Writing for the Web

Writing style guidelines for web content contributors

People don’t read word-by-word, instead they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences and read only the first sentence of a paragraph.

Empirical research found that the most effective content is concise, scannable, and objective

Scannable text uses:

  • Highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • Meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
  • Bulleted lists
  • One idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • The conclusion at the beginning
  • Half the word count (or less) than conventional writing
  • Objective writing, which is easier to understand and is more trusted than promotional writing.
  • Active voice for most web content
  • Passive voice for front-loading important keywords in headings, blurbs, and lead sentences


Jacob Nielsen http://www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/writing.html

Web Writing Guidelines

Write Short, Scannable Content

The number-one principle for the Web is simplicity. Quality Web design is about making life easier for the reader to find content and then making it easier for them to read that content.

Journalists have long written in this style, a style that tells the reader the most important root of information followed by supporting information, and concluding with more general background.

Desired word count range is 250-350 words on any content page, and should never exceed 450 words. If it exceeds that number, copy should be broken up into smaller "child" pages, or "Related Info" links.

Provide Focused, Step-by-Step Instructions

We must help users navigate our website. Whenever possible, guide the user's actions by helping them to focus on the decision-making process.

Organize information in the order that the user is likely to need it. By reducing distractions, the user can more easily find what they are looking for, or take specific action on something. Be clear about the choices offered by labeling links appropriately.

Our website service pages are well suited to this type of organization.

Write at the Appropriate Reading Level

Web copy should be written at the sixth to seventh grade reading level, and no more. We want to make it as easy for people to navigate our site as possible. We do not want our visitors to work hard to learn about us.

To find out what reading level you’re writing at, simply write your copy in MS Word, then select Tools → Options → Spelling & Grammar. Under Grammar, click "Show Readability Statistics," then run the Spelling & Grammar check. When it’s complete, a box called “Readability Statistics” will pop up. See the “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level” at the bottom, which will give you the reading level statistic you’re looking for.

Include a Call to Action

Writing and links should always encourage users to take the next step.
Relevant calls to action can be worked right into the content to guide users on a path toward a transaction. Links and buttons can be used to prompt action.


  • Register now
  • Call now
  • Send us an e-mail
  • Apply today
  • Learn more
  • Download document

Clear Up Ambiguities

Many websites confuse users with vague language and instructions. Not only can these ambiguities be annoying, but they can also mean serious losses in readers.

For example, a button or link that takes users to an e-mail page with no instructions should say instead, "E-mail Your Request." This simple language change can make the difference between confusion and a transaction.

Also, limit use of jargon and acronyms – these confuse readers. If an acronym is needed, always spell it out on first reference.

Always Keep Your Reader in Mind

You must question every word and sentence by asking:

  • Is this clear?
  • Is there a simpler way to say this?
  • Is there a shorter way to say this?
  • Is this necessary?
  • Is my message and style appropriate?

Additional Tips for Great Web Copywriting

Know your audience

Who do you want to reach with your message? What’s important to them? How old are they? The more you understand your audience, the more targeted and relevant your message will be.

Clearly state your point

What information are you providing? Why should people care? What’s in it for them? What action are you trying to motivate?

Use a compelling headline

On average, five times as many people read your headline versus your body copy. If someone only reads the headline, will they know the point you want to get across? The headline should have an obvious “What’s in it for me?” message.

Write for the reader

Always keep the reader in mind. Do not just write to write. Think of your reader as busy, impatient people who are on the web to find out something.

Be direct, using active language. Don’t use passive voice

Passive voice weakens your message and it’s best to avoid it. Web copy should be
task-oriented, so people know exactly what to do next.


  • “Download document” (active) vs. “Participants should download document” (passive)
  • “Our city received an award” (active) vs. “Our city was chosen to receive an award” (passive)

Passive voice can sometimes be used to front-load important keywords in headings, blurbs, and lead sentences (see http://www.useit.com/alertbox/passive-voice.html) because readers seldom read past the first two words.

Keep your copy clean and concise

Have someone else read your message. Did they understand your point? Did they know what action to take next? Cut unnecessary words and consolidate ideas. See if you can get your text down to 30-50% of what you started with.

Weave keywords into your copy

Use key words and phrases that might be searched on and weave them into your copy. This will help boost your page rank with search engines like Google, Yahoo!, Bing, etc.

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