they're not using every day.
Consider other audiences
Your audience isn't just the people you think will be visiting your page most often. It can include groups like:
- Donors who don't have a background in what your program is about
- High school students looking at future careers before applying to undergraduate programs
- Parents or relatives of prospective students
- Patients trying to understand what a program does
- Community members looking to learn more about EVMS
You never know who will end up on your page. So cover your bases: Write in plain English, in a way that's accessible for all of these groups.
Check your readability on Siteimprove
You already use Siteimprove to check for broken links and spelling errors, but did you know you can use Siteimprove's features for readability statistics? We encourage you to check your Flesch Kincaid Grade Level score, the standard for determining how easy your content is to read.
Aim to keep your pages at or below the following grade levels, depending on your audience:
- 12th grade: If your department targets researchers or potential research partners, a 12th grade reading level is appropriate, particularly if you need to use specific terminology.
- 10th grade: If your department targets prospective students or residents, aim for a 10th grade reading level.
- 6-8th grade: If your department targets donors, patients, relatives of prospective students, community members or any other groups, try for a 6-8th grade reading level.
Keep in mind that, while your users are smart enough to understand higher reading levels, they're scanning for information. Don't make users work harder than they have to.
Keep mobile in mind
Keeping things simple is especially vital when users are on a mobile device, and you can bet they are.
"Readers can understand short, simple text content on mobile devices just as well as on computers, but they slow down when reading difficult text on mobile."
We know your users are intelligent, but they want to find answers to their questions about your program as soon as possible, especially when they're scrolling through a page on their phones.
While your program may use acronyms every day, don't assume your audience knows what they are. Play it safe and follow the rules of the editing experts at the Associated Press (AP): Write out acronyms and abbreviations on first reference.
Our biggest exception is the name of our institution. EVMS does not need to be spelled out on first reference, since our name is already built into the navigation at the top of every page.
Students don't want to “be taught.” They want to learn. They don't want "be employed." They want to get a job or start a career.
Stick to active voice and avoid passive voice. To borrow from NYU's guidelines, "Active voice is naturally less bureaucratic," and you want your program page to be as approachable as possible.
Use "you" and "we"
Talk directly to your audience. You can use "we" to strike up a conversational tone and "you" to help them see themselves at EVMS.
Keep content updated
Nobody likes out-of-date content. If you have an “upcoming event” from last year, your users are less likely to trust that the rest of your page's content is accurate.
If you use the calendar in T4 to create an event, you can set it to expire after a certain date.
Set a monthly reminder to take 15 minutes to check through and remove information that's out of date on your program's pages.