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10 web writing fundamentals


We read writing on the web differently than we do traditional print. We scan, scroll, click, and we read on average only 28% of the words on a page.

Here’s a good overview of just how we read differently.

Given this, web guru Jakob Nielsen says writing online must adapt to be short, scannable, and objective.

10. Cut word count by 50%, but keep 100% of the ideas.

Readers have less patience for reading content online. Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen thinks this is because:

How to halve your word count? Good web writing is often end-result driven. Instead of talking the reader through ideas before getting to your point, start with your point (inverted pyramid structure). Use a “how to” approach. Specifically:

9. Ensure the reader knows the page’s purpose within 4 seconds.

You can do this with a meaningful title and subheadings. No need to say “Welcome to our site” – that’s what web experts call “blah blah” text. As for subheadings, read this article by web writing expert Nick Usborne. See how, at any point in your scrolling your eye has a “main idea” sentence to latch onto. And avoid cute or clever headings. People who want information don’t care if you’re witty. Write keyword-driven subheadings:

8. Use objective language.

Especially online, users have developed a fear of “selling” language . Web writer Nick Usborne, however, argues the most important words on a company site are selling words (Free, Sign up, Buy, Now, and Thank you). But for information-driven sites, anything that makes your writing seem like it’s too opinionated or trying to persuade people will turn people off. I think this psychological phenomenon is caused by the “clickability principle,” the fact that the web is interactive. Online, people are looking for information. They search. They aren’t passive television zombies. So they don’t want a website that’s tells them how to think or what to buy. Outbound links reinforce objectivity, too. They tell users a site is information-driven, not manipulation-driven.

7. Use S, M, and XL sentence lengths.

When you read a great web writer like Nick Usborne, you’ll quickly notice he uses many short sentences. And he advocates them. But a closer examination shows that he uses sentence variety. Ron Scheer’s analysis shows an average sentence length of 11.5 words for Nick Usborne, and sentences that vary from 1 word to 37.

Flashy graphics and dancing icons are not the way to keep people awake on your site. In fact, eyetracking studies show that people pass over images. Instead, varied prose is the best way to avoid monotony.

6. Start fast. No slow windups.

Sentences shouldn’t start with delaying phrases like “With respect to,” “The fact that,” or “In consideration of…” Start with either the main verb or main noun of your sentence.

If an introductory clause is absolutely necessary, keep it short.

Why is this important? Readers’ eyes don’t move in a linear fashion on a web page. Users generally skip over introductory material and go right for whatever looks like the meat. This doesn’t mean avoid introductory material completely. It’s a good idea to identify what the page is about first.

After all, in search results, users often only see the first few words on your page, so it’s crucial to get these right. Jakob Nielsen, for example, includes a 1-2 sentence summary to start his pages, but no other introductory material.

This is also known as “inverted pyramid” style.

5. Use passive voice only if it allows you to “front-load” your sentence.

Jakob Nielsen illustrates how an active voice sentence can sometimes bury the most important phrase:

Active: Yahoo Finance follows all 13 design guidelines for tab controls, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization. Passive: 13 design guidelines for tab controls are all followed by Yahoo Finance, but usability suffers due to AJAX overkill and difficult customization.

4. Write numbers with digits (13 instead of “thirteen”).

It’s like built in emphasis – readers’ eyes gravitate to digits.

Here’s an excerpt from Ron Scheer:

Yes, jargon is often lifeless and empty, a mindless and baffling display of buzz words, so vague as to be meaningless. On the other hand, because it’s often metaphorical and innovative, there are times when jargon can also be richly suggestive, vivid, and even inspiring. Besides this emotional dimension, its use often serves social purposes. When a group of people speak the same language, they can experience a kind of cohesiveness and share a vision. Correct use of jargon is an indicator of competence and becomes one of the ways to win trust and gain admittance to a group. This is important for someone who wants to belong or who has something to sell.

Sentence 1 clearly introduces the topic (“jargon”), and the phrases that follow say the same thing in different ways. No surprises for the reader.

Sentence 2’s “on the other hand” tells us we’re changing directions, weighing pros and cons.

Sentence 3 sums up and links to the previous sentences with “this emotional dimension,” and adds a new main concept (“serves social purposes”).

The next sentences illustrate and explain what those purposes are. They do this by overlapping ideas: (share a vision –> admittance to a group –> someone who wants to belong).

And throughout, Scheer’s use of reflexive pronouns (this, these, it) help tie together his ideas.

2. Use vocabulary people are used to seeing on the web, and generally, don’t use a fancy word when a simple one will do.

Bad: Nielsen speculates decreased user concentration is correlated with internet interactivity. Better: Nielsen thinks our short attention span online is related to web clickability. Good: Nielsen thinks clickable links decrease our attention span online.

1. Avoid overly stylized prose.

Just like how we’re used to seeing navigation bars on the left of the screen or about, contact, and home links at the top of a page, readers expect a certain tone on the web.

This doesn’t mean you should take out all personality and sound like a wikipedia entry (actually, the right personality is very important online), but subordinate your voice, your tendency to use lots of commas or poetic phrasing, to the needs of your web reader.

The previous sentence could be made web friendly:

You shouldn’t lose all writing personality. In fact, the right personality is very important online. But let style take a back seat to readability.