Writing for the web

These website writing tips will help you create engaging and accessible content for the web.

On

Talk to your audience

Who are your users? 

Think about what they are likely to want, rather than what you want to tell them. What will they be looking for? Where might they expect to find it?

Personas

Creating personas of your audience will help you understand why they visit your site, and what they need and are likely to search for.

For a department site, your main audience will be prospective and current students, so make sure your website caters to them and the language that they use. 

Use you, your, our and we

Speak to your audience like you’re having a conversation. Refer to them as ‘you’, ‘your’, and the University as ‘our’ and ‘we’).

Example: 

We'll help you understand the costs associated with studying at university and plan your budgets accordingly. (Living costs page)

Tone

We use an informal tone on the University website. It is friendly and engaging, and avoids jargon and complicated terminology.

Example:

Our Student Funding Calculator, Money Planner and Money Timeline will help you plan your finances and could make your money go further. (Living costs page)


Use plain English

Plain English is an inclusive style of writing for external audiences that uses short, clear sentences and everyday words without jargon. 

This is important when writing University content, as many of your visitors are international students, and may have learning difficulties. 

Higher literacy people also prefer plain English because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible.

Do not use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, and ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’.

Example:

Open a student bank account. Some give you a free Railcard, and most will give you an interest-free overdraft (which can be paid back at a later date). Shop around to find the best benefits to suit you. (Living costs page)

Plain English alternatives to frequently used words


Make your pages scannable

Visitors to your site have a particular task in mind and want to find information quickly. Help them by including headings, subheading, and links that relate to their objective. 

Format each page so content is clearly structured and broken up to aid skim-reading, with

  • a clear page structure
  • ‘on this page’ anchor links on longer pages with more than two headings
  • headings and subheadings to break up blocks of text, ensuring heading titles are short, contain keywords, and are formatted correctly
  • front-loaded sentences and short paragraphs
  • bullet points and numbered lists. 
  • embeddable cards (labelled Smart Cards in the CMS)
  • clear and descriptive links that make it obvious what happens when they are clicked on. 
  • features of the Editor, including block quotes and line breaks between headings

Guide to using lists

Examples:

You can read more about this topic on our Usability principles page.


Be concise and focused

Get your point across in as few words as possible. 

Avoid

  • unnecessary details such as marketing copy or corporate speak
  • redundant sentences that only reinforce the point you have just made 
  • sentences that add no value to the message
  • acronyms and jargon
  • adjectives, as they only bloat your copy
  • filler words such as “very”, “almost”, “seems”, “rather”, “generally”, “please”, “please note”, “in order to” 
  • any other words and phrases that aren’t necessary, eg: (end) result, plan (ahead), consensus (of opinion), free (of charge), the county of (Yorkshire).

Unnecessary words and phrases

Be ruthless - cut and cull 

When you edit a page, be ruthless and cut the copy that gets in the way of the facts and stops or slows you and the reader from getting to your respective objectives.


Write in inverted pyramids 

After the summary, start with the most important information first, followed by important details and then other background or general information.

This is effective with web copy where attention span is even less than newspapers.


Include a summary on every page

Many visitors will only read the first few words on a page before deciding whether they’re in the right place, so take the time to write a strong and descriptive summary. 

Example:

All you need to know about scholarships and tuition fees - plus online tools to help you work out your finances and look for additional funding sources. (International students fees and funding)

Screenshot of the international fees and funding page

Remember this summary, which has its own field in the CMS, also appears in search engine results under the page title, so include keywords.

Google screenshot illustrating page summary in search

Write short and direct sentences

Front load sentences, starting with the most important information and include keywords readers are looking for. 

Write in the active voice, which is direct and informal. This will help you write concise and clear content.

Examples:

  • active sentence: Students sit exams in January and June
  • passive sentence: Exams are taken by students in January and June

One sentence paragraphs 

Paragraphs on the web should be kept to one or two sentences. 

This may be shorter than you are used to when writing in other formats, but keeping paragraphs at this length will make it easier for your users to scan information and will reduce the strain of reading text from a screen.

Consider also how your page will look on mobile: the narrower screen width will mean there are fewer words on each line, which will make paragraphs appear longer.

Example:

The Restoration science and practice page from Groundwater Protection.


Search-friendly content

A carefully worded introduction on a page not only gives users an indication of what they'll find, but it also helps search engines (such as Google) pick up keywords to identify the subject matter for search results. Use your users’ language.

You can read more about this topic on our SEO web pages.


Consistency and accuracy

Follow this guidance and adhere to the University Editorial style guide to improve the consistency of your content.

Manage and monitor your website to ensure your content remains accurate:

  • Don't put lots of time-sensitive information on your pages if you do not have time to monitor and update regularly. Keep prompts or a diary to remind you when something needs removing or updating.  
  • Periodically review your site to remove outdated information and make further improvements. 

User testing

Conducting user testing can help you identify areas that need further change.

Get in touch

If you have CMS questions or are stuck then get in touch and we'll do our best to help.