Writing for the web
People read differently online than they do in print. They often skim read, especially if they're trying to complete a particular task. The average website visitor takes just 11 seconds to view a page, make a decision and move on.
Our website content needs to engage its audience and encourage them to take action, or help them find, understand and absorb the information they need in a short space of time.
The pointers below are designed to help us do just that.
Front-load your content
Start with the hook – pull people in with the interesting angle. Give the most important information up front in the first few paragraphs. Then elaborate with contextual information and additional details. We want our users to know what the content is about – and whether it's worth their attention – without having to scroll through lots of preamble and background.
The inverted pyramid is a useful model.
Express one idea per paragraph
Stick to one idea per paragraph. And try to write short paragraphs of no longer than 2-4 sentences. Long chunks of text can be off-putting and are harder for readers to digest.
Make sure headings and page titles are short – ideally no more than 40-60 characters – and clearly describe the content. Use subheadings to break up content and make it skimmable. There's more in-depth guidance about using headings effectively in our how-to guide.
Keep sentences short
Use short sentences where possible – aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words. Even when communicating complex information, try and break up long sentences. If you need to use multiple clauses in a sentence, make sure it's properly punctuated to orientate the reader.
Bear in mind that varying sentence length creates rhythm, which can add emphasis and make your writing memorable.
Get rid of unnecessary words
Use as few words as possible to convey the meaning and nuance you want to get across. Lots of superfluous words can give content a treacle-like consistency, making it a challenge to wade through.
Use the active voice
Use the active voice, not the passive voice. The passive voice flips the subject and object of a phrase, making it clumsier because of the need for additional words. For example:
- Passive voice: A report was released by the government.
- Active voice: The government released a report. (Preferable)
The passive voice can be used in some instances. For example, you might need to say that "a mistake was made" if you don't know who was responsible. Try to make the majority of phrases active.
Talk directly to people
We build relationships with people through our content. Writing like a human and using pronouns like "you", brings us closer to our users and our supporters. Reading your writing out loud is a good test.
Use links effectively
Internal and external links are an important tool for signposting users to related content and adding additional context and depth.
Be generous with links, but don't use so many that it stops your content from flowing. If you have lots of contextual links that relate to your content as a whole, it may be appropriate to add a list of relevant links under a "see also" heading at the bottom of the page.
Use bulleted and numbered lists
Use lists where necessary to draw attention to important points.
Use plain language
We want users to come to our website and find the information they're looking for in a simple, easy to understand format.
Plain language is quicker to read and comes across as friendlier than language that's full of complicated words and jargon.
Use everyday words where possible. Remember that we're writing for an audience who might not have specialist knowledge or be familiar with certain terms that we're used to. Avoid using jargon at all costs. At best it alienates people, at worst it makes them feel stupid.
Choose shorter, simpler words
- Begin, not commence.
- Help, not facilitate.
- Work with, not collaborate.
The Plain English Campaign has a good list of alternative words.
Where appropriate, use contractions to make sentences shorter and friendlier. For example:
- Don't, not do not.
- Weren't, not were not.
- We've, not we have.
However, in certain instances it is best to avoid contracting 'have'. For example:
- "If you have anxiety" sounds better than "if you've anxiety".
- "We have two offices" sounds better than "we've two offices".
If possible, avoid using language that places a page at a particular time, unless it's a dated news piece.
Check your spelling and grammar
People come to us as a trusted source of information and respect us as a brand. If our web pages have grammatical errors and spelling mistakes it undermines the trustworthiness of our brand.