Writing for the Web — Hunter College

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Writing for the Web

Jump to:        Web vs. Print
Know Your Audience
Highlight Key Information
Formatting Your Content
Organizing Your Pages
Keeping Content Fresh and Relevant
Best Practices

Web vs. Print

In most scenarios, visitors to your website are there to find a specific piece of information, so it is imperative that you help them find it. Make your navigation easy to browse and your pages short and sweet. Your images should be relevant, and all downloads (such as PDFs and Word DOCs) should include a descriptive summary before or after the link. In a busy work environment, most web users don’t want to wait for files to download if they are not even sure those are the files they need or want.

When using the web, most people do not read every word; they scan.

Reading on the web strains the eyes more than reading print material. Therefore, give your users less to read. Your content should be concise, relevant and to the point. Avoid using filler text or elaborating too much on any one subject.

A general rule of thumb: Text on the web should be about half the length of similar text in print.

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Know Your Audience

Before adding any content to your site, consider your writing style. What tone will you use throughout your site? Who is in your audience? What are they looking for? How will they expect to find it? What are the key points you wish to highlight throughout your site?

Informal vs. Formal

When writing for the web, it is important to consider your audience and to choose your words appropriately.

For example, when writing for prospective students, you should usually be somewhat formal and not assume that these readers recognize common Hunter acronyms. Even such terms as “the City University of New York” should be spelled out on first reference, and only later abbreviated to  “CUNY.”

Alternatively, when writing for current students, less formality is required and common Hunter terms such as CUNY, CPE and GER can be used without explanation.

You should aim to write for your most frequent visitors, but don’t neglect any new visitors who might be reading your content. Web pages designated for current students may still be viewed by prospective students interested in a particular program.

Consider International Students

Hunter prides itself on being a diverse community, and as such, we must consider our international audience when writing content on behalf of the College. Spell out dates and times, rather than abbreviating (08/06/09 can be confusing). Avoid using jargon, hype, slang or clichés. Use humor cautiously, as it can be misinterpreted.

Simplify!

Do not purposely use big words or long sentences just because you’re writing for an academic audience. Even the most intelligent readers prefer to read simpler text and comprehend more when concise language is used. In most cases, web usability experts recommend writing for an 8th-grade reading level.

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Highlight Key Information

Use page titles and subtitles to your advantage. Since web users tend to scan rather than read every word, they typically look for highlighted words, headings, numbers and lists within a page. Also keep in mind that page titles are used to index your page in search engines and bookmarks, so they should be descriptive and contain key words.

If you must use confusing or industry-specific language in your text, define words in context so that those unfamiliar with the verbiage don’t have to stop reading to look it up.

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Formatting Your Content

When browsing a web page, readers tend to skim down the left-hand side of the page while looking for relevant information. Therefore, you should keep all headings and large bodies of text left aligned whenever possible. Centered or right-aligned text causes the eye to jump around the page and reduces comprehension.

Links should be informative. When linking to a new page or a downloadable file, try to use words that explain what it is you’re linking to. Avoid using generic terms like “click here.”

Correct:          You must complete a Degree Audit Form for graduation.
Incorrect:        You must complete a Degree Audit Form for graduation. Click here to download it!

When possible, include links to related content at the bottom of your pages to help users find the information they’re looking for. This creates a linear path for the users and helps them navigate your site.

When possible, use charts, graphs and pictures alongside your text. Visual information allows your readers to scan faster and comprehend more.

People respond well to bulleted lists. Lists should be in alphabetical or some other logical order. Place periods at the end of list items only if one or more items form a complete sentence. Use numbered lists only if numerical order matters or if the numbers will be referred to later in the text. Avoid using numbered lists in running text.

Avoid using PDFs and DOCs when possible. Most web users are hesitant about downloading files from the Internet, and are often too impatient to wait for long downloads. Therefore, you should never hide critical information within a PDF or DOC document. For short documents, try recreating the document as a web page, and only link to the original PDF or DOC document for those who wish to save a copy. For longer documents, include a summary or description on the web before asking users to download the file. Users are willing to wait for a download if they are confident that they are downloading the right thing.

Tip: Repurpose your content for the web. When converting a PDF or DOC file to a web page,
do not copy the text verbatim. Instead, condense and simplify using the rules outlined above in the
Web vs. Print section. Break up the text into multiple pages if necessary and add links where
appropriate.

Do not overuse anchor links. Anchor links allow users to jump around within a single page by linking from one section of content to another, but can be confusing if used too often. Users expect to be taken to a new page when they click on a link, and anchor links violate this model of how hyperlinks work. Only use anchors on very long pages, and group all anchor links at the top of the page in a “table of contents” format.

Graphics and images are particularly useful on Help and FAQ pages. Use screenshots and diagrams to help your site visitors find the answers they’re looking for. See the Graphical Standards section of this guide for more information on this topic.

