What Makes Web Site Writing Effective?

Jerry Lawson is a lawyer and author of The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA LPMS 1999). Mr. Lawson operates the Internet Tools for Lawyers Web site.

Brenda Howard is the owner of CreativeWriting.com, LLC, a Web design firm in the Metro DC area. Ms. Howard is also a Corporate Software Trainer specializing in the Internet.

Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site.

Link to LLRX.com Marketing Resource Center for all previous issues of the Internet Roundtable


Killan, Writing for the Web, Part 2, A List Apart,
Companion piece to Zeldman’s article includes good practical tips.

Krug, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (New Riders 2000). Useful short guide to many usability issues.

Microsoft’s Core Fonts
Free fonts designed to work well in online use.

Nielsen, Writing for the Web,
Excellent collection of links to resources, compiled by Web usability guru.

Nielsen, Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web),
Jakob Nielsen’s March 15, 1997 Alertbox column has good ideas.

Titta, Writing Well for the Web, Webreference.com,
Good collection of useful tips.

Zeldman, Writing for the Web, A List Apart,
Good discussion of unique issues for Web writers.

Brenda Howard (BH): The World Wide Web is a unique medium, and writing for the Web differs from writing for other media.

Jerry Lawson (JL) : Definitely. Studies show Web audiences don’t read. They scan. They skim, looking for hypertext links. Different techniques are needed

Dennis Kennedy (DK): I think Jerry means that Web audiences scan first in order to find what they will read in more detail. It might be better to say that Web audiences attempt to take greater control over how they obtain information than do print readers. They believe, and this is a difficult thing for authors to accept, that the author’s path to presenting information may not be the best path. On the Web, people tend to be looking for very specific information and are impatient to get right to the point. You won’t often find people who are able to pay attention to a whole elaborate article while scrolling through it looking for a specific point.

JL: Right. It’s not just the Internet, either. Other media have demonstrated the same reduced attention spans. The average shot in movies or television shows is shorter than it was 50, or even 20 years ago—the “MTV Generation,” right? The Internet just takes the trend toward short attention spans to a higher level. Your point about readers seeking to take more control is definitely true. Web users get spoiled by web sites that make it easier for them to find what they want, and read only what they want.

DK: I’m sorry, Jerry, what did you just say? I’m not convinced, by the way, that shorter attention spans are always a bad thing. In the movies, I’d rather see a jump cut than watch a character walk down a hallway or drive a car from point A to Point B, which always seems to happen in movies made in the 1960s. Our brains now are able to interpret these gaps pretty well. I may be in the minority, but I believe that we are becoming more active readers or watchers. However, the display of information on the Web has always caused some problems for many readers.

BH: One of the reasons is that it’s harder to read text on computer screens. The resolution is a lot lower. It’s common for people who want to read documents longer than a few pages to print them out on paper.

JL: Good point. If you have longer documents at your site, consider giving visitors the option to download a version in PDF (Portable Document Format), which will typically look better when printed out than the average HTML document. Alternatively, if you are using database-generated pages, you can provide the option to print out a page that is formatted for paper printouts, as they do on sites like NYTimes.com and Salon.com.

DK: One of the best trends over the last year or so is a move toward creating “printer-friendly” versions of articles. A common behavior on the Web is simply to “harvest” materials for later reading. You make a decision that an article is worth reading and then print it out to read at a more convenient time. You are both “time-shifting” as you do with a VCR to record and watch a show at a more convenient time and “media-shifting” to move the information to a paper format that’s preferable in your favorite chair at home. Web sites that recognize and cater to this phenomenon do well. There’s really nothing worse than a “web-formatted” long article broken into 6 or 8 separate parts where you can’t print out the whole article to read later without going to and printing out each separate page.

BH : A good place to start with your Web writing is to make your online text easy to read. There are usability studies that suggest that Arial is easier to read than Times New Roman because the eyes do not have to read all the curls that are on the edges of a Times New Roman font.

JL: This relates less to writing, and more to favorable display of what you have written, but the topic Brenda raises is fascinating. Paradoxically, Times Roman and similar serif fonts are considered much easier to read large for blocks of text in well-produced paper publications. However, the curls Brenda talking about (“serifs”) hurt instead of help in online publications like web pages, because the resolution of computer monitors is so much lower. The serifs don’t reproduce will on screen.

