Web Writing Guidelines for Content Contributors

Web writing

Enable content contributors to write for your website.

As web professionals, we owe a lot to our content contributors. Your college website has tons of content, and no one person can do it all. The more you enable content contributors to write for your site (supported, of course, by a thorough editorial process), the closer you will be to your shared goal of creating great content. Here are some web writing guidelines to help make that happen.

1. Keep your audience in mind.

Consider who will be reading and using your web content. Prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty, staff? What are they looking for, and what do they need? Be sure the tone, language and organization of content is appropriate for your audience.

2. Be concise.

Web writing should be clear and direct. Keep sentences short. Remove words or descriptions that don’t add value to the content. As content strategist Margot Bloomstein says, "Thoreau instructed ‘simplify, simplify.’ You can do him one better. Here’s to snappy writing that gets to the point and knows when to stop!"

3. Make content scannable.

Readers scan web pages before they read. If they don’t recognize useful, relevant content, they often move on. Elements that enhance scanning include headers, links, highlighted text, bulleted lists, graphics, captions and pull-quotes. However, be careful not to overemphasize content and confuse the visual and editorial hierarchy of information. There’s a reason the blink tag is deprecated by the W3C.

4. Write meaningful headers.

Readers rely on headers to navigate on-page content. Choose words for headers and subheaders that clearly describe the content they introduce. Boring, useful words are better than clever, obtuse words.

5. Limit paragraphs to 70 words.

I’ve seen numerous recommended word counts, but I’ve found a 70-word limit to be a practical and effective number in most cases. Of course, less is better.

6. Use bulleted lists whenever possible.

Bulleted lists are easier to scan and read than full paragraphs. If you are listing three or more items, consider using a bulleted list. For instructions or long lists like this one, consider using numbered lists for easy reference.

7. Use active voice.

Writing in the active voice is more clear, conversational and engaging than the passive voice. Just ask Strunk and White: "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive." Also, "when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor" (The Elements of Style, Third Edition, pages 18-19).

8. Use common language.

It’s essential for findability and SEO (search engine optimization) to use the same words and phrases your readers do. When creating page titles, headers, list items and links, choose keywords carefully. Additionally, be sure to use keywords consistently when creating web content. When used appropriately, this practice reinforces keyword relevancy for search engines, such as Google and your own internal search, thereby improving findability.

9. Be professional and human.

Think like a publisher and less like a marketer. Use a more conversational tone. Avoid jargon and buzzwords like "cutting-edge" or "leverage." Users are turned off by content that talks at them instead of with them. Consider how you would communicate with someone standing in front of you instead of via a traditional TV or radio advertisement.

10. Include valuable links.

If additional useful, relevant and appropriate content exists elsewhere—on or off your website—link to it. Instead of repeating information that already exists on your site, link to this content as well. Consider what content elsewhere might add value to yours and improve usability. When possible, include links within your page copy to make them contextually relevant.

What else?

Writing guidelines don’t replace an editorial process. Everyone needs an editor. But guidelines can be a great reference for those learning about web writing, as well as for pros who appreciate friendly reminders about best practices

For learning about web writing, I highly recommend Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, by Janice (Ginny) Redish. Check out other recommended books in Our Library.

What did I miss? Are there other tips you would add to this list?

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About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »

Comments

  1. This kinds of goes to number 9 and a couple of the other points in some way. Keep your brand in mind. Create a list of brand vocabulary and use them. Make sure to speak to your brand. There are millions and millions of words out there, but only a few that actually coincide and can match with the meaning of your particular brand.

    • Hi, Travis. Thanks for chiming in! Keeping your brand in mind is certainly deserving of this list. Also, good advice about a brand vocabulary log. I wonder if branding requires further explanation. Perhaps it would fit to suggest content creators keep their institution’s values in mind.

  2. Good advice all the way around.

    But as a practical matter, I get questions from web contributors that I train and work with about how many links should be on a given web page? Of course, it depends on the meaning of “valuable.” As well as your particular purpose and audience. And at some point, too many links becomes counterproductive. But what say you?

    Is there some rule of thumb on the number of links, valuable or otherwise, on a web page?

    • Hi, George. That’s a great point and something worth including in this list. Links are intended to enhance usability, but if there are too many they can hinder usability. Like flyers on a school bulletin board, the more there is to look at, the less people will see. Generally, I recommend scaling back if inline links become a distraction. It’s also best not to duplicate links within a page. Link the first reference only.

      This discussion opens the door to linking strategy, which should be included in your web style guide. It’s best to establish guidelines and policies about when and where to include links. For example, do you link to someone’s blog or Twitter account when you cite them in an article? How about businesses and vendors? These policies can help safeguard against overlinking. For an example of a link style guide, check out the Wikipedia Manual of Style (linking), which includes references to underlinking and overlinking.

      Great question and good fodder for a future post. Thanks.

  3. Great tips, Rick. But I’m curious on why you see 70 as the maximum number of words for a paragraph. (I don’t disagree with you. I’m just wondering how you arrived at that magic number.)

    You and Georgy are doing great work with this blog.

    • Hey, Andrew! The 70 word count is a benchmark I’ve found to be practical and useful for content contributors (as well as myself). It’s not scientific. For guidelines, it helps to have a target number rather than suggesting “write short paragraphs,” which can be interpreted differently.

      In Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works (a favorite book of mine), Redish recommends short paragraphs and suggests aiming for two sentences per paragraph, but that’s a challenging goal. Regardless, shorter is often better on the web. Do you have a benchmark you recommend?

      Thank you so much for the positive feedback. It’s great to hear!

      • Kim MacDonald says:

        Chiming in late as I just found this post.

        In my first web writing job, our CMS limited our first paragraph to 255 characters, including spaces. It was often a challenge, but I found that the three-line paragraphs that resulted really helped in scanning content. Now any paragraph longer than four lines looks too heavy to me. When I tested 70 words just to see what it looked like, it felt like just a giant block of grey.

        Interesting, though. This is the first time I’ve seen a suggested word count when it comes to paragraph length (as opposed to the general two sentences per paragraph you mention above), and I appreciate seeing something concrete out there.

  4. Great nice article.

  5. Hi Rick Allen,

    Thank you this informative piece.

    I found your content guidelines interesting and useful. As a fourth year student in Public Relations and currently supervising second year media students working on web writing project I will make use of your work. The information is clear and straight to the point, I hope many students will be able to come across such informative content. Thank you very much for the good work and availing your information for public use.

    I wish I knew all your tips before creating my own website. The principle of 70 words per paragraph seem to be working. Should you wish to give some guidance, my website is http://www.thegovernance.org , all content are created by Public Relations, Media and Journanlism students

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