Writing for the web

See also: readability

Discussion articles

  • 5-second tests: measuring your site's content pages
    "As the name suggests, the 5-Second Test involves showing users a single content page for a quick 5 seconds to gather their initial impressions. Five seconds may not seem like a lot of time, but users make important judgments in the first moments they visit a page. This technique unveils how those judgments turn out, giving the team insight into some essential information about the page. Using this technique, we've found the information we've gathered essential for making huge improvements to our clients' sites."
    (Christine Perfetti)

  • 10 tips on writing the living web
    Some parts of the web are finished, unchanging creations--as polished and as fixed as books or posters. But many parts change all the time: weblogs, journals, news sites and wikis.

  • Applying writing guidelines to web pages
    Web users generally prefer writing that is concise, easy to scan, and objective (rather than promotional) in style, research has shown. We incorporated these and other attributes into a redesign of web content. Doing so required trade-offs and some hard decisions, but the results were positive. The rewritten website scored 159% higher than the original in measured usability. Compared with original-site users, users of the rewritten site reported higher subjective satisfaction and performed better in terms of task time, task errors, and memory. Implications for website writing and design are discussed.

  • A quick guide: converting print to online (PDF)
    This guide tells you how to convert print-based documents to an online format. This is a task that many writers do in their real-world work lives on a daily basis. However, there is not enough information available for how to handle the various conversions, so I wrote this brief guide.

  • Be succinct! (Writing for the web)
    The three main guidelines for writing for the web are: be succinct: write no more than 50% of the text you would have used in a hardcopy publication; write for scannability: don't require users to read long continuous blocks of text; use hypertext to split up long information into multiple pages.

  • Calling all designers: learn to write
    "It’s time we designers stop thinking of ourselves as merely pixel people, and start thinking of ourselves as the creators of experiences. And when it comes to experience on the web, there’s no better way to create it than to write, and write well."
    (Derek Powazek - A List Apart)

  • Call them demons, call them heroes
    The language you use on your web site is critically important and shapes the user experience in ways that you might not expect. You can seriously harm or augment the experience by changing words in small ways.

  • Centralised or decentralised authoring?
    "When implementing a new enterprise-wide content management system (CMS), most businesses assume a decentralised model of authoring. This devolves the responsibility for creating content back to individual staff members within the business units. While this is seen as an effective way of reducing costs and increasing involvement, it is not without its challenges and risks. In practice, neither centralised or decentralised authoring is the single answer to all requirements. To gain the best business outcomes, it is necessary to use both models where appropriate, with a full understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. "
    (James Robertson - Step Two Designs)

  • Choose customer words, not organization words
    "When you're trying to find the right words, you need to have a clear idea of two key things. Who is the primary audience? In what context are they going to be reading these words?"
    (Gerry McGovern - New Thinking)

  • Choose your words carefully on the web
    "What does "customer care" or "in a moment" mean to you? Probably something very different from what Dell and McAfee mean. The words you use make a big difference on the Internet. Carefully chosen, they can keep a customer happy. Sloppily chosen, they can infuriate."
    (Gerry McGovern - New Thinking)

  • Chunking information
    Most information on the World Wide Web is gathered in short reference documents that are intended to be read nonsequentially. This is particularly true of sites whose contents are mostly technical or administrative documents. Long before the web was invented, technical writers discovered that readers appreciate short "chunks" of information that can be located and scanned quickly.

  • Clarity by design
    An article on why clarity is an important characteristic of successful web writing.

  • Content is king
    This article looks at content and describes how understanding your audience and understanding how best to provide content can help you build a loyal audience and even make money in publishing online.

  • Content, structure and relevance: the ploy's the thing
    Attracting and retaining an audience on the web requires the skills of a playwright, and like a good playwright, you have to be able to skillfully combine three inseparable elements: Content, structure, and relevance.

  • Cut paper text by half
    Reading from computer screens is about 25% slower than reading from paper. As a result, people don’t want to read a lot of text from computer screens: you should write 50% less text and not just 25% less since it’s not only a matter of reading speed but also a matter of feeling good.

