People read differently on the web than they do on paper. This means that the best approach when writing for the web is different from writing for print.
Meet the user need
Don’t publish everything you can online. Publish only what someone needs to know so they can complete their task. Nothing more.
People don’t usually read text unless they want information. When you write for the web, start with the same question every time: what does the user want to know?
Meeting that need means being:
- clear and to the point
Finding information on the web
An individual’s process of finding and absorbing information on the web should follow these steps.
- I have a question
- I can find the page with the answer easily – I can see it’s the right page from the search results listing
- I have understood the information
- I have my answer
- I trust the information
- I know what to do next/my fears are allayed/I don’t need anything else
A website only works if people can find what they need quickly, complete their task and leave without having to think about it too much.
Good content is easy to read
Good online content is easy to read and understand.
- short sentences
- sub-headed sections
- simple vocabulary
This helps people find what they need quickly and absorb it effortlessly.
To keep content understandable, concise and relevant, it should be:
- clear and concise
- brisk but not terse
- incisive (friendliness can lead to a lack of precision and unnecessary words) – but remain human (not a faceless machine)
- serious but not pompous
- emotionless – adjectives can be subjective and make the text sound more emotive and like spin
- use contractions (eg can’t)
- not let caveats dictate unwieldy grammar – eg say ‘You can’ rather than ‘You may be able to’
- use the language people are using – use Google Trends to check for terms people search for
- not use long sentences – check any sentences with more than 25 words to see if you can split them to make them clearer
(Note: words ending in ‘–ion’ and ‘–ment’ tend to make sentences longer and more complicated than they need to be.)
Use the active rather than passive voice. This will help us write concise, clear content.
Plain English is mandatory on our website. One of the parts most people pick up on is the plain English (or words to avoid) list.
This isn’t just a list of words to avoid. Plain English is essential: it’s a way of writing.
The list isn’t exhaustive. It’s an indicator to show you the sort of language that confuses users.
Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, and ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’.
We also lose trust from people if we write ‘buzzwords’ and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. We can do without these words.
With all of these words you can generally get rid of them by breaking the term into what you’re actually doing. Be open and specific.
Write conversationally – picture your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-to-one but with the authority of someone who can actively help.
Make sure text is gender neutral wherever possible. Use ‘them’, ‘their’, ‘they’ etc.
Use contractions eg can’t, you’ll.
Ampersands can be hard to understand
The reason is that ‘and’ is easier to read and easier to skim. Some people with lower literacy levels also find ampersands harder to understand. We can’t exclude users in any way. Be aware that some screen readers also struggle with them.