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Writing for the Web

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Set goalsKnow your audiences | Create skimmable content
11 tips for good content


1. Set goals for your content

What's this page for? Why am I writing it? Before your first keystroke, make sure your goals are clear -- and afterwards, double-check that they've been met. If that sounds obvious, it isn't.

At the risk of oversimplifying, McGill Web pages aim to either inform, or spur action, or both. As a rule, try to ask yourself:

If my page's goal is informational:

  • Is it skimmable and easy to understand?
  • Does it tell the user everything she needs to know?
  • If additional information is needed, is the visitor's path to that content clear?

If my page's goal is action-oriented:

  • Do visitors have an obvious, immediate path to the desired action?
  • Is your "sales pitch" -- the reason for action -- clearly laid out at the top of the page?

How many times have you seen sites that try to sell you something, but force you to scroll past 16 paragraphs to find the "Buy now" button? Similarly, how many informational sites have you seen where dozens of unskimmable paragraphs trail down an impenetrable page? If we want our visitors to do their part, and read or take action, we site editors need to do our part as well, and and make their lives a little easier.

2. Know your audiences, and write for them

Incidentally, that pluralization isn't an accident. Nearly every site has several audiences, but many sites say the same thing and speak the same way to all of them. For example, if your home page is a grab bag of content for all sorts of audiences, don't be surprised if people don't take the time to hunt for the tidbits that are relevant to them.

Similarly, remember that for many students, English is a third or fourth language.  If you're writing dense, jargon-filled text, they may not understand it.

In addition to your audiences' composition, also consider their needs: not just what you want to tell them, but also what they want from your site, and how they want it.

A few questions to get you started:

  1. Who exactly are my audiences? Do they have different needs?
  2. What is each audience looking for? If they want different things, have I tailored my website to accommodate them all?
  3. Imagine yourself as a visitor, with the limited context of a brand new student/employee/etc..  Would you find the site intuitive?
  4. What questions does my site not answer? Where are the gaps?

Something to keep in mind: visitors to your site won’t always come in through your front page. In fact, it’s likely more than half the visits to your site start somewhere else (Google Analytics can tell you for sure). So, you need to treat every page on your site as a potential front door. That means providing enough context that, even if someone hasn’t seen any other pages on your site, they’ll understand what they’re looking at. 

3. Create skimmable content

Skimmable content is not an option. It's a requirement.

It sounds unintuitive, we know. After all, you don't want people to skim, you want them to read! But because of the incredible quantity (and varying quality) of online information, we've all been trained to glance at a page, hone in on the interesting bits, and ignore the rest.

That may sound like a bad thing, but given all the content in the Internet jungle, it's actually a survival skill -- and one that we can accommodate. Our visitors aren't going to change the way they listen, but we can change the way we talk.

Here's what we mean:

The image below compares two pages with the same text. At a glance, you can see that the one on the right is daunting, uninviting, and difficult to skim.  

Though text on the left is slightly longer, it's easier to browse because:

  • The paragraphs are short.
  • The text is broken down thematically, under separate sub-headings.
  • The hierarchy of headings and sub-headings makes their relative importance clear.
  • Bold text is used occasionally (though not excessively).

A good rule of thumb: one thought per sentence, one theme per paragraph.  It may seem silly to have ten two-sentence paragraphs on your page, but the odds are pretty good that they’ll get read.

4. 11 tips for good content:

  1. Choose good page titles and sub-headings.
    A good title makes people want to read the first sentence of your content. If it doesn’t do that, your content may be scintillating, but no one may ever know.
  2. Avoid jargon.
    If people can't understand what you're saying, there's not much point in saying it.
  3. Omit unnecessary words.
    If you can use 50 words to say what you’re saying right now in 200, your readers will thank you. Even better, they’ll read your website.
  4. Reading ≠ Understanding.
    Even if people do wade through a long-winded, jargon-filled message, they still may not understand it.
  5. Don’t duplicate content.
    Be sure to link to other sites' content rather than copying it. If (very brief) content does need to appear on several pages, use blocks.
  6. Bullets are your friend.
    When you need to list items, tasks, courses, or nearly anything else, bullets are the way to go.  They draw the eye, are easily skimmed, and create breathing room around your content.
  7. Number things!
    Numbered lists -- like this one -- help us situate text.  They can convey relative importance, rank, or the the order in which tasks can be done. And like regular bullets, they're more skimmable than hunks of text.
  8. Put the important stuff up front.
    Let's say your unit revamps its procurement protocols. The first thing your audience wants to know is that payments will now take half as long to process.  If you open with an ode to well-designed invoices, your readers may move on before they get to the good stuff.
  9. Use bold, italics sparingly (and ALLCAPS not at all)
    Occasionally it makes sense to emphasize a very few words on the page. But if you emphasize almost everything, you haven't really emphasized anything. As well, in Internet-speak, block caps = yelling.  SO PLEASE DON'T SHOUT!
  10. Write once, edit twice!
    It may seem like extra work, but you'll be amazed at how many redundancies, typos and unnecessary words become obvious after a second run-through. Take the time -- your users will thank you!
  11. Make your links clear and succinct
    Links should describe what they’re pointing to (like “Information for applicants” or “Application form [PDF]”), or else work as a concrete call-to-action (like "Learn more" or "Register now"). Avoid linking ambiguous, non-descriptive text like "click here", and never spell out entire URLs.