  • Design checklists for online help
    "Online help systems have evolved over the past 20 years to meet the needs of our users. Designers must consider the content, format, presentation, navigation, and access methods of online help systems. A series of design checklists based on the past 20 years of research are presented in this paper."
    (Michelle Corbin)

  • Developing content for a global audience
    "If your aim is to reach a global audience then you will need to incorporate internationalization into your content strategy as you would with your code and design. There are many ways in which this can be done and I have listed some broad considerations below."
    (Lisa Miller - Red Queen)

  • Discovering user information needs: the case of university department web sites (PDF)
    "University department sites currently have a wide divergence in styles and content. This could be attributed to a difference in department philosophies and the range of tasks each department must support. Content will also vary simply because different departments have different information to present, and some may put more or less effort to their design. They appear to vary in some cases because they are designed without a plan of what to include."
    (Frank E Ritter, Andrew R Freed, Onida LM Haskett - Interactions)

  • Do you make the most common mistake in content management?
    "The biggest mistake in content management is writing for the organization and not for the reader. It is one of the hardest mistakes to correct, but there are ways to ensure that you don't make it."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Editorial style
    Among the many web-induced trends, the emergence of a new writing genre designed to accommodate the reading habits of web users is especially notable. People read differently on the web. One reason for this is that reading text on-screen is unpleasant. Given the low resolution of the computer screen and the clumsiness of the scrolling page, many readers scan onscreen and print pages for reading. Another reason is that web reading is not a stationary activity. Users roam from page to page collecting salient bits of information from a variety of sources. They need to be able quickly to ascertain the contents of a page, get the information they are seeking, and move on.

  • Effective web writing
    Instrumental communication is OK for radio, TV, and movies, and for print on paper, because users of those media can't effectively reply. But web surfers sure can, and most of the time the reply is "Goodbye forever." Crawford Kilian discusses three basic principles of web writing: orientation, information, and action.

  • E-government: no website is better than a bad website
    Not publishing is much better than publishing poor quality content. Most people come to websites to carry out tasks. Quality content will help them complete these tasks quickly and efficiently. Poor quality content hinders task completion, and frustrates and annoys people.

  • Estimating the cost of writing and editing
    Need to budget for production or editing of web content? This page provides some estimates for various phases of writing and editing.

  • FAQs on the web: a study of frequently asked questions lists as a method of user support
    Little data has been published regarding the impact of FAQs in web design and their effectiveness in providing user assistance. Some web sites use FAQs along with other forms of user assistance; others sites use FAQs as the only form of support. To try and better understand online FAQs, I conducted a study of FAQs and their implementation. The focus of the study was to answer the following questions: How prevalent are FAQs on the web? How are FAQs implemented? Are there any common techniques used in FAQ design?
    (Craig Noeldner)

  • For pioneers of web journalism, the future is still full of surprises
    Roundtable panelists discuss the value of blogs, business strategies for pricing content and what professionals and consumers alike should look forward to.

  • Fruit flies like a banana: writing unambiguously
    Ambiguity has the habit of creeping into your writing. This article discusses the five biggest culprits of ambiguity.

  • F-shaped pattern for reading web content
    "Eyetracking visualizations show that users often read Web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe. F for fast. That's how users read your precious content. In a few seconds, their eyes move at amazing speeds across your website’s words in a pattern that's very different from what you learned in school."
    (Jakob Nielsen - Alertbox)

  • Good documents: how to write for the intranet
    A web-site that discusses how to create good business documents in the linked, on-screen environment of Intranets and the Internet.

  • Google's advice for your website: content
    "The web pages actually at the top of Google have only one thing clearly in common: good writing. Don't get so caught up in the usual SEO sacred cows and bugbears, such as PageRank, frames, and JavaScript, that you forget your site's content."
    (Joel Walsh)

  • Help is for experts
    "One of the most interesting epiphanies I've had over the last few years seems on the surface like a paradox: "help" in Office is mostly used by experts and enthusiasts. How can this be? I think my biased assumption was that experts know how to use the software already and eager novices would be poring over the documentation trying to learn how to be more effective using it.Yet, in usability tests we see it again and again: novices and intermediates click around and experiment, experts try to reason things out and look them up in help."
    (Jensen Harris)

  • How to get great content from people
    There is a need to connect the person who creates the content with the person who reads it. Content creation must be seen as an important and valuable task within the organisation. When a piece of content delivers value, the person who created it should be praised and rewarded.

  • How to measure the value of your web content
    "The way to make web content more valued is to make it more measured. The more ways you can measure the value your content delivers, the more your career will be valued."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • How to write summaries for web and intranet pages
    "Don't waste the summary-slot by writing a general blurb or introduction or background. Cut to the chase. And write about the specific page, not the entire site."
    (Rachel McAlpine)

  • How users read on the web
    People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In a study John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen found that 79 percent of test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.

  • Information pollution
    Excessive word count and worthless details are making it harder for people to extract useful information. The more you say, the more people tune out your message.

