Writing for the Web

David Lee King, Digital Services Director, Topeka & Shawnee Co PL (TSCPL), davidleeking

Not just writing — visual web; content: images, video & words; you’re paid to write, if it’s part of your job. Responsibility.

“so let’s improve our words.”

The Problems

  1. We’re not writers, like journalists are. (not market-driven writers. Librarians like explaining, details, numbered lists. Trained to write more formally, academic writing style. Narrative format.
  2. 8 seconds to grab a reader’s attention (2013 attention span study)

How to fix these two problems: Focus on: people, product, process


  • know your customers/audience — insights: Google Analytics; Facebook & other social media stats; talking to them in the library and in the community; surveys, focus groups.
  • have a focus for the website. Look at strategic plan/goals. Figure out audience & write to them
  • Know your staff, too — hire for writing ability or train


  • Words you create are a product (Welcome Create Explore Think Image Learn) — can’t be completely creative. Editing is part of this process
  • Focus on the right things (showcase the product and customer benefit, not your writing skills, not process)


  • Titles — front load content (Think newspaper headlines) include keywords; 5-6 words (bbc.com look at what they do)
  • Inverted pyramid — Most newsworthy info (Who, what, when, where, why, how); impt details; other general info, background info
  • Use images
  • Know spelling errors — spellcheck doesn’t catch everything
  • Re-use content: Website, Facebook, Twitter

Where to start? 

  • Audit current content, Spreadsheet & places
  • Look at analytics – Bounce rate analysis
  • Start with more popular pages (top 10-20 visited); make those better and spread out
  • Have fun!

Rebecca Blakiston, UX Librarian, Univ of Arizona Libraries @blakistonr

  • Write like you talk, try reading out loud; sound like a human; more authentic
  • Relax and have fun with it: Ex. “Do better research. (And, maybe, get a better grade).” “Write & cite like a pro. (Instead of citation guide)” “We’re here to help!” — using more casual language; user language

“Two pages of the passive voice — just abt any business document ever written, in other words… make me want to scream. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently tortuous, as well.” -Stephen King

  • Use active voice
    • Library cards can be renewed… vs renew your library card…
    • these statistics have been gathered… vs we gathered these statistics…
    • customers are advised vs we advise you…
  • Change customer/patron to YOU
  • Pick nouns and verbs wisely (Writing Well Book; content nouns)
    • The context of events led to new collective thinking about future processes –> Our librarians are creating better ways to get work done
    • The creative culture of the organization leads to the ability to move forward quickly on technological initiatives –> Staff members are creative, making it easy to move forward quickly on technological initiatives
  • Define your voice & tone: “Reassuring, but not paternalistic. Inspiring, but not cheerlead-y. Fun, but not cheeky. Academic, but not highbrow”
  • Pick a succinct, meaningful title
    • Patron-Driven Acquisitions (also known as On-Demand Info Delivery) –> Getting books at your request
    • Interlibrary Loan, Document Delivery, and Express Retrieval Services –> Get books and articles you need, when you need them
    • Think about users goals, write for them, avoid jargon
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short
    • Paragraphs no more than three sentences or six lines
    • Sentences no more than 25 words
    • A paragraph can be just one sentence
    • Recommends Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes
    • More white space helps skimming & scanning
  • Use headings to organize content (impt for accessibility & screen readers)
  • Use the power of parallelism
    • Improve your research skills vs improve your research skills
    • Finding sources in your discipline vs find sources in your discipline
    • Grant funding searching vs search for grant funding
  • Use tables for related content — make easy to skim & scan
    • great for services list
    • Letting Go of the Words book recommendation (if/then sentences, use tables)
  • Use bulleted lists for items & options (esp for complicated sentences)
  • Use numbered lists for instructions (for process/instructions/top ten lists)
  • But use instructions sparingly: avoid saying, fill out form below; to navigate this website, to use this web page (Don’t Make Me Think book author hates instructions); intuitive web page doesn’t need instructions
  • As well as other unnecessary things: Avoid saying: In this article, in this blog post, on this web page
  • Cut. Cut. Cut Again
  • Focus on essential messages
    • Know your audience
    • Define call(s) to action
    • Only include content that meets user and organizational goals
    • Put key messages first

“No one will ever complain that you’ve made things too simple to understand.” Ann Handley Keep Simple, not Simplistic. Not talking down to user. Saving time of user. Respecting their time.

  • Remove unnecessary adverbs
  • Remove redundant adjectives — pick one, really good one
  • Simplify:
    • utilize–> use
    • to ensure –> for
    • in order to –> to
    • with the possible exception of –> except for
    • at which time –> when
    • referred to as –> called
    • in spite of the fact that –> Although

Recommended Books

  • Letting go of the words (redish)
  • Everybody Writes (Handley)
  • On Writing Well (Zinzer)
  • On Writing (Stephen King)

Elaine Meyer’s slides (who could not be present)

Why is writing for the web different

  • Reading from a computer screen is: tiring to your eyes; and 25% slower than print reading
  • People are less likely to read long pieces of text online ten in print
  • Jakob Nielsen article

Skimming — F Shape

Less is more

  • Less content is
    • easier to manage
    • is more user-friendly
    • costs less to create

Planning your web content (in advance)

  1. objectives/goals
  2. completing task

Questions before writing – Every page must have a clear purpose!

  • Why am i creating this page?
  • Who am I talking to?
  • What’s my main message?
  • Does the user need it?
  • What do I want the user to do after reading it? — what’s the goal

Content accessibility – needs to be used by those with disabilities (Web for Everyone book)

Use description link text

  • Click Here vs link to “Online Form”
  • Never use “Click here” to describe a link — not descriptive for screen readers
  • Links are given extra weight by search engine spiders, so avoid click here

Human readable URLs — make as human as possible

Button labels

  • Keep short & action oriented
  • Avoid Go or OK as button labels; Submit/Give feedback

Alert users of outside content

  • Adobe PDF
  • Microsoft Word
  • Microsoft Excel
  • PowerPoint
  • Open in a new window


  • Color picker — ColorZilla
  • Color contrast for vision impaired
  • Red/green color blindness

Avoid using all caps — stop yelling!

Left-align text (not justified/centered)

Images – use text equivalence, esp alt attribute

Don’t use images that don’t convey information (spacer; design; background)

User assistance (help!) — group links so they make sense & put in correct places; mimic common layouts that other popular websites use

Go back and check your work (before/after/next week) & ask

  • Is this clear?
  • Is there a simpler way to do this?
  • Is there a shorter way to say this?
  • Is this even necessary?