Writing for the Web
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Develop Your Content Strategy
Content strategy is planning the development, delivery, and governance of your site’s information—including text, videos, and images.
Successful websites provide the information users need and present it in a way that makes sense. Your site’s content should be findable, readable, understandable, actionable, and shareable. Videos and images should reinforce the text on your page.
To ensure a user-friendly site, your content strategy should include:
- Search engine optimization. Optimize your content to include the keywords site visitors and search engines look for. This will make your website findable to visitors and search engines.
- Web-optimized content. Make content scannable and use language your users can easily understand.
- An editorial calendar. 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.
Identify Your Users’ Top Tasks
People come to your website with a specific task in mind. If your website doesn’t help them complete that task, they’ll leave. Use the information uncovered in your task analysis to ensure you are giving your users in the information they need and want. 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
When developing your site’s content, keep your users’ tasks in mind and write to ensure you are helping them accomplish those tasks.
Help Readers Scan
Reading online is different than reading print materials. Web users typically scan the site looking for words that match the information they are looking for. In 2008, Jakob Nielsen found that 79% of users scanned webpages and read only 20-28% of the words on the page.
Since we know that the majority of users scan the page content, we should write in a style that accommodates that behavior. Web users have short attention spans—and mobile users’ attention spans are even shorter—so large paragraphs of text can overwhelm them.
To make your content scannable, use a technique called chunking. Chunking is simply breaking your text into manageable sections.
To develop user-friendly content:
- Use headings and sub-headings
- Write short sentences
- Limit paragraphs to two-three sentences
- Use bulleted or numbered lists
- Use pictures, images, diagrams, or illustrations to visually represent ideas in the content
- Add a table of contents at the top of the page and hyperlink the categories to the related content on the page
- Use white space to visually separate information
Use Plain Language
Plain language is, simply, writing in the language your target audience can understand and use the first time they read it.
For government agencies, developing Web copy in plain language is more than creating a pleasant user experience—it is the law. Learn more about the government’s plain language standard.
To develop plain language Web copy, you should:
- Target your audience. Know who you are communicating to and speak their language. Use the personas you created while designing the site to help you visualize who you are writing to.
- Front-load the important stuff. 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.
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.