BH: Studies show that a person can read 30% more online with a sans serif font like Arial. If you go out to the most visited Web sites each month, you’ll find that many of them have changed to Arial for this reason. Another font that is easier to read on the Web is Verdana. I don’t see as many sites using Verdana as Arial, but it’s another one that won’t tire a user’s eyes as fast as other fonts that are available.

LP: Verdana is another “sans serif” font, which means it too has none of the decorative curls at the ends of letters. Verdana is one of a group of “web fonts” that Microsoft has designated for online use, and makes available free.

BH: I’ll just note that one of the crankiest e-mails I’ve ever gotten about my site took me to task for using Arial as a font for text in the body of an article.

JL: The complainer was probably relying on what he had been taught years ago about typography for paper publications, where the standard rule of thumb was to use serif fonts for blocks of text, and sans serif like Arial only in headings.

DK: I tend to rely on the fact that readers can adjust font size, among other things, in their browser settings. If having specific fonts and layouts matter, PDF is the way to go. Ultimately, though, it’s what you say and not how you say it. Isn’t our best strategy trying to say more with less?

JL: A key way to play to the “scan, don’t read” behavior is to limit the amount of text. One of Steve Krug’s “Laws of Usability” is “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.” Brenda, what do you think?

BH: It’s definitely true. Our society is inundated with information and can’t possible consume all of it. Only 25% of Internet visitors are interested in how the watch is built, the other 75% just want to know if you have them and how much they cost. Start with a list of your services, let the user click to more information, give them general information and then another link to the detail. Only one-quarter of the visitors will click the third link, but you do have to provide the whole story – for those that have the time to read it.

DK: Krug’s point can be made for all types of writing. Web audiences tend to react negatively to text-dense pages with long paragraphs and no headings. You need to think carefully about what is necessary to say and then how it will display on a computer screen. Using frequent short paragraphs is one of my standard approaches. That’s common in newspapers and magazines as well these days.

JL : Another way to play to the “scan, don’t read” audience is by heavy use of headings. It’s another way of breaking up large blocks of text and giving readers the option as to whether to read a block of text or skim it. What is the best way to handle headings?

BH: There are three ways to insert headings: using HTML tags (H1, H2 and so on), using ordinary text with Font tags to make it look different, and inserting graphics. The latter two techniques can produce a better appearance, but at a cost: reduction in the page’s attractiveness to search engines. Some search engine algorithms give a page a higher score if key phrases appear as headings instead of ordinary text modified with the Font attribute

DK : I like to think of headings as “headlines.” Use catchy, descriptive and memorable headlines rather than simple declaratory headlines. Compare a heading like “Loose Lips Sink Security Ships” to “Security Issues.” Numbered headings are useful and people really like “Five Things You Need to Know About . . .” articles. The numbered headings make for useful navigation as well. I agree with Brenda, though, that ideally you’ll want to use the HTML heading tags. Numbered or bulleted lists can also be an effective way to let people scan information.

JL: Usability expert Jakob Nielsen recommends using bulleted lists and highlighting key words by putting them into bold or a color font. What do you think?

BH: I agree with using bullets, but do have one exception on color. If your site must meet Section 508 Handicap Accessibility Guidelines, and all government sites do, you cannot use color to provide emphasis. Some people are not able to “see” the color on their translation software programs. In these cases, categorization of your information becomes extremely important. Make sure that the emphasized words are their own heading or category – assuming they are the most important.

JL: Good point. We should probably devote one month’s column to accessibility issues.

DK: Another caution about color is to be careful about how a text color interacts with a background color. Some combinations can be nearly illegible. To echo Brenda’s point, some sites inadvertently use color combinations that are the same ones used to test color-blindness. The result is something that certain people can’t even see. You need to keep thinking about what people will actually see on their screens, especially since people are now using all kinds of different displays and devices.

JL : Another way to make your pages more attractive is to reduce the need to scroll. Try to fit what you have to say onto one screen whenever possible. Take advantage of hypertext to include related ideas on linked pages.

