When writing for the web, using plain language allows users to find what they need, understand what they have found, and then use it to meet their needs. It should also be actionable, findable, and shareable.
It’s important to understand how what you are writing fits into the overall content strategy, what the content lifecycle entails, and who is involved in the process.
Why it Matters
People read differently online than they do when they read print materials -- web users typically scan for information. In a study of online reading behavior , Jakob Nielsen found that “on the average webpage, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely”.
Identify Your Users’ Top Tasks
People come to your website with a specific task in mind. When developing your site’s content, keep your users’ tasks in mind and write to ensure you are helping them accomplish those tasks. If your website doesn’t help them complete that task, they’ll leave. Conduct market research, perform a task analysis and other types of user research, and analyze metrics to better understand what users are looking to accomplish.
Knowing your users’ top tasks can help you identify:
- Content to feature on your homepage or landing pages
- Page headers and sub headers
- A logical structure to each page’s content
How to Write User-Friendly Content
It’s important to target your audience when writing for the web. By knowing who you are writing for, you can write at a level that will be meaningful for them. Use the personas you created while designing the site to help you visualize who you are writing for.
- Use the words your users use. By using keywords that your users use, you will help them understand the copy and will help optimize it for search engines.
- Chunk your content. Chunking makes your content more scannable by breaking it into manageable sections.
- Front-load the important information. Use the journalism model of the “inverted pyramid.” Start with the content that is most important to your audience, and then provide additional details.
- Use pronouns. The user is “you.” The organization or government agency is “we.” This creates cleaner sentence structure and more approachable content.
- Use active voice. “The board proposed the legislation” not “The regulation was proposed by the board.”
- Use short sentences and paragraphs. The ideal standard is no more than 20 words per sentence, five sentences per paragraph. Use dashes instead of semi-colons or, better yet, break the sentence into two. It is ok to start a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “or” if it makes things clear and brief.
- Use bullets and numbered lists. Don’t limit yourself to using this for long lists—one sentence and two bullets is easier to read than three sentences.
- Use clear headlines and subheads. Questions, especially those with pronouns, are particularly effective.
- Use images, diagrams, or multimedia to visually represent ideas in the content. Videos and images should reinforce the text on your page.
- Use white space. Using white space allows you to reduce noise by visually separate information.
It’s also important to create an editorial calendar. You can encourage visitors to return to your site by keeping your content fresh and up-to-date, especially when working with blogs, social media, or dynamic content websites.
Remember that developing web copy in plain language in the federal government is the law. Learn more about the government’s plain language standard and find a checklist to help you in your projects.
Testing Your Document’s Readability
Use Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics feature—part of the Spelling & Grammar check—to measure your progress as you write and edit copy. Try to make your reading ease number go up and your grade level go down. You can improve your readability by using active voice and short words, sentences, and paragraphs.