  • Intranet authoring: a hobby?
    "This briefing looks at the role of intranet authors, and challenges organisations to either take intranet authoring seriously, or to let go of unrealistic expectations regarding content quality and timeliness."
    (James Robertson - Step Two Designs)

  • Inverted pyramids in cyberspace
    Journalists have long adhered to the inverse approach: start the article by telling the reader the conclusion followed by the most important supporting information, and end by giving the background. This style is known as the inverted pyramid for the simple reason that it turns the traditional pyramid style around. Inverted-pyramid writing is useful for newspapers because readers can stop at any time and will still get the most important parts of the article.

  • Is this you? (Reader persona design: an example)
    "Do you work in a medium-to-large organization whose web content you feel could be put to better use? If so, you’re my target reader."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • IT is from Mars; web content is from Venus
    "The information technology (IT) industry fundamentally doesn’t understand the true value of web content. This lack of understanding is just one more reason why IT will continue to decline in influence over the next five years."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • It's the content, stupid: search engine optimization
    "The words people use when searching are the ultimate distillation of what they care about. Search is an activity that strips things down to their essential meaning. If you want to be successful at being found by people who search, you must use their carewords, not yours. The customer controls the message today. It is their language that dictates the communication. You must use their words, not yours, if you want to be found."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Keycontent.org
    A new content management-based website, keycontent.org, offers a place for online publishing and collaborative authoring. Formed by a group of communication experts, Keycontent.org is a new non-profit dedicated to sharing ideas between professionals in the front lines of technical and scientific fields.

  • Lengthen your planning, shorten your text
    Writing for the web requires your old skills, but you must change your approach and alter the writing process.

  • Lower-literacy users
    "Lower-literacy users exhibit very different reading behaviors than higher-literacy users: they plow text rather than scan it, and they miss page elements due to a narrower field of view."
    (Jakob Nielsen)

  • Make paragraphs short
    People are more likely to read a short passage of text than a long one, especially if they have to make an extra effort, like scrolling, to do it. Onscreen text is more difficult and time consuming to read than hardcopy text, which makes people even less likely to thoroughly read long sections of text on a computer.

  • Making sure words communicate
    If you've ever seen Abbott and Costello's comedy routine "Who's on First?" you know that the use of familiar words can sometimes lead to miscommunication. It's funny when comedians play at misunderstanding. But it's not so funny when professionals from X department in a company really don't understand what professionals in Y department are talking about, even if the Y professionals think they're being perfectly clear.

  • Metrics make the case for quality content
    "You need to focus on how much each page is costing you and what value each page is delivering. To maximize value, you want to focus on your killer content."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Newbie web author checklist
    Follow this checklist before you publish your web project, and you'll avoid many of the simple technical issues that might prevent your visitors from accessing or fully appreciating your content.

  • New life for product documentation
    "Here are some 'truths' we’ve all heard: 'Documentation is just a band-aid for poor design.' 'Real users don’t read manuals.' 'Super users never read anything.' 'Help doesn't.' But are they really true? I've seen some signs of life in the use of documentation for digital products recently."
    (Whitney Quesenbery - UXmatters)

  • NHS direct website too complicated for diabetes sufferers
    The language of the diabetes pages of the NHS Direct Online site can only be understood by people whose reading ability is well beyond that of the average UK citizen, reports a new survey conducted at the University of Bath. It warns of potential 'serious consequences' of patients misunderstanding the information.

  • No silver bullet for web content
    There is no silver bullet that will solve your web content problem. There is no magical formula, no sleek software, that will take away the pain of badly written, badly organised content. Creating quality content that is well organised requires a lot of training, skill and hard work.

  • Not all content needs to be of equal quality
    "One of the greatest challenges confronting intranets is ensuring that content is up-to-date, accurate and useful. In many organisations, much thought and effort is put into maintaining (and enhancing) the quality of published content. What must be realised, however, is that not all content on an intranet needs to be of equal quality. Only once this is recognised can successful strategies be put in place to support content authoring and publishing."
    (James Robertson)

  • Nourish old writing skills, add new ones for the web
    The web requires many of the same writing skills as print, but successful writers develop new ways of breaking up and linking.

  • Organising your prose
    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.

  • Prepare web content and organisation for your audience
    Communicators must know whether the audience consists of viewers, users or readers before selecting, writing and organising content.

  • Prove the value of your web content with numbers
    "Getting senior management’s attention is about showing how costs can be reduced and/or value created. Content needs to show how it will reduce costs by X percent and increase productivity by Z percent."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Publish the website you can manage
    "Your job as a web manager must be about a relentless focus on quality. Always put quality first and you will create a website that delivers real and sustainable value."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Quality metadata makes for successful websites
    Metadata is a web writing skill. It helps your readers quickly find what they need. Metadata is an essential part of successful web sales and marketing efforts. It helps influence people to buy. In every sense, metadata can drive action. It can help you achieve your objectives.

