Tips for Writing for the Web

By Mindy McAdams
University of Florida

Text Formatting

Short Paragraphs > A 100-word paragraph looks pretty long on a Web page. Long paragraphs send a signal to the reader: This will require effort. The writer expected you to have a lot of spare time. Sit down and read awhile. Short paragraphs send a different message: I'm easy! This won't take long at all! Read me!

Chunks > Size does matter.

Headings > The heading at the top of the page should make absolutely clear what the page contains or concerns. The text under the heading must not repeat the heading information (see redundancy, below right).

Subheadings > If the page text exceeds 300 words, subheadings will help the reader scan the page efficiently and happily.

Boldface > Depending on the content, words or phrases in boldface can help readers find what they want. Combining boldface and subheadings could lead to visual noise, so do not overdo it. Combining links and boldface text in the same paragraph could have the same unsightly result.

Lists > Numbered, bulleted or other indented lists help the reader make sense of the information on the page. In many print contexts, lists would look ugly and thus are not used. On Web pages, lists work well in almost all contexts. Like paragraphs, lists appeal more to the reader when they are short.

Text Content

Brevity > Write tight. Omit all unnecessary words.*

Sentence Structure > Be straightforward. While a meandering introductory clause may seem like a good idea to you, the reader might stop reading -- before she gets to the heart of your sentence.

Active Verbs > It is easy to write with passive verbs (am, is, are, has, have). Using active verbs makes the writer work harder -- but the reader benefits. The writer also benefits, because the reader stays interested. Passive verbs bore readers. Bored readers leave.

Say What You Mean > Try saying it out loud before you write it. We tend to speak more directly than we write. We get to the point more quickly, too, when we can see the listener's eyes glazing over.

Redundancy > Reading the same information twice wastes a person's time.

* The classic source of this advice: The Elements of Style, 1918. See Item 13, "Omit needless words."


What They Say > Link text should not break any of the rules given for text (at left). A link must give the reader a reasonable expectation of what she will get when she clicks. Linked phrases such as "click here" or "Web page" do not provide helpful information.

What They Do > A link that does not open something or take the user to a new Web page seems to be a broken link. When the link will take the user to a different place on the same page, or open a media player, give the user a cue.

How They Look > A long phrase (more than about five words) can be hard to read, or just ugly, when underlined and/or in a highlight color. Links that are not underlined and do not appear in a different color from the surrounding text are almost impossible for the users to see.

Related Sites

Online Journalism: Examples and production links.

Online Media Types: A grid to help you think about the different ways we tell stories online.

Interactivity: A list of references relevant to mass communication and media studies.

Scholarship: A short, current reference list of journal articles about online journalism.