Writing for the Web

People read information differently on the web from on the printed page. Research shows that they read 25% slower from a screen than from print copy and that approximately 80% of readers scan text instead of reading word by word. There are two main reasons for this:

  • the computer is tiring for the eyes due to screen glare;
  • it is more difficult to track from the end of one line to the beginning of another.

Web authors can make the experience easier by sticking to a few simple rules:

  • Put important and contextual information at the top of the page.
  • Use subheadings so visitors can scan your page for relevant information. Web users rarely read text word for word; they tend to scan pages for keywords or interesting headlines.
  • Lists often make things easier to read on-screen.
  • Keep link names, sentences, paragraphs and pages as concise as possible.
  • Keep paragraphs and line lengths short and avoid long, uniform blocks of text. This helps users to quickly scan pages for key information.
  • Keep your sentences short, usually not more than about 30 words long.
  • Avoid italic and capitalised text, which is hard to read on-screen. Capitals, in particular, tend to look like shouting.
  • Never underline text that is not a link.
  • Do not use double spacing after a full stop and before a new sentence. A single space is more appropriate for screen reading.
  • Avoid justifying the margins of paragraphs – this make text on the screen much harder to read. 

Information structure

Build your site to meet your visitors’ needs and not your divisional structure.

Start with an overview and narrow your subject as you go, giving more detail towards the bottom of your page: the ‘inverted pyramid’ style of writing.

Very detailed background information, or information of interest only to a minority of readers, can be presented on secondary pages linked from your main page.

Scrolling

Try to avoid long pages. Users don’t like scrolling, and will often only do so if you have already caught their interest in some way, so your top-level pages must be short and to the point.

However, do not break up information that belongs together into separate pages just in order to avoid scrolling. Changing pages is more disruptive than scrolling.

Context

Any web page can be accessed out of context. A user may come directly to a web page through a search engine rather than from the homepage of a site.

Ensure that each page carries enough information to tell the user where they are and what the topic is. Don’t worry about repeating yourself from one page to another. You can never assume that a user has seen any other pages on the site.

Page last updated: Wednesday 25 January 2012