Website Writing Guide

Writing principles for the Web

Users scan first, read later

When most people read a Web page for the first time they scan it for meaning and relevance rather than read it word-by-word. The careful reading comes once they are convinced that the content is relevant and credible.

Jakob Nielsen’s research reveals that about 80% of users scan any new Web page rather than read its content word-by-word. Complementary research by his team suggests that the lower the user’s level of education or comfort with English, the more likely they are to read a page word-by-word.

For writers of Web pages this means presenting the content so it easy to scan, or skim-read. Do this by:

  • keeping sentences and paragraphs brief and to the point
  • using bullet-point lists where you would otherwise list items, steps or alternatives in a sentence or paragraph
  • providing brief headings that are easy to understand
  • writing in a direct manner and using plain English
  • breaking long, scrolling pages into multiple pages.

However, once users find relevant content, they will read it thoroughly and expect it to be sufficiently detailed to satisfy their needs. If the nature of the content is such that it is complex and detailed, provide it in increasing layers of depth – see Layering content.

Take the test. Which is easier to read online, A or B?

Sample A

Online newspapers present content in three layers. A snippet of the story is presented on the home page worded in such a way as to grab the user’s attention (Content level 1). Clicking on the heading or snippet takes the user to a second page containing the bulk of the story or content (Content level 2).If users still want more information, they can view a video or contribute comments (Content level 3).

OR

Sample B

Online newspapers present content in three layers.

  • A snippet of the story is presented on the home page worded in such a way as to grab the user’s attention.
  • Clicking on the heading or snippet takes the user to a second page containing the bulk of the story or content.
  • If users still want more information, they can view a video, link to other websites or contribute comments.

 

Other topics in this section...

Guide Home | How people use the Web | Writing for the Web environment | Using plain English |
Users scan first, read later | Layering content | Writing for search engines |

 

top of page