Web writing guidelines

The way people read things on-screen is different from the way in which they read from paper. So here is a set of guidelines of things to take into account when you're writing for the web.

Post by

Bryan Gullan

The six elementary rules

George Orwell's rules ("Politics and the English Language", 1946) are just as relevant today for the web.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. [The point here is not "print vs. web" but "avoid ones which are used all the time".]
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Organising your page

The structure and organisation of your content should generally be very different from a print version.

Introduce the page

Help the user to know that they're in the right place. Give them a short outline of what they can expect to get if they read on. Do not repeat the page title.

Important content first

What is the main point of your page? Give the user that information or message first, and anything else can follow.

Short and simple

Users will be looking for specific information; being concise and ensuring that you use easy to understand language will help them to find it. If the information is necessarily very long, a PDF download may be more appropriate. Web content will typically be about half the length of print content.

Don't repeat content

If it's been said elsewhere, link to it. This will keep your pages shorter and remove the administrative burden of having to keep checking whether updates are needed.

Highlight key points

Use visual cues (which a CMS would translate into mark-up to make them accessible) to make important content stand out. Someone scanning your page will be more likely to spot this content and read it. Examples include:

Note that some text formatting does not translate well to the web. Never underline text - that suggests a link. Italics are harder to read and should be used only if necessary (e.g. citations). Highlighting content with capitals is the online equivalent of shouting.

User-focused content

Know who your audience is and use appropriate language to ensure that they understand you. Make sure that any background information they need is available and obvious. Use a friendly (but not over-familiar) tone, and don't distract users with jargon or over-used phrases.

What next?

Give the user something to do next. For example:

Use keywords

Make sure you include relevant keywords - words and phrases which your users would use - within your content, especially within the headings and first few paragraphs. This will help your pages to show up in search engine results, as well as helping to reassure the user that they're looking at the right page. (Users arriving at a page from search results will often skim the page for keywords before deciding whether to read a page.)

Regular revisions

It can be frustrating to come across a page with out-of date or inaccurate content. Make sure that every page has an "owner" responsible for updating it or removing it if it's no longer relevant.


This is very important. Not all of your users will have the same ability to view your content. This could be because of outdated software, missing plug-ins, or because of a physical disability, for example. There are many different points to bear in mind, though many of this will be dealt with from the technical end by a CMS, for example. Some of the most important considerations are:

In summary

Further reading

If you're interested in going into a bit more detail, here are a few resources to get you started:

A quick thank you to Torchbox for letting me reproduce these guidelines here - I wrote these as part of my work there.

© Bryan Gullan