BH: This is an excellent point Jerry. Market research shows us that users do not like to scroll down more than 3-pagedown keys on their keyboard. Keeping text to one screen isn’t easy, but users prefer it. Dennis, what are your thoughts on the optimal use of the screen “real estate”?

DK: In my writing, I try to avoid having paragraphs that take up a whole screen. As a viewer, I’ll scroll down if I see that I’m moving into new sections or have some sense of where I’m going. In other words, if I know what to expect. However, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t like the idea of carving articles up into many different one-screen pages and linking them with a “next” button. That was an early idea of “writing for the web” that I don’t think quite works. Setting up pages where text runs off the right edge of the screen is another problem. There are quite a few things that go wrong even in the simple action of displaying a standard Web page.

JL: One of the craziest things I’ve seen is putting text on a Web page inside a box with a vertical scroll bar. If the text were simply put on the page with no box, the user would not need to scroll, but for some reason the designer apparently wanted to make users suffer. Users hate unnecessary scrolling. Please don’t do this!

BH: I agree. This is created by the designer’s inability to not use frames when creating a Web site. In addition to being bad for users, it also hurts that sites rankings in the search engines. The search engines cannot “crawl” through the text in the center box and the content doesn’t get indexed. Designers do it to use a template on all the site’s pages – they only have to design one Web page. However, it’s a cop out. Use the template features in FrontPage 2000 or Macromedia’s DreamWeaver – or create a custom template. It accomplishes the same thing, without having to rely on frames.

DK: Again, think about how people will actually use the page. Take the example of a long article. Generally, I come to an article from a link, a summary or a search engine description. I’m looking for certain information and believe the article may have that information. I’ll want to run through that article to see if it does have the information I want. If it does, that might be all that I need from the article. If the article is interesting and long, I’ll print it. I don’t, however, want to scroll down aimlessly. Heading, navigation, summaries and tables of contents all can be useful tools for a longer article much more so than the little scrolling bars Jerry described.

BH: What else should be avoided when writing for a Web audience?

JL: Because of the audience’s short attention span, I believe Web page writers should be very thoughtful about when they insert hypertext links. A classic example is a lawyer’s bio page that turns the name of her alma mater into a hypertext link. This adds no value to the law firm. It is just an invitation for visitors to leave your site. “Think before you link.”

DK: Some of this is a residual effect of the early days of “surfing” the Web, when you’d follow links wherever they’d lead. I agree with Jerry that you want to be very purposeful when you add links.

BH: Links really should be reserved for navigation through your own site’s content and not to some one else’s site. If you have to link to an outside resource, make sure that you use the HTML code that opens a new window so that your site remains open in the first window of their browser. When they finish reading the content and click the close button, your site is still there waiting for them.

JL: That’s not to say there are never any good uses for hypertext links. For example, you can use them to build credibility by linking a quote to its source.

DK: Excellent point. If you have an article that was already published elsewhere, it can add to your credibility by adding a link to the publication when you mention where the article was previously published. That kind of linking is also a good courtesy to show to the people who publish your articles.

JL: Another reason to link outside of your site is if your budget prevents you from recreating the content yourself. If you know if would benefit your visitor, but it would cost too much to create your own version – go ahead and link.

DK: My main warning to people is to resist the urge to put articles and other information up on your Web page in exactly the same way that they appeared in print. Sometimes that will work, but you really want to take a look at how the article looks on the screen. My other warning is not to make your key points too hard to find. Some experts suggest dealing with the latter issue by “chunking” information on your page – that is, breaking up related information into usable “chunks.” This approach works well in some cases, but it does not work every time.

BH: How would you sum up this topic?

LP: One goal of a writer/designer should be to give the reader the option to read less, but still find the information desired. Remember that the visitor is in control, and cater to them.

DK: Excellent point. Realize that readers expect a degree of control that simply is not present in print media. Keep it short, use headings, navigation and usability techniques that enhance the level of visitor control and you’ll do quite well. You’ll also find that your writing style will then naturally begin to adapt to the Web style.

Posted in: Internet Roundtable, Web Management, Writing Skills