Web Writing Tips

A strong web presence is a powerful tool for engaging with new audiences. Here are 4 ways to keep readers’ interest – and keep them coming back to your page.

1) Tell the story of your research:
People love stories – especially about other people. Not sure what your research story is? Here’s a quick formula for roughing it out:
• Once upon a time, there was a (person – or animal/plant/etc.) in a (place).
• And every day…
• Until one day…
• And then…
• And then…
• Until finally…
• And the moral of the story is…
• The end.

Another framing technique is to ask the “5 W’s” (who, what, when, where, why) about your work and shape the answers into a story.

Starting with a question can be a great way to draw readers in. What's surprising about your research -- or about the way you do it? Why is your work important?

2) Write for impact:

Make every word count. Choose (whenever possible):
• verbs over nouns
• Saxon over Latin words
• short over long
• concrete over abstract
• active over passive

Eliminate (unless crucial to meaning):
• words of more than two syllables
• adjectives and adverbs
• compound tenses

Other tools:
• Vary sentence length. Keep sentences to 20 words or less.
• Use metaphors and analogies (where appropriate).
• If you need to explain something that another website covers well, you can avoid rewriting by linking to that item on their site.
• A photo may save you a lot of description. Wikimedia Commons has 5 million images to choose from. They’re free, and most are available under Creative Commons licenses.

3) See if it makes sense:

•Read what you’ve written out loud. This is an easy way to spot common problems like long sentences and awkward wording. Before you post, ask a reader – a friend, a family member, a colleague outside your field – for feedback. Use it to revise the draft.

•If you can, let the text sit for a day and read it again. Look for more things to cut. “When in doubt, leave it out” is still a good rule of thumb. Be ruthless.

•Proofread.

•Once you’ve posted, if you want readers’ feedback, give them a way of contacting you.

4) Make it pretty:

• Leave lots of white space on the page.
• Make sure titles stand out. Ask a friend if the page is easy to read.
• Did we mention images?

For more tips, check Michael Agger’s 2008 Slate article and Jakob Nielsen’s 1997 UseIt.com classic.

Comments? Email pam.sturner@stanford.edu