Author: Suzanne Oxford
Categories: Knowledge

Writing for (readable) web

Just as website navigation is a unique narrative structure, writing web content follows unique writing conventions.

Why? Because that’s the way we work as readers.

When we pick up our tablet or our website, we rarely read word for word. Research has shown the average reading time is 25 per cent slower on a screen, so we skim, searching for keywords.

And, because we don’t want to scroll, we won’t.

The result? Your web copy had better be short, concise and very easy to navigate. Otherwise, you’ll lose your readers in less time than it takes them to click their mouse.

The way your readers read demands your web and other digital content should be written to suit.

To take a practical example: The length of copy and type of language used in a corporate letter or marketing communications are too long and formal for a digital environment. Aim instead for half the words you’d use in a paper document. And then cut in half again.

And to take another example: Think of a news story. It has the main info up the top, short and snappy sentences, and clear headings. Web and digital writing follows the same convention.

At New Word Order, we have established eight hallmarks for effective web writing, and we use these to assess our clients’ site and the work we provide them:

  1. Short, effective sentences (say the same information with less)
  2. Sub-headings and headings containing keywords
  3. Everyday words the average reader can easily understand (plain English)
  4. Informal voice
  5. Common language conventions
  6. Direct language
  7. Active tense
  8. Consistent, logical structuring of information.

1. Write in short sentences and paragraphs

Aim for short sentences, each with one or two clauses.

Each paragraph should contain no more than 2–3 sentences, and altogether a page of content should fit comfortably within the web page without requiring the reader to scroll. The optimum line length is 8–12 words.

Including useful and interesting facts keeps readers’ attention longer than ‘motherhood’ or general statements. They’re more believable, too.

2. Use headlines and sub-headings

Headlines and sub-headings are an effective way to guide a reader through their skimming of a web page. Since research tells us readers rarely read every word on a website, it makes sense to prioritise what they see – and headlines and sub-headings do this well.

Make headlines and sub-headings factual, not fanciful. This enables readers to rapidly scan useful keywords.

3. Write in plain English

While plain English should be the aim of all of your publications, it’s especially important in a digital environment.

Plain English means using words the average Australian reader can easily understand.

That means you should:

  • include useful headings
  • use the simplest form of a word possible e.g. said (not announced or discussed); try (not endeavour)
  • define tricky terms
  • delete unnecessary verbiage
  • use familiar, easily understood words
  • include lists and tables to simplify content and reduce word count.

4. Use informal voice

Unlike general corporate writing, digital environments demand a more informal voice.

This means using ‘you’, ‘we’ and other pronouns to speak directly to the reader within the text. Formal language is out.

5. Use common language conventions

Effective web writing uses language conventions found more commonly in conversation.

This means using:

  • contractions (isn’t, that’s)
  • common bridging words to begin sentences (and, but, because)
  • short statements of fact
  • links to longer explanations (e.g. PDFs, minutes, fact sheets).

6. Get to the point

Writing for digital environments takes discipline, because readers have little tolerance for fluffy language, repetition, ‘happy talk’ or unnecessary explanations of what’s already evident on the page.

To write direct, straight-to-the-point copy:

  • stick to the topic
  • cut unnecessary adverbs (e.g. completely finish, tentatively plan)
  • delete tautologies (e.g. whole of the country; for a period of six months)
  • use simple present tense when possible (e.g. uses instead of ‘is utilised by’, conducts instead of ‘is conducted by’)
  • avoid clichés.

7. Use active voice

Active voice is a way of structuring information that allows you to focus on the subject and cut excess words. Following this method enables quick readability.

Active voice places the subject first in a sentence, followed by the action.


Active voice: New Word Order opened in 1998.

Passive voice: New Word Order was opened in1998.

8. Structure content well

The most important information should always be placed first on a web page, and the web layout and navigation should be consistent and logical to a reader.

A good rule of thumb for navigation is organise the content to suit how the reader needs to discover it.

With only a few exceptions, your website should go no deeper than three levels of navigation. Too many websites go down rabbit warrens.

To structure new web content, follow this checklist:

  • Plan what you need to write, and stick to the topic.
  • Lead with the most important information – this means placing these details first on a page.
  • Keep each section simple and clear – don’t try to achieve too much in one place.
  • Use meaningful links – rather than repeating information found elsewhere on the website, link to it.
  • Put the most recent information at the top – for example, when you’re archiving minutes or reports.

In my next blog, I’ll touch on the art of SEO writing: writing your digital content so it helps your web rankings. It’s a murky science – or at best, a black art – but the basics are important to master.