Government’s Guide to Web Content Writing

web-content-writing-usabilityWhile browsing the web yesterday, I came across a U.S. Government usability resource which contains 11 useful pointers for web content writers.  Each content rule is based on scientific research.  The theories are rated on a scale of 1-5 by importance, and the weight of evidence behind the idea.

The document is well worthwhile for web designers and content developers who want a factual overview of the best practices.  Here are some of the highlights…

The style manual opens with a valuable quote:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”  – William Strunk Jr. Elements of Style

Think function
As in Mr Strunk’s analogy; a machine will not function if it’s full of ineffectual parts and neither will your website content.  Think of your web copy as a machine that’s designed to help your visitor accomplish certain tasks:

  • Discover who you are
  • Find out what you do
  • Access further information
  • Navigate the rest of the website

Keep it short
A sentence should not contain more than 20 words.   A paragraph should not contain more than 6 sentences.

You can assess the readability of your copy from MS Word.  There’s an option to display this information within the spell check function.  It will tell you words per sentence and per paragraph as well as no. of passive sentences and Flesch score.

Use simple language
Avoid jargon and use familiar words.  If a visitor cannot understand your website, they won’t want to use it.  Resist the urge to use big words, industry terminology, and convoluted sentences.  You may think it makes you come across as professional and authoritative but this isn’t always the case.  It might be off-putting instead.

The guide cites a study whereby users did not understand the word ‘screening.’  User experience was improved by changing it to ‘testing.’  Always consider the user first and write in a way they are familiar with and understand.

Read the Government web content guide
Nielsen’s web copywriting best practices

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