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Writing for the web

Writing for the web is different to writing for print. As we read differently on-screen than with paper, you need to tailor how you write for an online audience. Use plain English, avoid jargon and stick to the point.

This article introduces four techniques:

Keep it short and simple

Plain English benefits everyone. It helps people with lower literacy levels. It's ideal for an international audience. Plain English also benefits specialists who are short on time. The traditional argument that complex topics require a complex writing style has been debunked:

Research shows that higher literacy people prefer plain English because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible.” (GOV.UK)

Tips for a clear writing style:

  • Use everyday language and plain English
  • Read your writing aloud to yourself – do you sound natural or stuffy?
  • When you've finished writing, leave it for a while, return to it and cut as many words as you can
  • Use one paragraph per idea – single-sentence paragraphs are ok
  • Do not use words and phrases that people won’t recognise - or provide an explanation if you can’t avoid it
  • Avoid jargon – explain technical terms the first time you use them
  • Explain all abbreviations and acronyms, unless they are well known and in common use - for example VAT
  • Use verbs – actions make for more dynamic language
  • Be specific, avoid generalities

Put important content first

This technique is sometimes called ‘frontloading’. By putting your most important words and ideas first, you increase the chance of skim readers slowing down. Your writing also becomes more direct.

Put the most important information at the front of:

Reading level

Content should be written as clearly and simply as possible. This is helpful for all users it is particularly for people with reading disabilities while allowing authors to publish difficult or complex web content. You should check the reading age of any content you create. This is good practice for any written materials, not just web pages.

You should aim for a reading age of about 9 years old.

There are various online tools you can use to check your content in:

http://juicystudio.com/services/readability.php
http://www.hemingwayapp.com/
https://www.grammarly.com/

Use the active voice

Avoid the passive voice, where it's unclear who is doing what. For example:

“Transferable skills and work experience are expected.”

Instead, use the active voice. Specify who is doing the action in the sentence. For example:

“Graduate employers expect transferable skills and work experience.”

Writing in the active voice has several benefits:

  • It makes your writing more direct
  • Your writing sounds less stuffy or officious
  • Sentences are easier for readers to decode
  • Frontloading becomes easier

The active voice naturally helps you write in the first person and address the reader directly. For example, “I propose that we consider ...” or “IT Services recommend that you ...”).

If you're not sure whether a sentence is in the passive or active voice, consider how you would speak out loud. Alternatively, paste your text into a text editor app like Hemingway or Grammarly, which will highlight instances of the passive voice.

Inverted pyramid

At school, your teacher may have taught the traditional academic writing style for an essay:

  • Start by laying the foundation of your argument
  • Expand your arguments, give more detail and explore alternatives
  • End with a short conclusion

Pyramid with introduction at the top, expand arguments in the middle, and conclusion at the bottom

If you structure your writing this way on the web, visitors will probably leave the page before reading the most important information.

When writing for the web, invert this structure. Use a journalistic writing style known as the ‘inverted pyramid’:

  • Put the essential information, such as a conclusion, in the first paragraph
  • Follow with paragraphs of increasing detail
  • End with relevant links to further information on the topic

Inverted pyramid shows widest section at the top with essential information, supporting information in the middle, and related information at the bottom

By starting with the essential information, you help visitors to establish whether they have found a page that appears to match the information they are looking for. They read the opening paragraph and decide whether to continue.

Use the inverted pyramid when writing for the web because it's the appropriate style for reading and scanning at speed.

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