Writing for the web

Plain English is mandatory

Use plain English. All audiences should understand our content.

People lose trust when we use internal buzzwords, jargon and uncommon acronyms. Often, these words can lead to misinterpretation or appear as empty, meaningless text. Instead use:

  • Short sentences
  • Sections with sub-headers
  • Simple vocabulary

This helps users find what they need quickly and absorb it effortlessly.

Avoid jargon

Be direct and specific. Avoid adding words that provide no additional meaning or value.

Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Rephrase to remove unnecessarily long words, for example:

  • Purchase – instead use ‘buy’
  • Assist – instead use ‘help’
  • Approximately – use ‘about’
  • Such as – instead use ‘like’
  • Collaborate – instead use ‘working with’
  • Dialogue – instead say ‘speak to people’
  • Deploy – don’t use this unless it is military or software
  • Deliver – pizzas, post and services are delivered, not abstract concepts like ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities’
  • Facilitate – instead, say something specific about how you are helping
  • Key – unless it unlocks something. A subject/thing isn’t ‘key’ – it’s probably ‘important’
  • Foster – unless it is children
  • Land – as a verb. Only use if you are talking about aircraft
  • Leverage – unless in the financial sense
  • Impact – as a verb
  • Progress – as a verb – what are you actually doing?
  • Promote – unless you are talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing
  • Strengthening – unless it’s strengthening bridges or other structures
  • Tackling – unless it is rugby, football or some other sport
  • Transforming – what are you actually doing to change it?
  • Don’t use Latin terms like ‘ad eundem statum’
  • Don’t use NZ specific jargon like ‘non-NCEA’, ‘homestay’, ‘flatting’
  • Don’t use acronyms like EFTS, CIE/IB results
  • Avoid clichés. They don’t offer anything informative or imaginative and can be confusing for non-native English speakers.

Avoid metaphors

Always avoid metaphors, for example:

  • Drive – only vehicles can be driven
  • Drive out – unless it is cattle
  • Going forward – unless physical movement is required
  • In order to – a superfluous phrase, don’t use it
  • One-stop shop – unless referring to an actual shop
  • Ring fencing – unless referring to actual fences

Write less

Generally speaking, your web content is useless unless it does one or both of the following:

  • Supports a university goal (eg promotes the university or encourages students to apply)
  • Supports a user in completing a task (eg provides the user with the information they were looking for or helps a student to apply)

Less content is easier to manage

By publishing less content, you'll have less content to manage, and monitor for continuing relevance. There are many ways for web content to lose relevance: abandoned blogs, out-dated descriptions, broken links, and irrelevant search engine results. Neglecting content can mislead users or even expose UC to legal action.

Less content is more user-friendly

Users want information quickly. If they can't find what they're looking for, they'll feel frustrated and leave. Too much content means information is harder to find, and that makes it harder for users to complete their task.

Less content costs less to create

By prioritising useful and relevant content over "just in case" content, you'll free up time and money for things like planning and measurement. Reduce content by making sure that website content relates to goals.

Identify user needs

Websites work well when users can find what they need quickly, complete their task and leave without having to think about it too much.

The process of finding and absorbing information on the web should follow these steps:

  1. I have a question.
  2. I can find the page with the answer easily/I can see it's the right page from the search results listing.
  3. I have understood the information and I have my answer.
  4. I trust the information.
  5. I know what to do next/my fears are allayed/I don't need anything else.

Check that the content is really needed

For every new page you plan to create, ask yourself:

  1. Why am I creating this page?
  2. What do I want to say?
  3. Does the user need it?
  4. Will they want to read it?
  5. What do I want the user to do after reading it?

If you can't answer these questions easily, you need to rethink the objectives of your content.

Identify your audience

It's difficult to write effectively unless you know who you're writing for.

If you have a specific audience in mind, think about how they behave and the vocabulary they use. If you don't use the same terms and phrases as them, they may never find your content.

For example, first year undergraduate students probably wont understand terms like aegrotat, co-requisite, and endorsement.

If you don't have a specific audience, you need to make your writing as easy to read as possible so it is accessible to all.

Write for an international audience

The UC website needs to appeal to an international audience so avoid New Zealand specific terms.

Prioritise your content

Give the most important information first by putting the conclusion first, followed by the what, how, where, when and why. This allows users to:

  • Quickly scan through the opening sentence
  • Instantly understand what the paragraph is about
  • Decide if they want to read the rest of the paragraph or not 

The opening paragraph on every page should focus on answering two questions: 

  • What will users find on this page? 
  • Why should they care?

Example

Do
The Recreation Centre offers quality facilities for a wide range of sports at a number of different levels. It is set within UC's Ilam campus.

Don't
Set within UC's Ilam campus, the Recreation Centre offers quality facilities for a wide range of sports at a number of different levels.

Don't state the obvious but do explain

Don't tell the user things they already know. Phrases like "Welcome to the University of Canterbury's website". Statements like this are unnecessary as the user has likely searched for or followed a link to those pages.

Don't instruct users on how to navigate

Similarly, it is not necessary to instruct your readers how to navigate a web page such as "Click here for further details", "On this website you will find" or "The links on the left will take you to further information".

Each page must stand alone

Many users will arrive at your web pages by a search engine and they may enter the site at any point, bypassing your homepage and landing pages in the process. It's unlikely they will read all your content in sequence, so each page must be self-explanatory.

