Writing for the Web

Where are we?

You know how to make Web pages with text. You know how to make them look good, with colors, fonts, and other things.

But what about the words themselves? That’s what this lesson is about.

This lesson’s goals

By the end of this lesson, you should:

  • Know that you are writing for site users and owners, but the users come first.
  • Know some guidelines for writing for the Web.

The Web is text (mostly)

Much of the information on a Web site is in text. Some is in images; we’ll talk about that later. But getting the text right is important.

Most of the ideas on this page come from two excellent books:

[amazon 0123694868 full]
[amazon 0321344758 full]

Who are you writing for?

You’re writing for two stakeholders:

  • Site users
  • Site owners

Most users don’t “surf.” They spend time on a site because it helps them. Find a product, learn about a band, laugh at fails.

Owners spend money on a site because they have information they want users to see. Stuff on sale, tips on playing a game, when the book club meets.

The interests of users and owners may conflict. Say there’s a page about an MP3 player. Some users want just the basic facts about the product. Some owners want users to read a thousand words on why this is the best MP3 player ever.

On the Web, users are in control. If they don’t want to read a thousand words? They go to another Web site.

Site owners are not in control of user’s time. Someone will keep reading a Web page only if s/he keeps getting value from doing that.

Part of the writer’s job is to write for users, while still conveying the owners’ key messages.

A passel of guidelines

Here are some guidelines for writing Web text.

Less text

Drop as many words as you can. Use simple words. Write “use simple words,” not “Avoid unnecessary linguistic complexity in the presentation of textual information.”

Keep sentences and paragraphs short.

Active voice

Sentences have subjects and objects. Here’s a sentence:

The dog liked the bone.

The dog is the subject, the thing the sentence is about. The bone is the object.

Active voice means the subject comes first in the sentence, as in “The dog liked the bone.” Passive voice puts the object first:

The bone was liked by the dog.

Here’s another sentence pair:

Head bangers like this product.

This product is liked by head bangers.

You can use passive voice sometimes, but not a whole page of it. It’s harder to read, because your brain has to do more work to figure out what a passive voice sentence means.

Less happy talk

Here’s some happy talk:

Welcome! And best wishes from everyone at X Corp.! We’re glad you’re here at our site. Thank you for coming. We value you, and just want the opportunity to make your life better, with our fine line of products. They’re great! And if you use them, you’ll be great, too! Everyone will like you. We’ll like you, and be your best friend forever. You’re in for a great experience on our site. Have a nice time!

It doesn’t help the user much.

Here’s the happy talk from the CoreDogs home page:

CoreDogs home page happy talk

Figure 1. CoreDogs home page happy talk

This is the only thing on the page that isn’t about CoreDogs. I could get rid of it, but that dog is very cute.

Eliminate instructions

Here’s the search field on this page:

Search form

Figure 2. Search form

You know how to use this. No instructions needed.

The tree menus:

Tree menus

Figure 3. Tree menus

You already know what the + and – do.

Search and the tree menu don’t need instructions because you’ve seen them before. When there’s something different on your site, you might need to add instructions.

But don’t push instructions on the user. Let the user decide whether to see them. Here’s a widget you’ve seen on the exercise pages:

Public widget

Figure 4. Public widget

To get help, click on the help dog – but you decide whether you want it.

CoreDogs has a help section section. It isn’t forced on you. You decide whether you want to use it.

Write for scanning

Write so users can quickly look over the page, without having to read it all.

  • Start a long page with a short summary.
  • Put stuff people look for most often at the top of the page.
  • Use section headings. Make them different from normal text. Change the font size, weight, color, etc. Think about having a table of contents for a long page.
  • Make links look like links. Underlining is good. Don’t underline anything but links.

Use lists

Make lists look like lists, rather than putting them in text.

Here is a list:

There is the blue thing. And then the red thing. The red thing is way cool! Really, it is. Third, there’s the brown thing. Last, but not least, the green thing.

Do this instead:

  • Blue thing.
  • Red thing – way cool!
  • Brown thing.
  • Green thing.

Sans serif

Use it. People like it better.

Color contrast

Make the text color easy to read on the background color.

Text size

Older people have trouble with small font sizes. I use 14px as a rule. Larger for headings, of course.

Going deeper

Jakob Nielsen has a well-regarded piece on writing for the Web.

Julie Meloni wrote a short article on writing for the Web. It’s based on Nielsen’s work.


You are writing for site users and owners, but the users come first.

Guidelines for Web writing:

  • Less text
  • Active voice
  • Less happy talk
  • Eliminate instructions
  • Write for scanning
  • Use lists
  • Sans serif
  • Color contrast
  • Text size

What now?

Time to work on your eMe site.