Writing for the Web

The web is information-based, and our minds are attuned to this. Online, a mixture of text, images, sounds, and video compete for the attention of the reader, and we’ve learned how to best process this. We don’t read web pages, we scan web pages. And the more we work with the web, the faster we scan. Here are some tips to get your message across.1

Jump to:
Audience and style guidelines
What NOT to do

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University vocabulary list

The basics

Make sure your info is up-to-date.

Content has to be necessary, meaningful, and kept up-to-date. Prospective students will quickly drop a school from their list if information is outdated or hard to review! Dump outdated content if you can’t keep up with it.

Put the most important info at the top of your page

inverted pyramid method of writing for the web
Courtesy Springboard SEO

If readers don’t notice relevant content, they’ll move on to another page, or even exit the site. Use the inverted pyramid method – the first two paragraphs must succinctly state the most important information.

Don’t forget the top left portion of your web page is incredibly valuable.

Google golden triangle
This heatmap tracking eye movement illustrates dominant reading patterns.

Eye-tracking studies confirm the dominant reading pattern is F-shaped.2 A similar pattern is described as the “Google Golden Triangle.”3

Make each page easy to scan.

On primary pages, paragraphs should be two to three sentences – only 70 words total! Go over your text several times, removing extra words each time – tighten it up. Readers don’t want prose… they want to get info or complete an action and move on.

If you’ve got content below the fold, provide visual cues, like meaningful headlines (h3) that intro your paragraphs. Pay extra attention to the first two words of your headlines – usability expert Jakob Nielsen says this “nanocontent” – the first 11 characters in a headline – is key.#4

Use the EMU vocabulary list.

These words are part of the EMU identity. Use them to keep the style and tone of the site consistent, and to increase our findability and search rankings.

Use bulleted lists or tables.

More than three items to list? Bulleted or numbered lists work well. Tables are great, too, for stats and other grid info.

Audience and style guidelines

Identify your audience.

The primary audiences of most pages on our public website are prospective students (ages 14-17), their parents, and their guidance counselors. Secondary audiences include adult learners, alumni, prospective graduate students, athletics fans, and community members. Identify your audiences before you start writing, and make sure your content speaks to each.

Write in a conversational tone in an active voice.

What you write is the beginning of a conversation between EMU and a prospective student, and the active voice is clearer and more engaging than the passive voice.

Write at a high-school grade level, using common language.

Unless your content is relatively deep within the site, you must write sparingly and resist those big academic words! It’s essential for findability and search engine optimization (SEO) to use the words and phrases your readers use. Use the

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to ensure consistency.

What not to do

  • DON’T use all caps in your writing. That’s what italics or bold is for.
  • Don’t put whole paragraphs in bold or italics. If you must, use a blockquote.
  • Don’t say “click here.” Be descriptive – say an article on bees or the library catalog.5
  • Don’t write out instructions. Don’t say, “go to the registrar’s page and click ‘Transcripts’.” Instead say, “You get transcripts from the registrar” and link directly to the transcripts page.

*Updated June 10, 2011

1. 10 Steps To Writing Better Web Content Springboard SEO Internet Marketing blog. March 2, 2011.

2. F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content useit.com: Jakob Nielsen’s Website. April 17, 2006.

3. Google Search’s Golden Triangle Google Eye Tracking Report, Enquiro Eyetools and DidIt. July, 2005.

4. First 2 Words: A Signal for the Scanning Eye useit.com: Jakob Nielsen’s Website. April 6, 2009.

5. Editorial Style for Inline Links Meet Content higher ed web writing/design blog. June 1, 2011.