Link to background or explanatory information to help users, but don't overdo it. It's unnecessary to link to all pages in the same section if it's already part of the navigation.

Don't repeat content

Keep your pages short and concise by linking to secondary information rather than reproducing it on your pages. When explaining processes run outside of the University (eg student loans and allowances, immigration rules etc, link directly to the relevant organisation.

Linking to the owner of the information means that you won't have to keep monitoring it in order to keep your content up to date.

Use an active and personal voice

Paragraphs written in third person are no longer in fashion. The internet has become a more personal communication tool. People use it to explore in a relaxed nature, not to feel like they are reading an encyclopedia.

Use an active rather than a passive voice. A passive voice tends to make sentences longer, and harder to understand. An active voice helps to build trust with users by reassuring them that we're taking ownership of what we've written.

Example

Do
Studying at UC will give you skills and experience to help you achieve your career goals.

Don’t
Studying at UC may help students to gain skills and experience which can lead to career goals.

Easily scanned content

Scanning instead of reading is a fact of the web and has been confirmed by many usability studies. Users are often impatient and don't want to read long continuous blocks of text.

They will scan text and pick out keywords, sentences, and paragraphs of interest while skipping over those parts they care less about.

The 'above the fold' myth

There is a myth that all web pages should be short, but there are no fixed rules.

The aim of content is to get your message across while being concise. Pages should contain no more information than a user can absorb at once.

Structure your page with headings and subheadings

Edit long passages of text into shorter paragraphs and introduce helpful sub-headings. This kind of signposting helps users to find information in a hurry.

A consistent approach to headings will help your users navigate through your web pages.

A top-level heading should be at the top of the webpage and is marked in HTML as a <H1> tag.

Lower level and less important headers break up the text of an article and are generally marked as <H2> to <H6>.

Meaningful headings

Good headings compress the most important information into a few meaningful words. Every word is important so ensure the words you use are concise and specific with the limited space on mobile devices in mind.

All headings and subheadings should use sentence case without punctuation:

  • Capitalise the first word
  • Capitalise any proper nouns including course names (unless they start with a lowercase letter, eg iTunes), and use lowercase for everything else

Use lists

Break up long lists in sentence or paragraph form and present them as bullet points. This will make them easier to read and scan. Lists are preferable to long paragraphs because they:

  • Allow users to read the information vertically rather than horizontally
  • Are easier to scan
  • Are less intimidating
  • Are usually more succinct

Bullet lists

Bulleted lists are best for related items where the sequence is not important but the items are related and carry the same weight. Make sure that:

  • You always use a lead-in line
  • The bullets make sense running on from the lead-in line
  • You use uppercase at the start of the bullet
  • You don't put 'or', 'and' after the bullets
  • If you add links they appear within the text and not as the whole bullet

If one or more list entry is a full sentence all lines should receive a full stop If all are fragments, no punctuation is required.

Numbered lists

Numbered lists should be used when the sequence or numbering is important, like steps in a procedure or a top 10 list.

You don't need a lead-in line for numbered lists. 

Each step ends in a full stop because each step should be a complete sentence.

Definition list

Definition lists should be used for glossaries or explanatory lists. Instead of just a block-level <li> element, each list item can consist of both the <dt> and the <dd> elements.

The <dt> stands for "definition term," and like a dictionary, this is the term (or phrase) that is being defined.

The <dd> is the definition of the <dt>.

Optimise for search engines

Search engines and people are not so different. Both prefer original and well written content.

A webpage optimised for SEO has a clear focus. Keywords or phrases should be present in these elements of the page:

  • Page titles
  • Headings (<h1>, <h2>, and so on)
  • The first paragraphs of the page
  • Link text tells a search engine that the linked words are important
  • The alternate text for any images on the page. This helps your images appear in image search results such as Google Images and Yahoo! Images.

Keywords

The keywords you use in your content should match the terms your readers would use to find your information or services. What you're calling the need might not be what your users are calling it.

Use search tools like SEMrush, Google Trends, and Google Adwords to find the keywords that people are searching for in external search engines like Google. 

Use specific multi word phrases, rather than singular keywords.  

Positioning keywords at the beginning of sentences, headings and links makes skim reading more effective. Search engines also give more weight to keywords that appear early in titles, paragraph text, and linked text.

Links

Link text tells the search engine what the page being linked to is about. Write link text with the relevant terms and make them active and specific.

Links are the signposts that help users find their way around websites.

Place links in body copy

To search engines, these are more valuable than links in headers, lists or navigation.

Good link text describes the page that will load so the user can decide whether to click or not. Write the sentence as you normally would, and place the link anchor on the keyword or phrase that best describes the additional content you are linking to.

Bad link text, such as non-descriptive 'click here' links force the user to follow the link to learn its destination.

Calls to action

If you want your user to do something, tell them what you want them to do and make it as easy as possible for them to do it.

Example

Do
Find out how to Apply for a hall or village.

Don’t
More information about applying for halls.

When linking to a downloadable item

  • Specify the action, eg download
  • Cite the document title
  • Describe the file format eg PDF and size in kilobytes (KB) or megabytes (MB)
  • Identify the number of pages
  • Link the full phrase

Common file formats that may be used on the website include:

  • CSV -- Comma-separated values
  • DOC -- Microsoft Word document
  • XLS -- Microsoft Excel 
  • PDF -- Portable Document Format
  • PPT -- Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation