Writing for the Web

A large part of an accessible and usable website revolves around the writing. Users come to a site to find information. This is especially important for government websites. When writing is clear and direct, users can find what they are looking for, interact more positively with their local government, and builds trust between citizens and the government. 

Reading Online

We first need to understand how people digest information online. With the internet in the palm of our hand, we are used to instant and constant alerts and information. Because of this, the average human’s attention span has gone from 12 seconds down to 8 seconds. To put this into perspective, a goldfish has a 9 second attention span.

In an online reading behavior study, users read at most, 28% of the words on a web page. But 20% is more likely.

People don’t read content on the web. They scan pages. As a mater of fact, 79% of users scan web pages. They jump from headline to headline, look at bulleted lists and scan links. Then they select the first link that looks remotely like what they are looking for.

When it comes to the content on a page, less is more to make each word count.

Benefits of Clear Writing

  • Content is easy to understand and act upon
  • Access information from anywhere and on any device
  • Increases the productivity and efficiency of internal operations
  • Reduces the amount of phone calls and emails
  • Boosts rankings for search engines
  • Builds trust and credibility

5 Guidelines for Clear Writing

Writing for the web is not difficult and can be done by following these simple guidelines. 


1. Make Content Scannable by Breaking it up into Chunks

Large blocks of content appear as walls of text and appear intimidating and time-consuming to the user. They will quickly leave a web page if the page looks like it will take hours to get through.

To break up pages, use:

  • Headings and Sub-Headings
  • Bulleted or Numbered Lists
  • Write in Short Paragraphs
  • Group Related Content Together
  • Use standard forms of formatting; i.e. phone numbers, addresses, emails
2. Use a Clear Writing Voice

Web copy should be a conversation with the users. Using simple, plain language allows users to comprehend and understand content faster.

Make sure to:

  • Write for the Average Person
  • Write to Engage your Audience
  • Write for your Audience and not your Organization
3. Write in Plain Language

Text written in plan language is easy to read, understand and act upon after just one reading. We need to make it easy for our users to understand what we are trying to communicate. Plain language benefits all users no matter their ability. Whether they are people with dyslexia or non-native speakers, content written in plain language is easier to understand. In addition, it is required by law based on the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Whether it is informational or to complete an action, using plain language makes it easier for all users. 

To use plain language:

  • Write using short and easy sentences
  • Write using an active voice
  • Use familiar words to your audience
  • Use pronouns like I, we, us, and you
  • Front-load paragraphs and sentences with the most important information first

A great online tool to use is the Hemingway App. This free online tool will check your text to see what the reading level is, if the text is simple and easy to read and other basic grammar issues. Copy and paste your web content and it will guide you to keep your text simple and concise. 


4. Creating Better Links

Another way to improve the content on the page is by creating more meaningful link text. Meaningful link text should explain where the link will take the user. Simple or non-descriptive link text like, “Click Here” and “More” creates uncertainty because the user doesn’t know what to expect or where the link will take them. Users would need to rely on the surrounding text for context. 

Non-descriptive links are also poor for website accessibility. Screen reader users will hear a list of links read back to them that are all the same text and they will not know where each link will go. These users will also need to rely on remembering what was read before and after the link for context. 

Benefits for writing more descriptive links:

  • Links are more accessible
  • Links are more enticing to users and more persuasive
  • Users feel more confident when clicking on them
  • Use keywords to describe the link’s destination
  • Keywords can benefit Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Meaningful links will stand out and help users scan the page

What to avoid when writing links:

  • Avoid using non-descriptive words like “Click here”, “More” “Learn More” etc. 
  • Avoid using the actual URL as the link

Using the actual URL as the link is hard to read and makes scanning the page difficult. URLs are usually made up of text, numbers and dashes and/or slashes and don’t communicate clearly where the link will take the user. Screen readers will read the URL literally and if it is long and confusing, it would be difficult for screen reader users to understand. 


5. Items to Avoid

There are some things that can interfere with communicating a clear message. These items should be used minimally or avoided in-order to keep the message clear.

Acronyms and Abbreviations

In government especially, acronyms and abbreviations are a part of everyday life. But users don’t know them or are not familiar. Spell out words whenever possible. If using an acronym or abbreviation, make sure to spell them out first so the user can understand. For example, the acronym CEO should be written as Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Spelling out the acronym while also providing the full spelling provides clear meaning. This is also extremely important for accessibility. Screen readers will actually say the acronym out loud, letter for letter unless it is spelled out making it hard for screen reader users to understand. 

Jargon or Technical Language

Similar to acronyms and abbreviations, any internal jargon or technical language should be avoided. Visitors to the site are unfamiliar with internal language and jargon. Using jargon will make it difficult for users to understand the message we are trying to communicate.

Writing in all Upper Case Letters

Sometimes in order to communicate importance, text or headings may be written in all upper case letters. Writing in all upper case letters should be avoided as it very hard to read, especially if it is a long sentence. It also makes it difficult to quickly scan the page as words in all upper case take more time to understand. Writing in all upper case letters is also perceived as though we are shouting to our users. In addition, screen readers will read upper case text in a louder, higher pitched tone. This can be distracting or disorienting to screen reader users. To communicate importance it is best to use headings and/or bold text.  

Avoid using Directional Language

Directional language is when you describe an action for the user to preform that relies on visual cues from the layout or design of the page. Directional Language will isolate those that are visually impaired or blind and content will not be accessible.

For example

  • Directional Language: “Select from the options in the right sidebar.”
  • A Better Way: “Select from the following options" (then list the options below)

Avoid Underlining Text

By default, browsers will underline hyperlinks. If underline is used for text to show importance, users may get frustrated and/or confused when they try to click on works that are underlined, thinking they are links. To highlight text or call out importance, use bold or Heading styles and preserve underline for hyperlinks. 


Additional Points to Keep in Mind When Writing

Think about the questions below when writing content for the web.

  • How will this information benefit the user?
  • Would this language make sense to someone who doesn’t work here?
  • Would you want to read this page?
  • Could someone quickly scan the page and understand the message?
  • If someone can’t see the colors, images or video, is the message still clear?
  • Could this information be easily accessible on mobile devices?


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