  • Quality, not quantity: delivering value from web content
    "Maintaining the quality of your content is critical to the long term success of your website. That involves establishing rigorous pre and post publication editorial processes."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Readability and its implications for web content accessibility
    One area of accessibility often overlooked is the readability of the content of your web pages. Not every user may be familiar with terms or terminology being used. Others may not have the same socio-political background, literacy skills or capacity to fully comprehend what it is you are saying. One goal of the content author then is to try and identify their target audience, and then ensures that they are not "writing over their heads".

  • Readability on the Internet
    There is a great deal written and said about development of Internet sites, with much of the emphasis being placed on usability, navigation, and appearance. It is now time to throw another factor into the mix--readability. It never ceases to amaze me how people can spend thousands upon thousands of dollars for a website and end up with a creation fraught with spelling errors, typos, grammatical errors, and paragraphs that run longer than War and Peace.

  • Reassuring users with inukshuk content
    "At User Interface Engineering, we use the term 'inukshuk'... It's the name of stone figures created by Inuit hunters as guide markers. The hunters arranged the piles of stones in the likeness of human beings, signifying to other hunters that someone already has passed through and experienced their same journey. An inukshuk provided reassurance and empathy to others and alleviated an Inuit's fear that they were off the track. Inukshuk content, when done well, can give the user confidence in a way that factual content can't. The Inukshuk content assures the users that other people have been there before, following the same path they are currently traveling. The users see that these other folks have made it through the decision process and can gain reassurance in their own decision."
    (Christine Perfetti)

  • Recall ability: web content versus print content
    "I've just read a very interesting study entitled 'Memory for advertising and information content: Comparing the printed page to the computer screen.' A key finding of the study is that, 'print is consistently better for recall than screen'".
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Reduce user needs with these 15 tips for writing smart user manuals
    "How often have you come across a user manual that claims to solve a problem, but actually ends up confusing more than helping? If you're a typical user, it probably happens more often than not. Such badly-designed content leads to dissatisfaction and frustration, a poor impression of product quality and (for the company that sold you the product) increased post-delivery support time and costs. That's where smart documentation comes in. Smart documentation understands end-user behavior and is aligned to user needs in the most practical manner possible. And in this article, I'm going to offer some practical tips to help you build user content that is suitable, accessible, and readable."
    (Tech Republic)

  • Search optimization, not search engine optimization
    "If you want to succeed with search engines in the long term, you should not primarily focus on how the search engine works. Rather, you should focus on how the brain of the searcher works. Because if you understand how people search, you’re halfway there to getting found when they search for your content."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Seven deadly sins of web writing
    What's the single most important thing that could improve the web? It's not broadband. It's better writing. The general quality of writing on the web is poor. The way you write has a major impact on what people think of you. Avoid these common mistakes and you will achieve more with your website.

  • Seven tests for quality web content
    Do these quick tests on every web page you write or edit. Use the tests for quality control of web content.

  • Snap decisions on the web
    "In all of our research studying user behavior, we see that visual aesthetics play a role in users’ judgments--but they take a backseat to the site’s content."
    (Christine Perfetti - UIE Brainsparks)

  • Strategies for condensing online text (PDF)
    Online writing experts recommend that writers and editors write less text when composing for the screen. To do so effectively, writers need specific strategies for condensing text that go beyond the usual advice for clear, concise writing. In addition, they should be cautious when advised to arbitrarily cut the word count in half, as some experts suggest. This paper offers strategies for condensing online text that result in fewer words overall. It also suggests strategies for making online text seem shorter, even if the word count remains unchanged. This paper concludes by discussing the risks of condensing text too rigorously. Providing complete information with nothing extraneous requires knowing not only what readers need, but what they do not need.

  • Successful online presence: relevance
    "Relevance" means the ability of a site to present information that satisfies the visitor's immediate needs; if it doesn't meet those needs, then it's (by definition) irrelevant to that visitor.

  • Take full responsibility for your content
    You should only publish on your website the content that you can professionally manage. Managing content involves managing its entire life cycle. The life of a particular piece of content begins with its first draft. It ends when that content is removed from publication. Removing content is as important as publishing it.

  • The art of being human
    Dealing with the bare technology of online interactions is a cold experience for many, or even most of us. Nick Usborne talks about a rare art that gives site visitors what they crave: a human touch.

  • The Goldilocks content framework: identifying just-right information
    "Content is an essential part of any successful web site. However, little work has been done to help designers understand how much content they need or what that content should say. Using a novel approach of analysing the conversations between users on discussion lists, the authors have determined there are essentially 14 types of content that form a framework of what users need."
    (Jared M Spool, Joshua Porter - AIGA Design Forum)

  • The hidden truth about web content
    Many web developers have failed to realise that web content goes far beyond the text of the site. Most people throw around the word "content" as if websites that have many pages and many words are great. Take a moment and reflect on this key question: Is text the same thing as content? 

  • The page title and description: write them well
    "It is tempting sometimes to pay a great deal of attention to the sales text or content on a web page, and then just scribble off the page title and description. Or maybe you don’t write them at all. Maybe someone in IT adds the title and page description for you. Big mistake. Every page title and description on your site in enormously important, from the point of view of both the search engines and your readers."
    (Nick Usborne - Excess Voice)

  • The right information
    "It seems that putting information on a site is easy. However, delivering the right information is much harder. When specifying the site's information architecture, designers need to look beyond the navigation and links, and think about how the user is going to use the information to accomplish their objectives."
    (Jared M Spool)

  • The right trigger words
    The purpose of every link is to move users forward. Each link needs to give off enough "scent" to clue the user into the content to follow. That scent comes from trigger words. When creating new content, the designers' most important task is to ensure that the links to that content contains the right trigger words.

  • The sad state of web content
    As much as I hate to say it--if you’re a designer, developer or producer working on a large informational site, you’d best be prepared to do some content editing. I realise that shouldn’t be your job, and you might not be fully equipped to do it, but understand that if you don’t do it, in many cases, no one will.

  • The seven qualities of highly successful web writing
    Kathy Henning outlines seven qualities of highly successful web writing: clarity, relevance, brevity, scannability, consistency, freedom from errors and good integration with site design.

  • The two fundamental skills of web writing
    "Writing for how people search and writing quality links are the two fundamental skills of web writing. Think carefully about search behavior and make sure your links are always clear and logical."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • The value of user-generated content, part 1
    "The increased prevalence of user-generated content (UGC)--discussion groups, blogs, wikis--on the Internet has caused these media to seep into enterprise environments for uses in a more functional capacity (as opposed to the casual nature we've seen thus far). But does UGC have any place on a corporate intranet populated with content engineered by official intranet content providers? Can users and UGC create some kind of content Utopia where users selflessly share their expert knowledge without expecting any personal gain, or is it going to be a case of the inmates running the asylum?"
    (Paul Chin - Intranet Journal)

  • Tips for website copywriting
    The most obvious difference between writing conventional copy and website copy is that the latter involves non-linear writing. An entire website can contain numerous web pages connected to one another, and each web page can contain limitless copy.

  • Tips for writers and designers
    Whether you're a home (page) maker, an e-mailer, or a web site graphic designer, these tips will help you be a better communicator on the Net.

  • Top 5 web conventions (writing and design)
    While following a list of guidelines will not provide you with nearly as much information as usability testing a prototype, this page presents five important conventions for writing and designing web text.

  • Turning knowledge into power
    "We are in an era of knowledge abundance. Traditional management theory focuses on knowledge scarcity. We need new management strategies to deal with so much communication and so much knowledge. I happen to be a big fan of editors and publishers, because I believe in the second theory of content management--the 'less is more' approach."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Use old words when writing for findability
    "Familiar words spring to mind when users create their search queries. If your writing favors made-up terms over legacy words, users won't find your site."
    (Jakob Nielsen - Alertbox)

  • Using personas to create user documentation
    Personas and other user-modelling techniques are often solely discussed as tools for product definition and design, but they are useful tools in other arenas, as well. Technical writers responsible for creating user documentation can benefit greatly from a well-defined persona set, too.

  • Web content is a hidden asset
    "Most people within most organisations don’t value content. In a typical organisation, the higher up you go the less appreciation there is. That’s all about to change because content is a 'hidden' asset of great value."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Web manager: you can't serve everybody
    ''Every time you serve someone, you make someone else wait. Every time you publish a piece of content you make other content less findable."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Website posture and manner
    The way a website presents itself to users is a key aspect of user experience. Effective websites don't interrupt user flow, which is guaranteed largely by posture (how the website uses available resources, particularly visual), and manner (how the website 'talks' to users).

  • Websites: think the way your customers think
    One of the biggest challenges an organisation faces is to stop thinking it's the centre of the universe. Customers think that they are the centre of the universe. Customers come to your website to get their needs fulfilled. They will only think you are great if you meet their needs in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

  • Web writing for many interest levels
    Clear, usable content is easily created by deliberating writing for many different levels of reader interest. Every person has a certain level of interest in every piece of information. A writer should help each reader get their desired level of information as quickly as possible. Knowledge of and writing to these levels will increase the satisfaction of all readers.

  • Web writing: how to judge a good website from a bad one
    How a website has written its links is an excellent way to judge its quality. Good websites tend to have a rich and intuitive link structure. Good web writers think clearly about how each piece of content links up with the rest of the content on the website.

  • What are we agreeing to?
    "Practically every site with Terms and Conditions makes it impossible to read them. How have you designed your terms and conditions? Are you sending the message that you’re trying to pull something over on the user? Or are you being up front and putting it on the table in clear, concise language?"
    (Jared M Spool - User Interface Engineering)

  • What is good hypertext writing?
    There is more to writing than putting words next to each other, and there is more to writing hypertext than throwing together a bunch of links. When writing text, I have certain goals; when I come across text I dislike, there are certain reasons why I do not like it. You're about to read an attempt to describe these reasons and goals; it is incomplete, subjective, and honest.

  • What makes a great website?
    What makes a great website is focus and clarity of purpose. A great website is unpretentious. It doesn't pretend to be what it is not. It never wastes your time because it always gets to the point. A great website helps you to act.

  • What's different about writing for the web?
    "Writing for the web is totally different to writing for printed matter. We tend to scan content on the web hunting for the information we're after, as opposed to reading word-for-word. As a result of this, there are certain guidelines you should be sure to follow when writing copy for your website."
    (Trenton Moss)

  • When life depends on clear instructions
    "Shorter, clearer writing is much harder to achieve than verbosity. Companies and government agencies must stop treating information as a label to be slapped on as a product or service goes out the door. Treated as an afterthought, rather than as an integral part of the development process, communication suffers."
    (Irene Etzkorn)

  • Who are we designing for? People or robots?
    "We are increasingly being asked to produce sites that rank in the top 10 for their specific industry. Now, it is possible to produce user friendly sites focussing on usability as much as SEO-- but does this mean that the design suffers because of it? Are we beginning to write, design and build sites for Google's Googlebot, or is it simply that we are becoming more aware of the need to optimise for the good of our client's business? "
    (Johnny Ratcliffe)

  • Why is corporate communications seen as fluffy?
    "In many organizations, corporate communications doesn’t get a lot of respect. The intranet gives a rare opportunity for corporate communications to get the respect it deserves."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Why it matters to focus on your reader
    "The ultimate test of web content is what the reader does after reading it. This will be a huge change for many writers who see the end objective as the actual completion of the piece of content itself. However, it is a change that absolutely must happen if web content is to become more effective."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Why organisations think of web content like they think of invoices
    Embedded deep within the psyche of the traditional organisation is the view of content as an historical record. This view sees content as describing an event that has occurred. Web content is a driver of the event. Web content is action-oriented. That's the big shift and many organisations have not grasped it.

  • Why web managers need to get out on the road
    "The better the web manager the more time they will spend out of the office; the more time they will spend in front of the reader."
    (Gerry McGovern)

  • Why readability testing is not enough
    The recent press coverage of the Bath University research paper "Readability Assessment of British Internet Information Resources on Diabetes Mellitus Targeting Laypersons" has raised interesting questions about some of the methodologies used to measure users' experience on the web. On the face of it, the conclusion and the methodology used is fine, but due to the indiscriminate nature of automated testing tools, it doesn’t present the entire picture and, at worst, can give the impression that the users of these websites can’t understand the content at all, which may not be the case.

  • Why people don't read online and what to do about it
    "We really mean it. People don't read online. Unless you lead them to do so."
    (Michelle Cameron - ACM Ubiquity)

  • Words come before looks in web design
    The primary activity on the web is reading. It's very fast scan reading by impatient people who find web reading harder than print reading. Therefore, a foundation of web design success is to ensure that all your pages are as readable as possible. It's not that the look is not important. Just that, on the web, words come before looks.

  • Words make your website a success
    The success of your website is down to the quality of the words you publish on it. Words are your fundamental asset and building block. Your metadata, classification and navigation are made up of words. Your content depends on words. The search engine indexes words, and people search using words. So, why do so many websites treat words with so little respect?

  • Write web content to accommodate website hopping
    Research has shown that users move about between websites. As a result we must make sure every web page clearly signals 'You are here!' Consistent, self-explanatory context signals are required on every page.

  • Writing for readers who scan
    Kathy Henning provides 10 tips for writing concise, scannable copy.

  • Writing for the web
    Jakob Nielsen's collection of articles and research reports on how to write for the web.

  • Writing for the web: illustration of the need
    Many online web tutorials give practical, useful technical advice on everything from non-clashing colour combinations to effective uses of animated GIFs, but barely mention writing at all.  There seems to be an unspoken assumption that the content will be supplied by the marketing and PR people, by the technoweenies, or worse, the pointy-haired bosses (of 'Dilbert' fame).

  • Writing for the web: keeping them coming back (PDF)
    The number of people who visit your website is not as critical to its success as the number who return. How do you write and design pages to bring them back?

  • Writing for the web: part 1
    Writing for the web is not the same as writing for print. People read differently on the web. They scan read--jumping quickly from one piece of content to the next. People are much more action-orientated on the web. They get online to get something done. Words should always be driving actions.

  • Writing for the web, part 2
    Writing for the Web requires careful planning. Your content needs to fit well within the context of your website. When a reader finds your content, they need to be able to scan it quickly. That's what metadata is about. In order for your website to be found, you need to write for how people search.

  • Writing for the web: what's it all about? (PDF)
    What is an internet? What is the web? Why do I care? How will this affect my job in the immediate future? This session is an introduction to the web for "newbies"--those who are just starting out, or haven’t started yet. We will discuss the impact of this new technology on our jobs and on our writing.

  • Writing for your website: what works and what doesn't (PDF)
    Tips for producing websites that cater to users' needs.

  • Writing hypertext copy
    The two pitfalls of writing hypertext copy are links and emotions. Links are a new stylistic element that writers must learn to handle. The emotional problem is harder: we must snap out of the 'host' or 'provider' role, must get away from the excitement of guiding another person through the text, and get back to just writing.

  • Writing photo captions for the web
    Photographs are rarely self-sufficient. They need captions. A caption tells us something about the person or thing photographed, also something about the photographer. In this article, we discuss how to write photo captions for the web. We provide examples from adults' and children's work.

  • Writing the web: a step-by-step guide with resources
    This guide is designed for writers who want to design and code websites. Originally written for Mike Palmquist's seminar, Writing the Web, offered in Spring 1999, it was last updated in spring 2001.

  • Writing usable titles for web pages
    To write usable page titles, we need to consider the ways in which titles are used. This article discusses some common mistakes and provides a list of guidelines for writing better page titles..

  • Writing web pages: top 5 conventions
    Lead with your best stuff. Inform with linked text. Employ consistent navigation. Prefer simple designs. Write scannable text.

  • Writing skills and better visual design
    Strong visual design is about balance. It requires an appropriate relationship between written content, information hierarchy and the use of visual elements such as graphics and photography.

  • Writing well for the web
    Writing for the web is different. Surfers often have short attention spans, so you have to grab their attention with graphics and great text. Stick with the few tried and true writing tips in this article and you'll be on your way to writing well for the web. We'll also cover the most common mistakes found on web pages.

  • Writing well online: talent isn't enough
    Kathy Henning explains why it's harder to write for the web.

  • Words come before looks in web design
    Advertising agencies tend to design awful websites because they are obsessed with getting attention. When people come to your website, you have already got their attention. They want to do something. They want detail. They want facts. The thing they value most is their time. So don’t waste it.

  • Your website is for your customer, not for you
    An organisation is a form of group. Groups can be elitist. Groups are always trying to define who is in and who is out. To a great many organisations, the customer is on the outside. To be a success, a website must live on the outside.

  • Your website needs a call to action
    "The Web is task focused. The best websites get to the point. They ruthlessly eliminate waffle and happy talk. They focus on helping people complete key tasks as quickly as possible."
    (Gerry McGovern)


  • Blurbs: writing previews of web pages
    Blurbs are brief summaries of what a reader will find on the other end of a hyperlink. Good blurbs don't harangue ("Click here!") or tease ("Learn ten great tips."); instead, they provide a useful sample of the target page, so that a user can make an informed decision about whether to click.

  • Microcontent: how to write headlines, page titles, and subject lines
    Microcontent needs to be pearls of clarity: you get 40-60 characters to explain your macrocontent. Unless the title or subject make it absolutely clear what the page or email is about, users will never open it.

  • Secrets of great web headings and summaries
    Your website success will increase the better you write headings and summaries. People are very impatient, so the heading and summary really needs to be compelling. Here are some key tips for writing better headings and summaries.

  • The importance of the hypertext document title
    The title is the element that identifies globally the document's content. It is one of the most important contributors to a positive user experience for a website's visitors. Ironically, the title is commonly overlooked, or not considered, possibly because browsers don't use the title within the document's body.

  • Two kinds of titles for web pages: in-context and out-of-context
    Most writers know the value of an informative title, but many beginning web authors don't know that each web page needs two kinds of titles. The in-context title always sits at the top of a page, with the rest of the document immediately beneath it. The out-of-context title is frequently displayed by search engines or archive pages, as part of a long sorted list.

