One of the techie listservs

by francine Hardaway on January 9, 2003

One of the techie listservs I’m on recently asked for opinions on what constitutes good writing for the Web. Jakob Nielsen, the author of the famous usability index (, is the guru on the subject of site friendliness in general, and his site gives good pointers. Nielsen has made a business of consulting on how to improve web sites, but he doesn’t talk much about writing, which is a major component of most sites. So here I go, leaping into the void.

Writing for the Web

Writing is writing, whether for the Web or for the world. I’m a writer. Most writing principles that apply to print also apply to the Web, although they’re often ignored by site designers and developers. I have a Ph.D in English, have taught old style English composition (although not for a while) and write for the web on an almost daily basis (,, so this ignorance tends to jump out at me.

When Nielsen talks, he is talking about usability, which is ease of reading with your eyeballs. ( font size, scrolling, white space, etc.) That’s one issue, and– by the way– most of his rules for * that* apply to print as well.

But people who rely in Nielsen often forget that Web copy also has to do with ease of reading with your mind. From that perspective, all writing rules for print really do apply to the Web.

Here’s the deal about writing:
The analogue to the Hippocratic Oath for writers is, “First consider your audience.” Who is the audience?
Next, what’s your purpose? What do you want to say to that audience, and what would you like them to do? For example, in my blog, I want people to read to the end, so I am often amusing and I save the best for last. In this piece, I wanted you to read on and not dismiss me, so I began by positioning myself as an authority. But in an ad, you want someone to rush out to the store, so you immediately *tell* them to do so.

Unfortunately, many web sites are written with the purpose “we need a site.” If you want to sell something so someone, you need to think about what *they* need. This doesn’t make for good writing, because –in most cases– the reader does *not* need your site. Medical information and recipes are exceptions to this. If a read has a real need, he/she will read almost anything.

After you have figured out who your audience is, and what you want to say to it, and what result you want, the next issue becomes organization. Many people overlook that in Web copy, but organization is important: do I save the best for last, or do I lead with it? In a press release, for instance, you lead with the most important stuff and work your way down to the least important. That’s because most news articles are cut from the bottom up when an editor is in a hurry. But Web copy isn’t always like that. Last, there are some obvious tactics to employ in your writing.
1)Use good grammar
2)Use short sentences
3)Use your
spell checker
4)Use active verbs
5)Avoid cliches
6)Avoid excessive use of
7) Use examples

I’ve tried to embody most of those in this piece.

For those of you who want to go further, There’s a Fry’s readability graph at

There’s a paper on readability at

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: