In a previous post, I wrote about my favorite book on Web writing, “Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works” by Janice Redish. Filled with practical advice and case studies, the book is one of the best I’ve read about Web writing.
This week I found another outstanding resource on writing for the Web. It’s a new report from website usability expert Jakob Nielsen, “Website Reading: It (Sometimes) Does Happen.”
Using eye-tracking studies of hundreds of users interacting with websites, the report describes exactly how users read Web content.
Just writing your message on your website is not enough. In order to effectively inform and/or persuade your users, it is essential to understand how people consume text on websites. This is because of two contradictory truths:
- Reading is the primary action people perform on websites, and
- Many people strive to read as little as possible on most of the websites they hit.
The report details how effective page layout and good information architecture can guide users to your content. Once the user is there, though, the content must deliver. Using before-and-after case studies and examples from popular websites (such as The New York Times and Wikipedia), the report offers 83 guidelines for Web content.
Here are a few:
- Put the most important words first.
- Write clear and very descriptive titles for pages.
- Heading content should be concise and descriptive and stand out from the rest of the text.
- Lead with the most important messages.
- Tell it like it is and people will want to read more.
- Define technical terms in place.
- Link to pages that have simplified explanations.
- Spell out and define acronyms.
- Employ illustrations, tables, lists, and charts to draw attention to important or related information.
- When communicating on the Web, do not try to tease the user. Do not try to build excitement as you lead up to your point.
- To increase credibility and to make people read more words, use balanced language, not over-the-top sales pitches.
- Reconsider writing complex sentences, especially at the beginning of a paragraph.
- Avoid leading with a subordinate clause, especially in a sentence at the beginning of a paragraph.
If you want to read more, you can buy the full report at the Nielsen Norman Group website.
Readers, care to share any helpful Web writing techniques?
Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor. Read more of her writing about writing at www.impertinentremarks.com.