How to write well for the web
From now on, when you write for a webpage, email, social media post or other digital form of communication, you need to use plain, readable English. Writing clearly will make your document accessible to people with cognitive impairments and learning disabilities. It will also help all your users, no matter what their educational background is.
- Before you start writing
- How to write and test readable text
- Academic language
What's your page goal?
Don't be tempted to skip this step - it makes all the difference. This is something you need to nail right at the start. Why should someone else be interested in what you are writing? How can you make it relevant to them, and not all about you instead?
- What’s your call to action?
- What would you instinctively do after reading a webpage like yours?
- What do other pages like this ask people to do?
- What do you not want them to do?
Are you writing for users and search engines?
Discover people process information (and how this should change your writing), and find ways to built content which is more discoverable online:
You should never just copy and paste something from a print document and publish it online. It will not work well.
You should aim to write at a reading grade level of 9 or below. There are a few websites which can help you get going. We particularly encourage you to use the Hemingway App, which highlights problems and offers you alternatives.
Meanwhile, if you ever need a good example of writing for the web, try visiting Gov.uk. You will see how they turn difficult content into readable copy.
You should aim to write up to 25 words per sentence, which is about the length we can easily scan read and take in easily. (To see what we mean, that sentence was exactly 25 words.) If your sentence goes over this length, split it up into shorter sentences instead.
You should then divide your copy into chunks, with up to 50 words per paragraph. You do not want to go past about three or four lines of text. It is easier to scan-read and makes you remove unnecessary duplication from your work. All of this helps your users online.
To see what we mean, both of the paragraphs above are exactly 50 words.
On average, one in four users of a Warwick website is accessing it from outside the UK. This means that at least some of your audience are not native English speakers.
- No long words, metaphors, puns, or jargon
- Use simple verbs instead of complex ones
- Limit your use of pronouns as other languages use them differently
Many users find it easier to read copy when it does not contain contractions. This is because it can be easier and quicker to scan-read.
- Use 'You will' instead of 'You'll'
- Use 'We will' instead of 'We'll'
Unfortunately, some users find it especially hard to understand some negative contractions, and may even misread them as the opposite of what they say.
- Do not use 'shouldn't, can’t and don’t'.
- Use 'should not, cannot and do not' instead.
Does this advice apply to video content?
No, feel free to keep using contractions as you would in your normal speech.
However, remember that you are sometimes talking to an audience including non-native speakers, and that you also have to create a video transcript. You might therefore want to take this into consideration in advance with your scripts.
You are not short of space on a webpage, and someone might miss the explanation the first time you mention it.
If you do use them, you should explain them unless they are well known.
- Do not explain UK, EU, VAT, FAQs.
- Do explain specialist terms like ARC (Academic Resourcing Committee)
You can see a list of common acronyms at Warwick. As you can see, this list is helpful for employees to get used to language at Warwick. However, you should not have to direct a user to a list like this in order to understand your copy.
You can still use academic language where it's appropriate. However, research shows that most users prefer:
- Simple language
- Short readable sentences
- One main call to action
This counts for specialist, well-read audiences too because we all scan-read text on screens.