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Writing for the Web

When writing for the Web, you first must consider how people read the Web. As Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen says bluntly, “they don’t.” The Web is different. Online readers scan Web pages instead of reading every word. This guide will give you quick access to Web writing standards and formats to help you create successful—and consistently readable—Web content.

Write for ”Scan-ability”

Writing for the Web is about making your writing easier to read and use, not dumbing down your ideas. Help readers by writing for on-screen reading:

  • Write in the journalistic “inverted pyramid” style: Clearly state your most important idea first.
  • Use meaningful subheads to help readers find the content they want.
  • Highlight key phrases and words to draw visitors’ attention.
  • Use links to provide easy access to background information and (again) highlight key phrases and words.
  • Use one idea per paragraph. As in newspapers, one-sentence paragraphs are perfectly legitimate on the Web.
  • Avoid acronyms and abbreviations. If you must use an acronym, handle it as you would on paper: Spell it out in the first usage on each page and then use the abbreviation thereafter.
  • Use bulleted lists to pull out key ideas.

Place Critical Content at the Top

Make sure the content you especially want your visitors to see is visible without scrolling.

Visitors will scroll, especially if they can tell there’s content that interests them lower on the page. It’s still a good idea to ensure that the first thing they see is the content you most want them to see!

Check how you organize your content and think about the proportions of each piece. A well-chosen image can convey your department’s unique character in an appealing way. However, placing a large picture at the top of your page hides your other content, making it less likely that users will scroll down to see it.

Authentic Voice and Tone

Authentic voice sounds true and genuine, the way we speak in a conversation. Readers pay attention and listen to writing that sounds like a person is talking. Use inviting and professional language. Write to your readers in the second-person narrative: Address your audience directly, using “you” and “your.”

Example: “Your research project, designed in conjunction with your faculty mentor, will match your interests and abilities with the needs of the research group. In our program, you will work on a project that interests you.”

Faculty and student in a medical lab during the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience.

Be Formal When It Matters, Otherwise Relax the Rules

Please adhere to UB's editorial style guidelines where they apply to formal names of offices, programs and titles. This will ensure clarity and consistency across the visitor's experience with any of our websites, which you will recall is one of the basic tenets in the DCT process.

We also encourage use of proper grammar as a general practice; however, some rules that are so often sacrosanct in formal print publications may well merit more leniency for online users, provided it is for a good reason. Some examples include:

  • setence fragments are permissible when they allow brevity; for example, in headings like "About Us"
  • use numerals even for whole numbers less than 10
  • paragraphs can be as short as one sentence

For a longer discussion, please read Jakob Nielsen's short article 'Break Grammar Rules on Websites for Clarity'.

 

Tips on Rewriting Content

The content you produce for a print publication is not always ideal for the Web. Rewriting can be well worth the time it takes. Context will determine how much rewriting you need to do. For example, articles from an alumni magazine that need to be posted on the magazine’s website do not need to be rewritten. However, they probably could benefit from packaging that optimizes the platform, e.g. includes such things as multimedia, pull quotes, subheads, related links and more images than you might have had “space” for in the printed material.

Keep It Short

On the Web, concise is generally better. Use short paragraphs and pick short words. Using “about” instead of “approximately” or “use” instead of “utilize” can improve readability. Cutting unneeded words also helps.

Example:

Before: “The Department of Biology has already seen its enrollment grow by an incredible 10 percent in the past three years.”

After: “The biology department has seen enrollment grow by 10 percent in three years.”

Related Online Training

Inverted Pyramid Style of Writing

Graphic of the "inverted pyramid" technique of journalism writing. Showing a simple triangle with one side drawn horizontally at the top and the body pointing down. The widest part at the top represents the most substantial, interesting, and important information the writer means to convey, illustrating that this kind of material should head the article, while the tapering lower portion illustrates that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance.

Did you know?

To help ensure consistency across Web pages, UB has its own editorial style guidelines that pertain to offices, programs and titles.

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