  • Writing effective link text
    It's important for link text to be easy to find and understand. So what can you do to achieve this goal? Simple. Follow these six guidelines for how to write effective link text and your site visitors will be able to find what they're looking for quickly and efficiently.

  • Writing photo captions for the web
    Photographs are rarely self-sufficient. They need captions. A caption tells us something about the person or thing photographed, also something about the photographer. In this article, we discuss how to write photo captions for the web. We provide examples from adults’ and children’s work.

Plain language

  • The A to Z of alternative words
    This guide gives hundreds of plain English alternatives to the pompous words and phrases that litter official writing. On its own the guide won't teach you how to write in plain English. There's more to it than just replacing 'hard' words with 'easy' words, and many of these alternatives won't work in every situation. But it will help if you want to get rid of words like 'notwithstanding', 'expeditiously' and phrases like 'in the majority of instances' and ' at this moment in time'. And using everyday words is an important first step towards clearer writing.

  • From plain English to global English
    About one billion people use English as a second language. You can avoid most pitfalls of cross-cultural communication by using global English.

  • Plain language resources
    Tutorials and articles by plain language specialists.

  • Plain Language Action Network
    The Plain Language Action Network is a US government-wide group of volunteers working to improve communications from the federal government to the public.

  • Results of usability testing research on plain language draft sections of the Employment Insurance Act (PDF)
    Research showing improved usability of a plain language version of Canadian government legislation.

Research articles

  • Concise, scannable, objective: how to write for the web
    Studies of how users read on the web found that they do not actually read: instead, they scan the text. A study of five different writing styles found that a sample Web site scored 58% higher in measured usability when it was written concisely, 47% higher when the text was scannable, and 27% higher when it was written in an objective style instead of the promotional style used in the control condition and many current Web pages. Combining these three changes into a single site that was concise, scannable, and objective at the same time resulted in 124% higher measured usability.

  • Networked writing teams and document usability
    "Professionals are increasingly working in networked teams where electronic media and asynchronous communication play an important role. So how can communication behaviours in these contexts predict usability? Do efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction in the communication process lead to the same for the resulting documentation?"
    (Kirstie Edwards)


  • Metadata is an essential web writing skill - part 1
    Metadata is one of the most misunderstood aspects of content management and website design. Editors and writers tend to look at it as a technical issue. Technical people look for a software solution. Both are wrong. Metadata is a fundamental skill that web writers and editors must acquire.

  • Metadata is an essential  web writing wkill - part 2
    Creating great metadata for your content begins with understanding who your reader is. What is the metadata they look for when they read a page of your content? What are the type of words they use when they search for your content? When scanning your classification, what are the "trigger words" that will make them want to go deeper into your website?

  • Metadata: seven tips for writing better keywords
    The shift in how search engines treat keywords is significant. They tend to ignore the keyword meta tag and rather look for keywords in the actual page content. This means that you need to figure out your keywords before you write any content. Then, you include them throughout your content, particularly in headings and summaries.

  • Tagline blues: what's the site about?
    A website's tagline must explain what the company does and what makes it unique among competitors. Two questions can help you assess your own tagline: Would it work just as well for competitors? Would any company ever claim the opposite?

  • Writing for the web, part 2
    Writing for the Web requires careful planning. Your content needs to fit well within the context of your website. When a reader finds your content, they need to be able to scan it quickly. That's what metadata is about. In order for your website to be found, you need to write for how people search.


  • Contentious
    Contentious is a web-zine for writers, editors, and others who create content for online media.

  • Excess Voice
    Nick Usborne's bi-weekly newsletter on copywriting online.

  • New Thinking
    Gerry McGovern's regular postings on content management topics.


  • Readability.info
    Curious about how complex your documents or web pages are to read? You don't have to get a team of experts to generate your readability score: you can just use readability.info to analyse the characteristics of your writing and ascertain a multitude of readability scores. By comparing the readability score of different documents (or web pages) you can better hone your writing and make sure that you aren't creating overly complex sentences and paragraphs for your audience.

Case studies

  • Converting science news for the web
    With the Internet emerging as a primary newsgathering source, many traditional media outlets have converted their products for online viewing. This paper explores how two science news magazines, New Scientist and Science News, have approached this challenge. Elements of hyptertext theory are also included.

Books and book reviews

  • Hot text
    Companion website to the book Hot Text: Web Writing that Works by Jonathan and Lisa Price.

  • Net words
    Companion website to the book Net Words: Creating High Impact Online Copy by Nick Usborne