I recently took a Library Juice Academy (LJA) class titled Writing for the Web, which was my last course in the User Experience for Libraries certificate program. Here is a summary of what I learned from that class and other resources about web-based writing in the library context.
Adopt a user-centered approach
Most web-based reading is functional: people visit your website to answer questions or complete tasks. Studies show that people read about 20% of the text on the average page, and they tend to skim and scan rather than read linearly.
Given how people interact with writing on the web, you should think about your audience as users rather than readers. Approach your writing as a tool that supports your users.
Be “clear, concise, and human”
In Writing is Designing, Michael J. Metts and Andy Welfle emphasize three voice principles for web-based writing: “be clear, concise, and human.”
This is the most crucial of the three principles. You must have a thorough grasp of the information you are conveying before you can write clearly. Accordingly, the authors admonish writers to “do the hard work to make it simple.”
Here, Metts and Welfle advise looking for ways to reduce information to essential themes rather than focusing solely on limiting word count. They take Strunk and White’s classic advice to “omit needless words,” and extend it to “omitting needless information.”
A conversational tone is appropriate for most web writing. In other words, write like you talk. Refer to users as “you” and your organization as “we.” Don’t be afraid to use contractions and sentence fragments.
Try to answer your users’ questions using language that makes sense to them. As Rebecca Blakiston says in Writing Effectively in Print and on the Web, empathize with your users by asking “What’s in it for them?”
Think carefully about instructions
According to experts, library websites, like websites in general, frequently include too many instructions. Therefore, you should stop and think about whether you need to provide instructions. For instance, people usually don’t need to be told to fill out a form.
If you determine instructions would be helpful in a given situation, use a numbered list. Multilayered lists are fine, but if your list has more than two levels, you might want to rearrange your content.
Start each step of your instructions with an imperative, that is, a verb without “you.” Consider using an if/then construction for instructions that include restrictions. Otherwise, those who don’t read to the end might miss the restrictions.
Given the popularity of touch displays, you might want to use vocabulary that is device-neutral, such as “select” instead of “click.” But no matter what language you choose, keep your terminology consistent.
Finally, put your instructions to the test to see if others can effectively follow them.
Use the inverted pyramid structure
The inverted pyramid is a content-organizing structure from journalism that places the most important information first. It differs from the structure of traditional academic writing, where the discussion often begins with details and moves toward a conclusion.
An inverted pyramid structure helps users understand and follow web-based writing. As Janice Redish says in Letting Go of the Words: “Whatever your essential message is, put it first. Many web users read only a few words of a page – or of a paragraph – before deciding if it is going to be relevant and easy for them to get through. If they think it might not be, they move on.”
In some instances, you might also want to include a summary or a bulleted list of highlights to accentuate the key takeaways.
Layer content and chunk information
Layering information allows you to provide it as needed rather than sharing it all at once. The instructor for my LJA class, who works for the University of Michigan, used her library’s “Who can Borrow” page as an example of layering an overview with links to more specific pages.
Chunking information is the process of breaking it down into manageable pieces. Headings, lists, and tables can be helpful tools for chunking.
A few tips:
- Limit headings to three levels. Structure your headings so that users can get a feel for the content by scanning them. To make headings more readable, consider using sentence case (capitalizing the first word) rather than title case (capitalizing all significant words).
- Provide lists if you have three or more items in a series. Lists can be a great way to break up a “wall of text.” Use bulleted lists instead of numbered lists unless you are trying to convey an ordered sequence.
- Keep tables simple and use them sparingly. Comparisons, numbers, and if-then scenarios are examples of information that can be effectively expressed using tables.
Keep parallel construction
Blakiston calls parallel construction “a simple technique that can make an incredible impact on the quality of your writing.” You should strive to keep a parallel structure for content that users are likely to scan such as headings or lists.
But not everything needs to be completely parallel. For example, the instructor for my LJA course noted that her library opted not to use a parallel construction for the menu items at the top of the library’s webpage.
To learn more, I recommend each of the cited books, all of which informed this post. Rebecca Blakiston was the creator and original instructor for the LJA course on Writing for the Web, and her book is particularly helpful. In addition, you might also want to look at these resources:
- Writing for the Web Articles & Videos (Nielsen Norman Group)
- Plain Language (U.S. government)
- Best Practices for Creating LibGuides (RIPS Blog)