I offer this for peer review. Please read the note at the end for more information. Feel free to offer your feedback however you receive this, Facebook, Twitter, or on this blog.

Writing for the Web Section 1

Readers read very little of the text in Web pages or E-mails we produce[1]. It is important to write for the medium effectively. Usability studies always produce the same conclusions: users scan titles, avoid gaudy sites, will get frustrated and leave within seconds if they can’t quickly find what they want. The Web is big, visitors have over a billion web pages to read and consume before they die, they don’t want to waste time on yours. They want information, not fluff. They don’t care about your insights or long winded arguments about why something is relevant.

While this document strives to quickly go over the aspects of writing for the Web (which for the purpose of discussion here includes Web pages, E-mail and interactive media) it is interesting to note that the document itself will be quickly glanced at more times than actually read from end to end.

It should also be noted, that many of the references I give are to Jakob Nielsen and link to articles of the last (20th) century. Though dated, they are dated by publish date only, and not in relevance. He, and others in the usability community, have proven time and time again, the design principles discovered in the late 1990s still hold true.[2] I recommend searching the Alertbox.com Web site for additional reading.

The Web editor mentioned in this document is the person or persons in charge of making sure the Web site, blog, and other media, closely follow industry standard guidelines for creating Web content. For the [departments this doc was created for] this has been the department’s technology specialist. The job of editor also extends to those staff members who post things directly to the Web including blogs and events. It is very important to remain consistent in formatting and presentation so that the content looks professional and delivers a proper image of the university.

Titles and Headlines

General Rule: Important words should go first to grab the attention of the visitor.

As an example, think of the following three titles for an event:

Bad: Mayo Clinic Info Sessions

Better: Mayo Clinic Career Paths

Best: Business Career paths at Mayo Clinic

The first title doesn’t explain what type of information sessions are available. Medical procedures?

The second mentions career paths, but to the general public the leading words “Mayo Clinic” brings up thoughts of medical careers. The majority of the [university] audience would be scared away. Plus, since medical careers aren’t discussed at the info session, those in the health sciences would find it irrelevant.

The third title for the event entices the business student body into reading further. Not just the sentences that follow the title but, yes, the title itself. The first few key words in a title are important.[3]

Also, avoid teasers, leading articles (“a” or “the”) and keep it short[4].


[1] Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, May 6, 2008: How Little Do Users Read? http://www.useit.com/alertbox/percent-text-read.html

[2] Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, June 11, 2007: Change vs. Stability in Web Usability Guidelines http://www.useit.com/alertbox/guidelines-change.html

[3] Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, April 27, 2009: World’s Best Headlines: BBC News http://www.useit.com/alertbox/headlines-bbc.html

[4] Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox for September 6, 1998: Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines http://www.useit.com/alertbox/980906.html


Please note: This is a living document about to be released from its first draft. Even after the first version is complete, it will evolve as I discover new studies/resources and receive feedback. I am placing it on the Web for any comments, questions, or feedback. Though it is written for the staff of a private college career and counseling center there are many points that may be useful for the community at large. Contact me, post comments, agree or disagree. I just ask for feedback and hope we can benefit from this peer review together.  I will add comments to this post or post newer updates under the tag: “Writing for the Web”

About Chad Leigh Kluck

I enjoy technology development and management by following new trends, change and disruption, and security. I have a Master of Science in Software Engineering and my hobbies include railroads, history, do-it-yourself projects, writing, and ham radio (K0RRX). More...

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