Web writing is not quite like writing for any other medium. For starters, the average web user has an attention span of 5 seconds. You have that much time to catch their attention. It sounds intimidating, but really all readers just want to be spoken to like a real person. Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing for your website.
- Write like you speak: Keep it conversational. Use pronouns (you, we, they). Use contractions (don’t, you’ll, it’s). Read your copy out loud or to colleague. If it sounds too formal, think of how you’d describe it to a student in person.
- Use active voice: Use active instead of passive voice (Active: “Our students love our program” Passive: “Our program is loved by students”). Active voice makes sentences shorter, simpler and more engaging to read.
- Use plain English: Write short sentences. Replace long formal words with short ones (e.g. “buy” instead of “purchase”). Plain language is for everyone, but it is especially important for those with disabilities or non-native English speakers.
- Avoid jargon and acronyms: Stay away from jargon as much as possible and don’t overuse acronyms. Formal academic terms and organizational acronyms can be hard to avoid but do your best.
- Aim for a high school reading level: Our audience is intelligent, but no one thinks like a research paper all the time. Many web users are in a rush. Even PhDs can’t read at their highest comprehension in a hurry. Try using a readability tester.
- Write scannable content: You may have heard of the inverted pyramid or writing from most to least important. In web, we use the F pattern. Assume the user will not read every sentence. Limit one idea per paragraph. Use bullet points, catchy headings, and lots of links. These are more likely to catch the eye.
Before you begin
There are some questions you need to ask yourself before you sit down to write any page, paragraph or call to action in your website.
Who is your audience?
Your audience is your user. They can vary across all parts of your site. Designate a primary, secondary or even tertiary audience groups. Whenever you start writing, ask yourself who specifically are you trying to reach in your audience.
What does your user need?
Now that you have audience in mind, what are their needs? What should they be able to accomplish on this page? Will they need detailed instructions to do it? Or a link to another page to follow through? Don’t leave them searching for answers or they’ll give up and move on.
What are your goals?
This isn’t the same as your organizational goals or even the overall website goals. Think about what this individual piece of copy needs to accomplish for you. Are you trying increase attendance on an event? Sign-ups for a newsletter? Once you have a goal in mind, think about how you can merge your user’s needs with your goals. That is how you make great content.
Audience and tone
Audience determines not just what you communicate, but how you communicate it. Tone is the attitude and emotion you use to communicate your message. The university branded tone should be used in all content, but you need to tailor tone to your specific audience and subject.
Is the subject light? Try a funny or friendly tone. Is it complex? A serious tone would be more appropriate. Consider your user’s state of mind too. Using a light tone in copy intended for users in a difficult situation is frustrating to say the least.
Tone is the way we are perceived by the user so you want to leave a good impression, just like a face-to-face conversation.
Web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them (source: W3C Web Accessibility Initiative). In order to be accessible, websites must be designed to allow people with auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech and visual disabilities to use them in the same way a non-disabled person would. Here are ways to keep your site accessible to all:
- Keep screen readers in mind: Screen readers convert digital text into synthesized speech. They empower users to hear content and navigate with the keyboard. All essential information should be available in a textual format readable by a screen reader.
- Avoid pdfs: While pdfs and other attachments can be made accessible, you’ll need to go the extra mile to do so. On the other hand, webpage text is accessible by default, so save yourself time by keeping content on a webpage and out of a downloadable document.
- Write alt text: Alt text is what makes images accessible. It provides information on the content and function of the images within your web content. As such, purely decorative images may not always need alt text. Consider the purpose of the image in question when writing alt text. If the content doesn’t make sense without seeing the image, then it needs alt text.
- Provide alternatives to graphics: Images that communicate text or information in a visual way must also be made accessible. This includes charts, infographics, or maps. A caption or description can sometimes be enough but if your website heavily features complex images learn more about the alternatives.
- Use forms: If you have a paper form, you can turn it into a web form easily with Webforms, a drag and drop form creator. It’s free, it’s modern and it’s easy. Just log in with your FIU credentials and get access to any form created for your website from Digital Communications after launch:
- Disclaimer: webforms may not collect sensitive information such as SSN or monetary transactions.
Links are one of the most useful tools in web writing. They are natural attention grabbers. They connect information. Using them properly increases search engine value. They help centralize information by designating a single source that can be referenced again and again.
But they are often used incorrectly. Under no circumstances should you copy / paste a full URL onto a page. You must always thoughtfully write your link text. It is an absolute must for people who use screen readers and really anyone who scans a page hunting for links. Here are some do’s and don’ts for link writing.
Click here to contact us
Links must be descriptive, click here is vague and hides the purpose of the link
Page title is shorter, descriptive and easier to read
Be specific and descriptive; learn more means nothing if used more than once on a page
Visit the Student Affairs website
Choose your words carefully, ‘Visit the’ is not as important as the title of the site
Fill out the application
Front load verbs on call to action or button links; detail what the application is for
Check the resource page for the latest information
Keep it short, do not link full sentences; article titles or proper names are an exception
Text links are preferred OR you can edit the link so the display text is a ‘shortened’ URL
Headings and other stylized text
Headings serve a much bigger purpose than making text stand out. To learn more about their meaning and usage visit the Style page. This section will focus on how to write headings.
- Use headings to chunk information: Chunking is the concept that breaking information into smaller chunks helps people understand, process, and remember it better. Headings can break down a page into discrete, scannable parts. Write subheadings to break down a large topic within a heading. Think of a heading as the preview to the body copy. You need to entice the reader to continue.
- Keep it short, but specific: There’s no strict limit on words or characters, but less is more. Ideally headings should fit on a single line. However, single word headings can backfire. If your heading is so short that it becomes vague the user will ignore it.
- Choose your words carefully: Speak the language of your user. Research to find keywords familiar to them. Even if you find the keyword isn’t the correct word or name for the thing described, use it to grab their attention and define the appropriate terms in the body copy.
Bold, italics and underline
Bolded and italicized text can help certain words or phrases stand out in a paragraph or list, but only when used sparingly. Use it too much and it will lose its eye-catching effect.
Do not use underline as it is too similar to link text and will confuse users.