Writing for the Web

Strongly connected to semantic structure and SEO are principles of writing for the web.

The main principle to understand when writing for the web is that people don’t read web pages from top to bottom. Instead, visitors quickly scan pages until they find the piece of information they are looking for.

Eye-tracking technology shows that visitors will read in an F-shaped pattern down the page –­–first, horizontally, across the top, then down the page and across again. Once they find the information they are seeking, they will invest time in reading. If they can’t find the content easily, they will move off the page.

With this in mind, following best practices for writing for the web means writing and formatting for scanning.

How to make content more scannable

  • Write short, simple sentences. Ensure information is understandable for the educated non-specialist.

  • Headings are critical. Ensure your readers, and search engines, have a sense of what your content is about by using headings and subheadings. Ensure your headings include keywords relevant to the information that comes next.

  • Chunk content in brief paragraphs that contain just one idea. This also results in more sentence starts in the left margin and reduces the cognitive load on your readers.

  • Emphasize key messages or facts. Use an inverted pyramid model of writing, where news and conclusions are presented first, followed by details and background information. i.e. most important information at top, in broad strokes, and finer details as you go lower on the page.

  • Justify your text to the left of the page to meet the readers eyes.

  • Use list formats – "ordered" (or numbered) and "unordered" (or bullets) – to to give important information or ideas their own line, rather than cramming them all together in a long sentence.

  • Use tables to display tabular data.

  • Minimize line length. There are differing opinions on what an optimum line length is, with recommendations ranging anywhere from 60-115 characters. Line length is impacted by font style and size, as well and screen size/breakpoints (i.e. whether your users reading on a desktop, tablet, or phone). But the objective is to tighten up your copy. Reduce superfluous words. Make your point and get out!

  • Spell out acronyms on first reference. Avoid insider language. Nix the jargon. Explain complex or niche terms. Keep key terms consistent across your site.

  • Add hyperlinks to other passages or articles where readers can get more background information on a particular topic, both within your own site and on other sites. Outbound links can also increase perceptions of credibility.

  • Incorporate multimedia: Break through your text with images, video, audio, and graphics. Introducing other content formats does more than provide visual interest on a page. It also strengthens the overall impact of your content, and helps the user understand and recall your information.

Resource – See LinkedIn Learning (log in with your Queen's Net ID) for courses on writing for the web, such as:

 Learning to Write for the Web
Host: Chris Nodder
1h 24m Beginner

Content approaches to avoid

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

FAQs are not great as web content for the following reasons:

  • the use of this format tends to lead to a large batch of unorganized content on a page
  • if the questions posted are indeed frequently asked, it might be because the information is not actually found elsewhere on your website
  • they often appear to be made up
  • they are usually crafted with a repetitive grammatical structure, such as "How do I…" that requires a lot of thinking on the part of the user to parse
  • if your questions are not framed exactly as the reader is asking them in their head, they may miss skip over it
  • they are not skimmable, which is how people read on the web
  • they don’t make for great mobile content, as you can't see much of the page content at one time

If you are committed to including the FAQ format:

  • use it in moderation
  • organize the questions into themes and under thematic headings
  • keep the question-style headings very brief; better yet, rework the question into a heading without the question mark
  • ensure the information provided is actually hosted somewhere else on your site; provide only very brief answers, then link to the web pages where more information is available
  • use only true questions that are indeed frequently asked – i.e. "exceptions to the rule" and other clarifying information, that not everyone needs

Article – "No More FAQs: Create Purposeful Information for a More Effective User Experience"

Welcome messages

Avoid the convention of including a "welcome to my website" message on your front page. It is nice to strike a friendly tone, but that the reader is welcome to the information on your site is already implied. Instead, reserve your highly visible front-page space (prime real estate!) for a strong headline and "elevator pitch" ­– i.e. a brief description of your organization – so that any reader can quickly understand what you do and why it is important.

Empty promises

Don’t publish empty pages or "under construction" messages or "coming soon" information. Just don’t include a page or information until it is ready. If you must include a note about content to come, only do so when you can indicate when the new content will be available, and make sure you follow through.



Quality Assurance

Copy editing and Queen’s Style Guide

Be sure to follow the workflow process in your area regarding proofreading and having another person review new content for accuracy and grammar/writing style issues.

The Queen’s Style Guide provides a quick reference for the university’s writing guidelines and writing style. It is meant to be a guide for university employees who are involved in disseminating information on behalf of their unit/department and/or the university, to clarify style and best writing practices, and improve consistency.

Queen’s University recommends following the guidelines set out in the Canadian Press Stylebook and Caps and Spelling (CP), as well as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (Oxford) for spelling.

The Queen’s University Style Guide provides information on style and writing conventions particular to the university and which differ from those guidelines in CP. It lists exceptions, preferences, or Queen’s-specific conventions that are not covered in CP or Oxford.

Visit Queen’s Style Guide

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