Writing For The Web

by Toby Ward — Your computer screen is a far different medium than printed- paper. As such, we read web pages in a different way than we do a newspaper or other paper document.
Rather than reading every word, people tend to scan web pages. A recent study by the Nielsen Norman Group found that “79 percent of test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.”

Users also read information displayed on screens 25% slower than they read paper-based documents Consequently, information on web pages should be condensed by 50% of their print counterparts.

While there are many things to keep in mind, for most web writers, usually corporate and marketing communicators, there are three areas in particular that deserve attention:
  1. Style & Format
      • Writing style
      • Page elements
      • Format
  1. News & Features
      • ­Criteria for news
      • Types of news
      • What isn’t news
      • Formatting news
      • Feature stories
  1. Standards & Technical Requirements
      • Legal and Accountability Standards
      • Graphic and Technical Standards
      • Content Origination and Hosting
      • Taxonomy

1. Style & Format

When writing for the web you need to take into account the fact that not every word you write will be read – users scan information and they want information that is clear and concise. This means you’ll need to edit and organize your information.
Users read screens 25% slower than paper so information on web pages should be condensed by 50%.
An editorial policy is highly recommended so that all content authors can be consistent. Authors also need to maintain credibility by quoting sources and recording published dates.

More than the printed page, web pages need to be designed to be scanned quickly, with frequent rest stops for the eye – after all, you want to ensure people read what you’ve taken the trouble to write.

Writing style

  • Be succinct: text should be limited to 50% of the words you would write in print
  • Writing should follow the ‘inverted pyramid format’ with the most important content at the beginning
  • Use simple sentences and limit the use of metaphors
  • Use humor with caution
  • Correct spelling and grammar is a must
  • Plain English/French must be used when creating links, headings, site names, and forms
  • Task or scenario-based content should be used instead of organization jargon. (e.g. "Order a computer" instead of “CompuDesk”)
  • Avoid jargon

Page elements

  • All pages must include the writer/owner’s name (as an active email link at the bottom), accompanied by their company/department name
  • Each item should include the date at the top
  • Links to other pages should be referred to by name (do not use just the URL or "More")
  • Each page must have titles for proper indexing and bookmarking


  • Content should be left justified, except for callouts
  • Paragraphs should be separated by single spaces
  • Avoid long, continuous blocks of text and encourage scanning by breaking up text using short paragraphs, sub-headings, bullets, and call-outs
  • Headlines and listings should be limited to 75 characters including spaces
  • Sentences must be ‘tight’ and limited to 20 to 40 words per sentence (though complex topics may demand more)
  • Explain acronyms – always write out the proper name when it first appears with the acronym in brackets
  • Limit scrolling on a home page or section page – content should not run more than one or two screens
  • All pages must adhere to a Style Guide for using the company logo, etc.
  • There should be a strong contrast between text and background colors
  • All links should be underlined and in blue when not activated and highlighted purple after visited
  • Do not underline text - underlining is reserved for links
  • Do not use ALL CAPS or italics for more than a few words as they are difficult to read
  • Do not have construction pages – do not tell readers what you don’t have

PRINT versus WEB

Print example:
Executive Management Support for Proposals
In order to ensure success, understand Executive Management and their individual expectations of your website before developing a proposal for their approval. Principally, you should know the 5 Ws (who, why, what, when and where) of your proposed website including: who will come to your website; why they are looking for your website; what they want to find on your website; when they want your website; and where they’ll find your website.
(77 words)

Web example:
Before you pitch your proposal to executive management, know what you want your site to achieve. Know the 5 Ws:
  • Who will come
  • Why they are looking
  • What they want to find
  • When they want it
  • Where they’ll find it
(46 words)

2. News & Features

One of the most common forms of content on the Internet (and corporate intranet) is news and/or features – particularly for corporate communicators.

Criteria for news

News is any report or story on a happening, milestone, event or person that is relevant to a broad audience and meets at least two of the following criteria:
  • Timeliness – news that happened very recently
  • Impact – news that demands attention of a broad audience
  • Success – news that highlights success stories and corporate ‘wins’
  • Conflict – problems or challenges
  • Proximity – geographic proximity to the user audience
  • Prominence – news has prominence if it involves a well-known person or organization
  • Currency – topical information that is ‘top of mind’ and is being talked about
  • Human Interest – involving the unusual or unknown; having personal appeal

Types of news

Types of news stories that meet the above criteria might include:
  • Press releases (most but not all…)
  • A new product or service
  • Corporate restructuring or executive management changes
  • A big sale/contract or new client/ partnership
  • Policies affecting customers or employees
  • Industry trends
  • Customer service stories/ kudos/ awards
  • Formation of a project team
  • Project milestones – successes
  • Community events or involvement
  • Insight on competitors
  • Unusual work tales or experience

What isn’t news

Types of information not considered news:
  • Bulletin board announcements including:
    Volunteer requests
    Clinic announcements
    Regional event announcements (exception: annual meeting, quarterly results press conference, etc.)
    Announcements relating to training and education
    Fundraising drives (exception: large-scale/ high impact)
  • Stand-alone photographs
  • Regional or division news of no relevance to other regions or divisions
  • Personal announcements or requests (e.g. “A blue Ford Taurus for sale”)

Formatting your news

News should first appear as a headline on the home page or newsroom home page and should be accompanied by the date (mm/dd/yyyy) and serve as an active link to the full story. Sometimes supporting body text and a thumbnail photo or image is a worthwhile accompaniment to the headline.

In order to allow users (particularly journalists) to find past news articles easily, it is recommended that each headline be classified into a news category (e.g. Products, Community, Financial, People, etc.). An excellent example of this can be seen on Manulife Financial’s Newsroom (news releases organized by region rather than type).

20/12/04    Intranet/extranet   Measuring the ROI of Intranets: Mission Possible?


All headlines should be archived and organized in chronological order and organized by category (e.g. corporate, community, media, etc.).

Feature stories

Features are news stories with a high-degree of relevance for a large concentration of people (e.g. employees, customers, etc.) and have considerable ‘staying power’ (remaining relevant for longer than the average news story). Features meet at least three of the eight news criteria.

Examples of features are stories on the Annual Report, AGM, corporate earnings, restructuring announcements, etc.

Features appear on the home page or newsroom home page, are accorded more prominent attention and may remain for several days or weeks. The duration of a feature is at the discretion of the Editor and is usually based upon demand relative to other features.

3. Standards & Technical Requirements

According to Dictionary.com, a standard is defined as “an acknowledged measure of comparison for quantitative or qualitative value; a criterion. Something, such as a practice or a product, that is widely recognized or employed, especially because of its excellence.”

Therefore a standard is a desired level, while a technical requirement is something that is requisite.

Legal and Accountability Standards

  • Content must adhere to all copyright and trademark law (The ©, ®, ™ symbols must appear with each copyright or trademark)
  • Any information that is not suitable for a broad audience should not be published to internal web servers without proper security
  • Any sensitive, mission-critical information that you would not put in print for dissemination should not be put on the website or intranet
  • All pages should include the following disclaimer at the bottom “Not for reproduction or distribution” and be accompanied with the requisite legal parlance

Graphic and Technical Standards

  • Whenever possible, you should work with a designer to create strong visuals and maintain graphic standards
  • Feature photos can be horizontal or vertical thumbnails on the home page with a preferred size of 120 x 75 pixels (horizontal) and no less than 46 x 68 pixels (vertical)
  • All photos should be JPEGs or GIFs (sometimes TIFs)
  • Photograph cut lines should be limited to 75 characters with spaces (to ensure that headlines are limited to one line, thereby preserving valuable real estate)
  • While the originating source of the photo or graphic ‘owns’ it, the Editor is responsible for the representation as it appears on the website
  • Use of animation is strongly discouraged as it can be distracting and annoying; it should only used when it is the best means to quickly convey a message
  • Images and animations should never overshadow the primary content
  • All new sites or major site additions should be user-tested with a minimum of 6 – 8 users
  • Content should be designed for all browsers currently in use (Internet Explorer 5) and should properly display on the minimum standard PC resolution of 640x480
  • Pages should download in no more than 8 seconds (for the media rich home page); 2 –5 seconds for most content pages (i.e. news and bulletins)
  • Links should not open new browser windows unless it is essential to using advanced applications
  • Clearly label all PDF files and other documents that are downloaded and not opened within the browser as HTML
  • When not an HTML page, it is helpful to indicate the date and file size
All new content, regardless of its origin or destination, must adhere to the policies and criteria of the company’s Editorial Policy which should govern the creation, formatting, and types of web content, as well as the roles and responsibilities for all involved.


A taxonomy is a system or set of rules for cataloguing or classifying information (e.g. into groups, sub-groups, etc.) that can be used for ‘meta-tagging’ online information so that it is properly indexed, searchable and retrievable by the website search engine. To improve the reliability and accuracy of your site engine’s search engine results, all pages should be meta-tagged (keywords) according to a prescribed taxonomy (for more information please read Search Engines Don't Suck, They're Just Limited).

In conclusion

The important thing to keep in mind when writing for the web is to be clear, concise, current and consistent.
  • Edit your content so that it is approximately 50% of what you would have written for print
  • Format it so the eye can quickly scan to areas of interest
  • Maintain standards and follow Editorial Policies
  • Always spell check
As Thomas Jefferson said, "The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."

Toby Ward, a former journalist and a regular e-business columnist and speaker, is the President of Prescient Digital Media. To enquire about Prescient’s Web Writing Workshop, or for a copy of the free white paper, Finding ROI, please contact us.

For more information and help in writing for the web, register for our one day workshop " Writing and Editing for the Web". You'll learn valuable information to improve your site.



UseIt.com (Weekly updates)

Penn State Web Design Guide (no date)

IntranetPublishing.com (Mark Gallagher, January, 2001)

Multimedia Writing (Mike Butzky, October 1999)

“Good Management Requires Spending Time On Intranet Policies” (Internet.com, March 2, 1998)

News Values” (MTU, no date)

Understanding The Do’s and Don’ts of Web Design – A Web Design Guide for Government Content Managers (Isabel Rodriquez, i4Design, August 30, 2001)