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Basic principles of web writing

When writing web content, there are 3 basic principles to keep in mind:

  1. User task (provide relevant content for a specific audience)
  2. Clear phrasing
  3. Keep it as short as possible
 

1. User task

Before writing anything, answer these questions:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • What do they want to do on your web page?

For every passage you write, think:

I am writing this so that [my target audience] can do [task X, Y, Z, etc.].

You will have business goals in writing your text, but these must map onto some feasible need or interest of your target audience. You text should be useful and usable – not simply information in a void. What do you want your audience to do, having read your text?

How to write useful web text

  • Try to imagine which questionsusers would have in their mind on coming to your page (prompt yourself with the typical question words: who, why, what, how, when, etc.)
  • List these questions – in the order your users need the information
  • This can be the outline for your page structure. Each question could be a separate subheading, and the solution you are offering would be the text in that section
  • Don't leave users hanging when there is a next step – give them an option to find more information, make an enquiry – whatever helps them on their way.

And how not to do it…

  • simply include all the facts and information you have on this topic
  • try to reach everyone with the same content
  • use existing print texts (without at least reformatting)
 
 

2. Clear phrasing

Web texts are very different to print documents – and users expect content to be presented and written differently.

Generally the style is more informal and conversational than the legal/administrative style we are used to from much of our everyday working texts.

More on clear phrasing.

 

Writing for the public

We cannot assume the public know as much about EU concepts (and terminology) as EU officials do. So texts for the public need to use words ordinary people understand.

Perspective

It is important to phrase concepts from your reader’s perspective.

Examples

  • Free circulation of labour” is a familiar concept to economists and policymakers. But individual workers/jobseekers would be more likely to see this in terms like “freedom to live and work abroad in Europe”.
  • Similarly, institutions buying in goods/services know this process as public procurement – companies potentially providing those goods/services are more likely to be looking for public contracts.
 

Writing for experts

Obviously we need to use technical terms (jargon) used in the field of expertise concerned. But there are many other words around these that we can change, to give a text a simple, conversational style overall.

Studies have shown that this works best, even for experts – there is no need to reproduce an academic or formal style, for notional reasons of credibility.

Especially since many experts will be reading in a language that is not their own.

And while subject experts know their own field-specific technical terms, they are not guaranteed to be familiar with the extra layer of jargon, unique to Brussels:

 

WHY is clear phrasing important?

It's not just a question of style:

  • Web users are busy and need to understand quickly
  • To be found, web pages need to use the words our target readers are likely to enter into search engines (the way most web users find web pages).
  • Professional image – text on the web has a high profile.
  • Up to 20% of people have problems reading generally (older people, visually impaired, those with learning disabilities, the “functionally illiterate”) and will otherwise find pages inaccessible.

Clear and simple language” is a WAI requirement. The Commission has committed itself to these internationally-recognised standards in COM(2001) 529 pdf.

 

3. As short as possible

  • The substance – write only about what the readerreally needs to know - and nothing more.
  • The words – in every sentence, use only the words you need to convey this key message.

Avoid the easy, running style we use for print documents – instead aim for spare and functional prose that makes every word count.

More on keeping it short.

WHY keep it short?

  • Information overload – readers are in a hurry, looking for something specific (not reading for pleasure).
  • Ever-more people are viewing web pages on mobile devices, with much smaller screens than desktop computers.
  • Easier & quicker translation.