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Writing for the Web

  • Write clear, simple and effective content. The content of your site should be easy to read for everyone, preferably in a conversational style.
  • Front-load your text. Put the most important content on your page in the first paragraph, so that readers scanning your pages will not miss your main idea.
  • Chunk your content. Cover only one topic per paragraph.
  • Be concise. Write short paragraphs and minimize unnecessary words.
  • Write in active voice instead of passive voice. (Ex: ‘Tim taught the class’, instead of ‘the class was taught by Tim’.)
  • Choose lists over paragraphs. When possible use lists rather than paragraphs to make your content easier to scan.

Length

Limit page length. Web readers don't mind scrolling, but you shouldn't make it a mile long!

Be Brief and Direct...

Writing content for the internet is not the same as writing it for a print publication. If you have a print document that you want to bring to the web remember this very simple rule: a page on the web should be half the length of a similar print document. 300-700 words is a reasonable average length for any online content.

What do you do if you have more than 700 words? It's simple. You need to look at the architecture of that content and break it down into sections, leading people to specific portions of the text as much as possible. Its your job as a web author to guide your site viewers to the content you want them to consume.

Content should not scroll longer than three full-page lengths, based on a monitor set to 1,024 x 768 resolution with the default font setting on browsers.

... But Not Too Brief

A page should have at the very least one paragraph of content.

  • Create independent content.
  • Create headlines and copy that stand on their own.
  • Site viewers tend to move through a Web site in a non-linear, unpredictable manner, making web pages more like newspapers than books.
  • Topics and sections in Web sites are not necessarily intended to be sequential. As such, it’s best to create content for each page that is not dependent on other sections. Site viewers can enter a site from any page, and move between pages as they choose. Related links can help to guide the reader to background or explanatory information.
  • Don’t assume that the reader has already scanned information on the prior page, or even the home page.

Tone

Online readers expect a personal, upbeat tone in web writing. They find bureaucratic writing so offensive and out-of-place that they simply ignore the message it's trying to convey. To avoid bureaucratic language, turn the tone down a notch. Search out and destroy jargon.

Write in the active voice (We will customize the curriculum for your company.) rather than the passive voice (The curriculum will be customized for your company.) Active voice, which emphasizes the "doer" of the action, is naturally less bureaucratic.

Scanability

Understanding that people read web pages differently than other media is key to writing and laying out content that will promote your relevant topics.

Think about reading a web page like reading a newspaper. When you pick up a newspaper, you don't start with the first word and read all the way to the bottom of the page like you would with a book, do you? Of course not.

You scan the front page for headlines that stand out, stopping on the ones that seem interesting and then you read through the related article. Or you see a headline for a story on Page 2 or another section entirely and turn the page to view that story immediately.

People approach websites the same way. No matter what page they enter on, they scan the page for something that will keep their interest. Headlines, bullet items, text formatting and clear navigation all help the scanability of your page. If they came looking for something specific, they are immediately on the lookout for more information about that topic of interest.

  • Make sure all main pages are easily scanable.
  • Keep your visitors' interest by making your headlines and navigation items obvious and relevant.
  • Use appropriate text formatting, such as bolding and italics to draw the eye to important points.
  • Don’t hide your links to other content by changing the color or removing the underline.
  • These cues help visitors quickly find what they are looking for.

Links

Write clear links. Don't create links that use the phrase 'click here.' Write the sentence as you normally would, and place the link anchor on the word or words that best describe the additional content you are linking to. Between one and five words is the ideal length for an effective hypertext link.

Use this worksheet to aid in your content creation process. Must have NYU NetID to access.


Search Engine Optimized Writing

In order to achieve maximum search engine visibility, you need to think like a search engine when writing.

Search engines look at the HTML code that makes up your web page and attempt to parse out the text on the page, eliminating the HTML markup used for layout. The text goes into the search engine's database.

When a site viewer conducts a search on the search engine, the database is queried to identify all the pages that include those words on the page and/or in the links pointing to that page. So if your page does not include the words the site viewer was searching for, it is unlikely that your page will rank well, if at all. The same holds true when none of the links to that page include the words that the site viewer searched for in the link text (the clickable text that forms the link).

Once pages have been identified, search engines order the results according to relevance. Relevance can be determined based on dozens and dozens of criteria, such as keyword prominence (how often your keywords appear on a page, and where they appear).

Editorial Standards

(ex. "website" and "email")

The University uses the Chicago Manual of Style as its editorial guide.

Cultural Sensitivities

(language, colloquialisms, acronyms, etc.)

New York University is a global network university with portal campuses and academic centers all over the world. Be mindful when writing that your audience is to address to the inside, knowing the outside is viewing. Prospective students do not want to read marketing spin, and they consistently ignore content specifically aimed at them. Instead, they seek content that is addressed at our current students in the hopes they find out "what it’s really like." Thus, we endeavor to put our best content forward to our current students, knowing that there is a dual aim of prospectives also viewing it.

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