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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Writing for the Web: 5 Guidelines

(I originally posted this on the University of Chicago Law School Electronic Projects Blog; however, I think the principles apply to most websites.)

As the Law School moves closer to our goal of a redesigned and re-engineered website, it's time for our staff to begin working on content -- creating new copy, editing existing pages, and pruning out-of-date text. While many of our staff are experienced and accomplished writers, we sometimes forget that writing for the web is different than writing for other purposes. Numerous studies have indicated that people simply read differently on the web.

To that end, I've prepared a brief set of guidelines for staff to consider as we undertake this process. These rules are synthesized from my own experiences on the web as well as from two great books: Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug and Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern.

1. The reader comes first.

  • Know your audience. Before you begin writing or editing, take a few minutes to think about who will be reading the copy you're about to work on. Will they be prospective students? Faculty? Alumni? What will they already know about the Law School? What do you need them to know? What will they want to know? (Note that these are three very different questions.)
  • Put yourself in the reader's shoes. As you are writing or editing, imagine yourself as one of those readers. Ask yourself if what you've written so far will help the reader get the information they need and/or want as efficiently as possible.
  • When in doubt, borrow a fresh pair of eyes. Ask a colleague or student worker to look over your copy and point out what isn't clear at first glance. Then refine accordingly.

2. Brevity + Clarity = Good.

  • Be concise. The more information on a page, the harder it is for the reader to find what he or she is looking for. Usability expert Steve Krug suggests cutting half the words you've written, then cutting in half again. While that practice might be extreme, always remember that less is more.
  • Web surfers don't read -- they scan. Our eyes usually skip over long blocks of text as they try to find a relevant needle in a haystack of information. To help your visitors out:
    • Use visual anchors such as bold headings and lists, when appropriate.
    • Keep your paragraphs short and make the first sentence of each paragraph attention-grabbing and relevant to the rest of the paragraph.

3. Make your links a call to action.

  • Links also serve as visual anchors. Readers' eyes gravitate quickly to links as they scan the page's content. Make that fact work for you to help them find what they're searching for. For example, which of the examples below gets you to the downloadable presentation more efficiently?

"A presentation on this topic is also available. To download the presentation, click here."

"A presentation on this topic is also available."

4. Web content is never "done."

  • Remember that whatever you write will have to be maintained and kept up-to-date for a significant period of time. The only thing worse for a reader than not being able to find information is finding wrong or out-of-date information.

5. Don't reinvent the wheel.

  • Does the content you're creating exist in another form somewhere else on the site, or somewhere else on the web? Why not just link to already-existing content, instead of creating more content that will require maintenance?

I'm sure more guidelines will emerge as we go through the content-production process. Are there things that you think I've left out? As a web-reader, what bothers you about the way content is sometimes presented? What are some examples of well-done web writing?

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