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Organizing Your Pages

If a particular topic results in a lengthy page and the topic can be subdivided into smaller sections, consider breaking up the page into smaller chunks. Users do not mind clicking through multiple links as long as they know they are on the right path to the information they’re seeking.

Do not assume that all users will start on your homepage. Users may access your site from any page within your hierarchy. Therefore, make it easy for web users to navigate from any page within your site back to your homepage, and make sure they can access a main navigation structure from any page.

Resist the urge to organize according to the internal structure of your department or organization.  Instead, organize your content according to what your audience is looking for and/or trying to accomplish. If you’re not sure what tasks they’re trying to accomplish, ask! Survey students, faculty and staff who frequent your site to determine what information should be prominent and which can be less so. Your site visitors shouldn’t have to be familiar with your internal structure in order to navigate your site.

Layer your content. The Hunter WebCMS provides an easy way to create a hierarchy of folders and pages that will keep your content organized, so use this to your advantage. The WebCMS also creates a helpful breadcrumb trail using this hierarchy, so be sure to name your pages and folders appropriately.

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Keep Content Fresh and Relevant

As discussed earlier, visitors to your website are typically there only to find a specific piece of information. Therefore, it is important that you keep your content up-to-date and relevant, especially on your homepage.

Any dated information such as events, news items and announcements should be removed from your site or “archived” within two months of their posting (or within two months of the event). If a visitor to your website sees that it hasn’t been updated in over two months, they will likely assume that all information on the site is subject to scrutiny.

In particular, information that pertains to a particular semester, such as event calendars or course schedules, should be removed or archived before the start of the following semester. 

If a date is not relevant to your content, don’t include one.

Put your important information first. Featured news items, upcoming events and highly relevant content should be kept on the homepage, or should be directly linked to from the homepage. On each individual page, the most important information should be up at the top and expanded below, if necessary. Remember, your ultimate goal is to help your visitors find what they’re looking for.

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Best Practices

Maintain a consistent writing style throughout your site. If multiple authors are contributing site content, designate one person who will review each page and make any necessary changes to ensure consistency. If writing in the second or third person, write in the second or third person throughout your site. Choose a tone (conversational, polite, straightforward, active, passive) and stick with it. In lists, charts and tables, choose a format that will be used for each entry.

Correct List:          John Doe, Class of 2002, Computer Science
Jane Smith, Class of 2004, Economics
Bob Jones, Class of 2005, Sociology
Incorrect List:        John Doe (BA ’02), Computer Science
Jane Smith, Class of 2004, Economics
Bob Jones, Sociology ‘05

Avoid ambiguity. Users will come to your site looking for answers; don’t let them leave with additional questions.

Cite your sources if using facts and figures on your page. Not only is it mandatory, but your readers will appreciate honesty and links to additional information.

Include relevant keywords throughout your site so that visitors can search for information easily.

It is perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, to link to one piece of content from multiple locations on your site. Just because a particular page “lives” in a certain folder doesn’t mean that its parent folder has to be the only point of entry.

Tip: The Hunter WebCMS provides some really easy ways of accomplishing this! Contact the
Technology Resource Center ( training@hunter.cuny.edu) or the Web Development Team
( hc.webcms@hunter.cuny.edu) for help with this feature.

Make sure your URLs are usable. The URL of a page is the address that visitors type into the address bar to access your content (such as http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/departmentName). When creating a new page in the Hunter WebCMS, the URL is created automatically using the page title. For example, a page titled “How to Get a Visa” would result in a URL ending with /how-to-get-a-visa. Since this URL is a little long and is more vulnerable to typing errors, we suggest you change the URL to just /visa and leave the page title as is. The WebCMS provides an easy way to change the URL of a page without affecting the page title.

Correct:          http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/studentservices/is/visa
Incorrect:        http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/studentservices/is/how-to-get-a-visa

Contact Information

To avoid dating a document, all contact information should be general, not specific to a particular person, if possible. For example, instead of listing a phone number for “Mary Smith, chair of the Department of Mathematics,” list the phone number for the “Chair of the Department of Mathematics.”

When including contact information on a web page, the information should be listed in the following order, with each element on a separate line: Name; Hunter College; Department/Office; Building and Room Number; Street Address; City, State and Zip; Phone number; Fax number; E-mail address; Website.

You may omit any of the above items when they are not relevant to the task or context of the page.

When included within a body of text, contact information should be separated from surrounding text and aligned to the left. Contact information that stands on its own, such as at the bottom of a web page, may be centered or left aligned, according to the editor’s preference.

When listing contact information, use the official name of the department or office (see the Hunter Brand section above for proper names and spellings). When space allows, spell out the words North, South, East, West, Street, Avenue, Road, Drive, Boulevard, etc., in the street address. A plus-4 zip code is optional, but should be included if available.

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