Writing for the Web

Matt Mickiewicz

It is very easy to forget that it’s not the layout, the graphics, or that fancy JavaScript rollover that attracts people to your site. It is the content. Graphics, layout, and the rest are just the spice. By following ten simple guidelines you can greatly increase the readability of your writing…

1.) Check Spelling and Grammar

Good writing begins with good spelling and grammar. In addition to running all your work through a good spelling and grammar checker, having at least one other person carefully read through your writing is a very good idea. Every article/review that I post on our network has been proofread by at least one person.

2.) Make it scannable

Most people don,t read online content, they scan it. Writing meaningful subheadings, and making them stand out by bolding them is an excellent method of making your text more scannable. Avoid vague, or "cute" headings. Rather, try to have the heading summarize the content of the paragraph below it.

Using bulleted lists to give an overview of key points in an article is also an extremely effective way of making your content easier to digest.

Avoid over-bolding. Overdoing it destroys the entire point of bolding text in the first place, which is to make something stand out from the rest of the page. As a general rule, only the title of the article, and the subheadings should be bold. Likewise, avoid underlining text for emphasis. Underlined text is generally understood to be a link. Italicized text also doesn’t work well, because of the resolutions of current monitors.

3.) Blank line vs. Indents

There are two ways to separate paragraphs. Either indent the start of each paragraph, or insert a blank line between paragraphs as I have done in this newsletter. Each method has its own pros and cons. Indents work well for long pieces of text, while blank line typography makes pages more scannable, and creates more white space on a page which provides the eyes of the reader a place to rest. Choose one method, and stick with it.

4.) Alignment, Line Length

In most countries, people read from left to right. Therefore it is only logical that all the text on your website be aligned to the left side of the page. Centered or right-aligned text is difficult to read, causes eye-strain, and is unbearable for long pieces of text. Avoid the urge to center your subheadings align left, just like the rest of your page.

Newspapers have long realized the value of short line length. That’s why most articles are in narrow columns, rather than going across the entire page. Likewise´ magazine articles are split into columns rather than going across the entire page. Unfortunately, most designers have not yet learned the basics of good typography. Therefore, most webpages have line lengths that are way to long for comfortable reading. Generally, you should have no more than 15 words on a single line, or roughly 65 characters.

5.) Keep scrolling to a minimum, and keep content short

Internet users hate to scroll. If you have to post long pieces of text online, split it up into multiple pages. C|NET, Wired, and SitePoint.com all have a rough 500 words/page limit.

Splitting content over multiple pages also increases the chances that someone will read through the entire thing. If someone hits a page and sees dozens of screens full of text, they are unlikely to even begin reading it. The prospect of reading a huge chunk of text onscreen will not seem very appealing. Breaking it into smaller, manageable chunks greatly increases the probability that someone will read through the entire thing.

Studies have shown that people read 25% slower onscreen than they do on paper. This means that you should make your content at least 25% shorter than an equivalent text version.

Tip: Provide a printer friendly version of every article which has all of the content on one page – this is easy to do if the site runs off of a database.

6.) Black against white

One very common mistake is using "busy" backgrounds that distract the eye from the text. If you have to use a background image dull it down so that it doesn’t pull the viewers attention away from the text. The classic white background with black text is still the best choice for text heavy pages.

7.) The International Factor

The Internet is truly a global phenomenon. The Internet doesn’t just reside within the boundaries of the USA. As a courtesy to your international visitors, please note somewhere on your front page if your products/offers/contests are only available to residents of the US.

The International factor should extend to the rest of your website. Tell your visitors what currency prices are quoted in. Use short sentences, and avoid using English slang or region-specific words.

8.) Typefaces

There are two fonts specifically designed for maximum readability on screen; they are the Verdana and Georgia typefaces. The only downside to these two fonts is that they do not print out very well. Arial and Times Roman are both very legible both onscreen and off. Unless you have a good reason not to, stick to these four fonts.

9.) Avoid Caps

People read by recognizing the overall shape of words. CAPS slow down the character recognition ability of a person´ and with it their reading speed. Therefore, caps should be avoided completely, even in headlines.

10.) Keeping it current

Many websites cover a topic that is constantly in a flux. If your site is one of them, be sure to set aside some time to revise content to keep it current. Keeping it up to date not only increases the value of your website, but it is a valuable service to your visitors.

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