Web Writing Guidelines for Content Contributors

As web professionals, we owe a lot to our content contributors. Your college website has tons of content, and no one person can do it all. The more you enable content contributors to write for your site (supported, of course, by a thorough editorial process), the closer you will be to your shared goal of creating great content. Here are some web writing guidelines to help make that happen.

1. Keep your audience in mind.

Consider who will be reading and using your web content. Prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty, staff? What are they looking for, and what do they need? Be sure the tone, language and organization of content is appropriate for your audience.

2. Be concise.

Web writing should be clear and direct. Keep sentences short. Remove words or descriptions that don’t add value to the content. As content strategist Margot Bloomstein says, “Thoreau instructed ‘simplify, simplify.’ You can do him one better. Here’s to snappy writing that gets to the point and knows when to stop!”

3. Make content scannable.

Readers scan web pages before they read. If they don’t recognize useful, relevant content, they often move on. Elements that enhance scanning include headers, links, highlighted text, bulleted lists, graphics, captions and pull-quotes. However, be careful not to overemphasize content and confuse the visual and editorial hierarchy of information. There’s a reason the blink tag is deprecated by the W3C.

4. Write meaningful headers.

Readers rely on headers to navigate on-page content. Choose words for headers and subheaders that clearly describe the content they introduce. Boring, useful words are better than clever, obtuse words.

5. Limit paragraphs to 250 words.

I’ve seen numerous recommended word counts, but I’ve found a 70-word limit to be a practical and effective number in most cases. Of course, less is better.

6. Use bulleted lists whenever possible.

Bulleted lists are easier to scan and read than full paragraphs. If you are listing three or more items, consider using a bulleted list. For instructions or long lists like this one, consider using numbered lists for easy reference.

7. Use active voice.

Writing in the active voice is more clear, conversational and engaging than the passive voice. Just ask Strunk and White: “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” Also, “when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor” (The Elements of Style, Third Edition, pages 18-19).

8. Use common language.

It’s essential for findability and SEO (search engine optimization) to use the same words and phrases your readers do. When creating page titles, headers, list items and links, choose keywords carefully. Additionally, be sure to use keywords consistently when creating web content. When used appropriately, this practice reinforces keyword relevancy for search engines, such as Google and your own internal search, thereby improving findability.

9. Be professional and human.

Think like a publisher and less like a marketer. Use a more conversational tone. Avoid jargon and buzzwords like “cutting-edge” or “leverage.” Users are turned off by content that talks at them instead of with them. Consider how you would communicate with someone standing in front of you instead of via a traditional TV or radio advertisement.

10. Include valuable links.

If additional useful, relevant and appropriate content exists elsewhere—on or off your website—link to it. Instead of repeating information that already exists on your site, link to this content as well. Consider what content elsewhere might add value to yours and improve usability. When possible, include links within your page copy to make them contextually relevant.