Why We Write Differently on the Web

The hard truth for those of us who create content for websites is that users will never actually read most of it. 

Research shows users consume about 20 percent of the text on an average webpage. More often, they’re skimming to quickly find the information they need.

This statistic isn’t meant to discourage. Instead, it reinforces why it’s important to take the time to get content right. 

What does it mean to get content right? To borrow from plainlanguage.gov, getting content right means users are able to: 

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find 
  • Use what they find to meet their needs

To get there, we need to create content that’s: 

  • Useful
  • User-centered
  • Clear
  • Consistent
  • Concise

That’s why we’re working to create writing guidelines for Harvard Library's new website that will give content creators across the library the tools they need to create consistently welcoming and useful digital content. 

Below is a taste of those guidelines. We didn’t make these up ourselves. They’re borrowed or inspired by some of the biggest and most respected organizations out there (including Harvard itself -- and others like MailChimp, 18F, plainlanguage.gov, the city of Boston, and the U.K. government.)

These guidelines are all seen as best practice. They’re a great starting point for anyone who's looking to write better web copy. And they're already driving the decisions we make as we update content for our new website. 

Write for the user first

Before you start writing, ask yourself:

  • Who is going to read this content?
  • What do they need to know? 
  • What are they trying to do? 
  • How might they be feeling? 

Put yourself in their shoes and write in a way that suits the situation. 

Remember: You’re the expert, not your users. 

Use plain language

Using words people easily understand makes our content more useful and welcoming.

Try to write for the person with the least amount of knowledge of the topic. It’s not dumbing down your content. It can actually be harder to to make information simple and easy to understand. The truth is: even experts or people with more education prefer plain language.

  • Avoid jargon or acronyms. They’re often vague or unfamiliar to users and can lead to misinterpretation. When unavoidable, try adding a simple explanation with the term the first time you use it.
  • Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Plainlanguage.gov has a great list of word alternatives. 
  • Be human. Imagine your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-on-one, with the authority of someone who can help. 

Be concise 

Specific and informative content = understandable and relevant content. 

  • Put the most important information up top. That’s the section users are most likely to read.
  • Keep your paragraphs short and your sentences shorter. It will make your content easier to skim and less intimidating. Paragraphs should top out around 3 to 8 sentences. Ideal sentence length is around 15 to 20 words.
  • Choose clarity over cleverness. Say what you mean and avoid using figurative language, which can make your content more difficult to understand.

Break up your content 

Large paragraphs of text can lose readers. Using subheads and bullet points can help provide clear narrative structure for readers, particularly those in a hurry.

  • Add useful headings to help people scan the page
  • Use bulleted lists to break up the text when appropriate. 
  • Write short sentences and short sections to break up information into manageable chunks

There are tons of tools available online to help you accomplish the goals outlined above and test your content for readability. Two great ones to start with: readable.io and the Hemingway App

Once we finalize our writing guidelines we'll post them in full.