USF student laughing while working on laptop

Writing for the Web: General Principles

Be concise.

Keep word counts low, especially on top-level pages that should be telling the story rather than conveying lots of detailed information. Most basic informational pages ought to be no longer than 400-500 words, and top-level pages should aim for between 200-300 words.

Use an opening paragraph to summarize page content.

Flipping through the site, any visitor should be able to quickly absorb the most important information on the page to determine whether she needs to take the time to read the entire page.

On primary public-facing pages (that is, all pages one click away from the home page), the text should be written specifically with a first-time visitor in mind. Opening paragraphs of other pages can simply summarize and/or contextualize the pageʼs content. We typically set the opening paragraph in larger font size to draw attention to it and make it easy to read.

Be conversational, but not clever.

The use of contractions (itʼs, weʼre, youʼll, etc.) is encouraged. Some of the rules that are applied to formal writing donʼt apply as strictly to Web writing. For example, if the natural rhythm of a sentence is best suited by ending it with a preposition, so be it.

USF is staffed by an extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful group, and using words like "our" and "we" can help convey that online. Again, one of the best ways to check the style of Web writing is to read it to yourself out loud.

Make use of meaningful subheadings to guide a reader through the page content.

Along with short paragraphs, breaking up a page with subheadings allows a Web reader to quickly determine what information is most important for her needs. This is a good general principle for all content pages of a site; for long, policies-and-procedures-type pages, itʼs absolutely essential.

As a general rule, there ought to be a subheading for every 150-200 words of Web content. And top-level pages often benefit from a much more widespread use of headings and subheadings. Many good top-level pages pair small subheadings with short paragraphs to give a visitor a very clear idea of whatʼs to be found throughout that section of the site. Organize your text so that the hierarchy is no deeper than four levels. Lower-level heads are hard to distinguish and disorienting to online readers.

'Overuse white space' is a good rule of thumb for Web writing. Reading from computer screens is on average 25% slower than from paper, so short paragraphs and frequent subheadings give users more room to read.

Use your text formatting, like bulleted lists, pull quotes, and paragraph breaks, to quickly convey information.

On most basic content pages there shouldnʼt be more than one or two bulleted or numbered lists. If you have a page that is burdened with lots of lists, you may want to consider alternative ways of presenting that content.

The text should guide readers around the site.

Links within the text are important means of limiting duplicate information and directing visitors to key content within the site. On section homepages these links should complement the navigation as a secondary means of directing readers to section subpages. Links to external sites are ok, but should be carefully considered and not overused. Be judicious: Too many links within a paragraph also diminishes their effectiveness as content guides.

Follow the university's style guide.

By using USF's Editorial Style Guide, we can bring stylistic consistency to all university publications, from newsletters and emails to brochures and flyers.


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