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Writing for the Web


Creating Your Written Content

Just as you use different writing strategies for a research paper and a postcard, writing for the web comes with its own guidelines.

  • Website visitors are distracted. They tend to skim and scan, often in an F pattern. In a study based on analysis of 45,237 page views, users only read 18 percent of what’s on the page. (From nngroup.com/articles/howlittle-do-users-read.)
  • Website visitors typically are looking for an answer to a question or specific information. On average, they read only the first two words on each line. (From plainlanguage.gov/guidelines/web.)
  • Mobile users process a limited amount of information. Reading on a smaller screen increases cognitive load. So, keep in mind that your users must work harder to understand your content on a mobile device. Multiple scrolls only decrease the likelihood that they will remember your information. (From nngroup.com/articles/mobile-sharpens-usability-guidelines.)

Best Practices

Create Text Appropriate for Reading and Skimming

Get to the Point

  • As the number of words on a page goes up, the percentage users read goes down. (From plainlanguage.gov/guidelines/web.)
  • Usability guidelines recommend limiting the number of words in sentences and the number of sentences in paragraphs (from webstandards.hhs.gov/guidelines/172). To enhance readability, aim for sentences twenty words or fewer in length, and keep paragraphs to six sentences or fewer. (From the UTIA UX Report, November 2017)

The best web content is brief, simple, and presented in clear, easy to understand language. Your site visitors often are distracted, and you are competing for their attention. Readability and credibility suffer when users do not understand content. (From nngroup.com/articles/plain-language-experts.)

Start With a Short, Clear Headline

Use this statement to address your user’s concerns, perhaps opening with a question to capture their attention. (From the UT Knoxville OIT Voice and Tone Guide.)

Example: Make 4-H camp part of your summer plans.

Stay in Brand

The UTIA Editorial Guide provides a framework for clear, consistent communication to our many audiences.

Introduce Yourself

How you refer to your unit, center, department, or college on your site may be your only interaction with some of your audiences. Using a common set of naming conventions across UTIA helps our readers better understand who we are and how we are connected.

For a full listing of names, visit the UTIA Editorial Guide.

Spell It Out

Be kind to your readers: use acronyms sparingly, and define any that you must use. Some acronyms are familiar to general audiences (US, NASA). Others that we find familiar (TDA, NIFA, HHS), probably are not familiar to general audiences. Spell out full names, rather than use acronyms, whenever possible.

For the web, “use the following format when defining acronyms or abbreviations: Physician Data Query (PDQ). Acronyms and abbreviations are typically defined on first mention, but remember that users may easily miss the definition if they scroll past it or enter the page below where the acronym or abbreviation is defined.” (From webstandards.hhs.gov/guidelines/169.)

Use Active Voice for Most Content

Use the active voice, rather than passive voice, to cut clutter in your writing.

Passive: The websites were built by many users.

Active: Many users built the websites.

Passive: Real. Life. Solutions. are created by us.

Active: We create Real. Life. Solutions.

Need help converting your passive voice website to active voice? See the Purdue Owl’s guide to changing passive to active voice.