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Writing for the Web

According to studies, reading from computer screens can be more than 25 percent slower than reading from paper. Plus many users are reading on smartphones and don't want to scroll too much. As a result, experts recommend writing 50 percent less text onscreen than you might for a printed piece.

In addition, college applicants make snap decisions based on an institution's Web site, and make those decisions in just seconds -- which again argues for brief, user-centered and Web-savvy copy.

Cardinal Rule #1: Get to the point. Be brief, be direct and be interesting. As noted above, users don't have much time for you to beat around the bush.

Cardinal Rule #2: If the opposite is ridiculous, why say it? Web writing teacher Mary Beth Kurilko argues that everybody expects colleges to be filled with bright students and caring faculty. Giving too much space and attention to such platitudes -- instead of what makes your college or program the right fit -- seems silly when you realize no college is going to tout "dull students and uncaring professors." Also, if you read web copy that makes you want to say "duh!" then it's probably not necessary.

Cardinal Rule #3: It's not about you. It's about the user. When communicating on the web, the user should be your focus. Speak to them as if having a conversation and feel free to use "you." Of course you should discuss what makes the college, your department or your program interesting, but think about why a potential student or client would find it interesting. We have yet to find anyone who has chosen a college or major because of a mission statement, so please don't lead with it. Ever.

Cardinal Rule #4: Let there be action! Ultimately think of actions you want your user to take, whether applying, registering or donating. Highlight what they can do, and do whatever you can to make it easy for them to do it.

Other and related web writing suggestions, mostly courtesy of our friends at mStoner:

  • Be succinct. If there's a shorter, simpler way to say something, do it that way.
  • Respect your interface.  The interface that you're working with may allow as few as 150 words of text before "the fold" on a monitor -- much less on a smartphone. The gist of the page and the most important links should be apparent without minimal (if any) scrolling.
  • Keep paragraphs short and the eye-swing narrow. This-especially if paragraphs have topic sentences-speeds scanning and alleviates fatigue.
  • Make copy "scannable." Bulleted lists, contextual hyperlinks (links imbedded in blocks of text), and identifiable subsections bolster scanning of copy onscreen.
  • The name of a link should always match the name of the page it links to. Click on "Admissions" and you should get to a page named "Admissions," not "Getting In" or "Forms & Applications." There is more latitude with hyperlinks, but the relevance between the name of the hyperlink and the page it links to should be readily apparent. (Otherwise, visitors get irritated.)
  • Use common nomenclature. A clever, but somewhat obscure, link name can cause frustration and confusion. These should be used only on minor links (links not on the main grid).
  • Hyperlinks should be phrased. By that, the gurus mean that a hyperlink should be more than one word. "International graduate students should apply early." The reason: It's easier to spot a phrase than a single word.
  • Create "levels of information." The most general level is on the top of the hierarchy: It answers the most basic questions. The most detailed information is at the bottom of the hierarchy. This hierarchy speeds reading: Users looking for the gist get it right away; users looking for details click downward, through links or hyperlinks. This structure allows for great Web-like structures of information that reverberate with connections and ideas.
  • Guard against irrelevant hyperlinking. Just because you use a word that is the name of another page on your site doesn't mean that it's relevant. Be sure to check the content of the linked page to ensure that it is relevant and will help the reader.
  • Avoid Web clichés. Early on, when the web was young and we were all a bit unsure of whether people would "get it," we created a lot of unnecessary directions, introductions, and other embarrassing stuff that young users find cliché. These include:
    • Welcome to the Benneton College Weaving Department Web Page. This suggests that Web pages aren't an everyday communication tool, such as a brochure or newspaper is. ("Welcome to the New York Times front page..." See the problem?)
    • Click here to find out more! The hyperlink should be imbedded in the text-young people know what a contextual link is and what it will do without being told to click. Frequently, we develop short paragraphs, which end with the word "more ..." or, if necessary, "more about what students say about Oswego"
    • On this Web page you will find... The only time you'll need to explicitly state what is on the page is when the content is lengthy and dense.
  • Use anchors. When you have tons of weighty stuff that belongs together on a single page (three academic calendars, for instance), create internal links so that the reader can scan the list of internal clinks (called anchors), and then jump to the section of the page that's of interest, rather than scrolling in a blind search.
  • Remember you're in a nonlinear medium.  More than half our visitors reach via search engines, which means entering visitors may need some context. But at the same time, you don't need to restate everything on every page.
  • Use a style sheet. Some institutions use a modified Chicago Manual of Style. We use Associated Press (AP) style, because AP's book is much easier to use, even though the style can be quirky and outdated. Typically we recommend these and other modifications to AP style:
    • Recommended names for the college are SUNY Oswego andOswego State (the latter favored particularly by the athletics department). Calling the college just Oswego as shorthand is OK in a Web context. We are NOT Oswego State University, Oswego State College, Oswego College, Oswego University or The University of Oswego, among other misnomers.
    • Use easy-to-identify times like "noon" and "midnight" instead of "12 a.m." and "12 p.m." The latter two phrases are confusing, as not everyone agrees which is which, with the former are universally understood.  Shorter is usually better ... i.e. "7 p.m. April 2" instead of "7:00 p.m. April 2nd," "$7" instead of "$7.00," etc.
    • Don't use underlining in your web copy, since some users may think they are links and be frustrated when they don't work as such.