How to write effective web copy

Applies to: T4 Site Manager, Plone, Zope
Last updated: 23/10/2014
Summary: An overview of writing copy specifically for web pages.

Before you start

Major differences between print and web copy:

  • Print is static and rigid whereas the web is dynamic and flexible:
    Websites can be accessed on many devices (eg laptop, phone, etc) and browsing software (people with visual impairments may use a screen reader), all with different sizes and resolutions.
  • Web users scan a page rather than read in detail:
    They jump to headings, sub-headings and links, looking for keywords. Web users tend to read a page in an ‘F’ shape, scanning quickly down the left side of the content and then across a line when they see a keyword.
  • Web users are constantly on the move:
    They are impatient, intolerant and critical. If they don't see something that grabs their attention within seconds they will look elsewhere.

Step one: plan

Plan what you are going to write:

  1. Key messages: What is your key message? What are you trying to achieve?
  2. Goals: What is its purpose/goal? Eg to inform, to promote, to educate, to persuade, to inspire, etc.
  3. Audience: Who is the target audience? Think of them in terms of age, language ability, level of education, level of expertise on the topic, etc.
  4. User needs: Why is the target audience visiting the web page? What information will they be looking for? Tip: Try to think as a member of your target audience and list the questions they need answers to. Write these questions as headings and under each make a note of the points that need to be covered.

Step two: writing

Writing tips:

  • Cut the fluff: write for your target audience not for yourself (or anyone else who is not your target reader). Usually, web content should have half the word count of its printed equivalent.
  • Put the most important content at the top of the web page. Explanations and ‘preamble’ (if needed at all) can come after.
  • Use headings and sub-headings. Put keywords as close to the start of a heading as possible (remember: users tend to scan down the left side of the content).
  • Use lists.
  • Use clear and simple language:
    • address your reader as ‘you’ and refer to your organisation as ‘we’;
    • keep sentences short;
    • write in the active form, eg ‘We did the research so that...’ instead of ‘The research was done by us so that...’;
    • avoid slang or jargon.
  • Keep paragraphs short, with just one idea per paragraph.
  • Check the spelling, grammar and consistency of your web pages: use the University house style.