Writing Web Content

In big, bold text, the author asserts that "content is the most important part of a Web site," and that the primary means of delivering content via the Web remains textual.

EN: For years, there have been predictions this would change, and that the Web would become a delivery channel for content that is primarily media. This has not borne out, nor is it expected to.

1. Make action sequences clear (5:4)

When describing a chronological sequence of events. Structure the content so that the sequence is clear.

This guideline also seems to advocate imposing sequences in which the order of tasks is arbitrary 9filling out a form that requires a few different kinds of information): break the task down into steps and guide the user through the process, a step at a time, even though the order is arbitrary.

2. Avoid jargon (4:4)

This is good guidance for writing in general, but especially pertinent to the Web, which is a technical medium, and in which sites may be specialized on a very technical topic. In general, the preference is to use simplified language in providing the content rather than resort to a glossary of terms to which the user must refer.

EN: If a site is designed for a specific audience rather than the general public, it stands to reason that the language can be elevated to include terms known by members of the audience (if you're writing for chemists, no need to dumb it down for the general public who might wander in).

3. Use familiar words (4:3)

Specifically, the author is referring to the tendency of site owners to invent terminology where there are already terms in use, either out of ignorance of common terms or in an attempt to set themselves apart (using a "shopping bag" rather than a "shopping cart").

There are sources (although the author doesn't specifically name them) that indicate which terms are preferred where there are multiple alternatives (e.g., a "dictionary" or a "glossary"), though user testing with a site's specific audience is recommended.

4. Define acronyms and abbreviations (4:2)

Another general writing tip: the first time an acronym or abbreviation is used, explain it parenthetically.

EN: Remember to do this for each page, as there is not a guaranteed order in which users will view pages. Also, some acronyms and abbreviations may seem to be ubiquitous and not require definition - but err on the side of discretion.

5. Use abbreviations sparingly (4:2)

Show complete words rather than abbreviations wherever possible.

EN: An abbreviation should be used to conserve space and facilitate reading speed where a lengthy term is used several times in the context of a given page. If a term is used once, there is no sense in using an abbreviation at all.

6. Use mixed case for text content (4:5)

I think that this is mentioned under design, but standard sentence case is more readable than all-caps in lengthy text passages.

The author also extends this to indicate that text should be in roman text by default, with treatments such as bold or italics used for specific purposes only, and in limited amounts.

7. Limit the number of words and sentences (4:5)

To optimize reading comprehension, minimize the number of words in a sentence (20 max) and the number of sentences in each paragraph (6 max).

EN: This is truly asinine and counterproductive advice. To convey the same meaning in fewer words or sentences means using more complex terms and sentence structure, which actually undermines reading comprehension. There are measurements of readability (Flesch, etc.) as well as of reading skill (a site for a more educated audience can pitch itself higher), and modifying text to suit a given level of reading skill, yet still convey the information effectively, is more than a matter of counting words and sentences. This is an entirely separate field of study.

8. Limit text on navigation pages (3:3)

Navigation pages are a standard convention that provide links to content, but do not themselves contain any content. Users are familiar with this, and will overlook (scan past) any content presented in the context of a navigation page. The author also cautions against using "too much" descriptive text, as most users scan a page looking at the links rather than reading descriptions.

EN: Some exceptions are known to exist - home pages, for example, often contain announcements or other content of an important nature. Also, when it comes to link descriptions, there's a balance to be struck between the speed with which an experienced user can get to the link he needs and the novice user's need for information to describe pages. A common practice is to provide two forms of navigation: a collection of bare links (often done as a list in the left column) for the advanced user, and a version with a larger volume of explanation (often done in the main column) for novice users.

9. Use active voice (3:4)

The active voice (subject-verb-object) is both more understandable and concise than the passive voice (object-verb-subject, with subject often omitted)

10. Write instructions in the affirmative (3:2)

As a general rule, instructions that tell the user what to do, as opposed to telling them what not to do (or avoid doing), are more understandable and effective.

EN: Instructions should presume the user does what he is told rather than making up his own steps, as an infinite variety of imaginary errors is possible. If certain mistakes are proven to be common, there are other methods that can be used to warn the user against common mistakes rather than interrupting a flow of steps. Most often, the error is in providing specific enough instructions.

11. Make first sentences descriptive (3:2)

As users scan Web pages, the first sentence of a Web page should be like the "lead" of a news story, communicating the most essential points in the briefest possible space.

The same is true, to a lesser degree, of the first sentence after each heading () on a page for users who scan content to find specific information.

The same is true, to a lesser degree, of the first sentence after each heading (