This page is a collection of guidelines for making websites engaging and easy to use. Many of these guidelines apply to technical writing in general. Remember that guidelines are not rules. When following a guideline forces you to write a sentence that is awkward to read, let common sense prevail. For best effect, combine these guidelines with the recommendations in Best Practices for Web Design.

If you are about to start authoring pages in the website, you may want to read Learning the Page Editor. If you are drafting potential website content using Word Processing or Desktop Publishing tools, pay particular attention to the final topic on this page, preparing for a visual and interactive delivery medium.

Achieving consistency in writing style and tone is a challenge, especially when several authors with different backgrounds contribute textual content. Most successful websites have an editor who has authority to modify wording and layout of content provided by others.

Adopt a Conversational Tone

Talk to the user, not about the user. Address the user in first person, as you. The word you is often omitted, resulting in the imperative form of verbs, especially in instructions. The first two sentences in this paragraph are examples.

Refer to LLIR and its members using second person, as we or us. The website’s main menu has options with labels like About Us. Feel free to make judgement calls and use the organization’s name when doing so sounds more natural. For example, LLIR welcomes anyone who enjoys taking courses … is as acceptable as We welcome anyone who enjoys taking courses ...

Write in Present Tense

One of the hardest habits to acquire is using present tense consistently. Unlike narratives such as novels and newspaper articles, where the order of events is important, Websites operate in an eternal present. They tend to describe what the user can do now or events that may happen in the past, present or future. For example: registration for LLIR courses opens and closes every year but is never permanently open or permanently closed. Therefore, the only tense that always applies to the registration process is the present tense.

There are exceptions when using past or future tense is necessary. For example, a historical fact such as LLIR started delivering courses in the 1973 requires past tense.

Use the Active Form of Verbs

Using the active form of verbs does more than set a positive tone. As shown in the examples below, active form can help clarify the message, often while using fewer words. This form also helps remove ambiguity and uncertainty regarding the role of the user, an automated process or LLIR volunteers in the action described. Looking for the best active verb to use in combination with present tense can help you describe the topic from the user’s point of view.

Revise Draft Text Like a Technical Editor

Avoid conditional tense implied by words such as would, could or should.
Say want rather than wish when the phase or sentence works with either word.
Remove qualifiers such as very that do not change the meaning.
Try to remove negatives from sentences.
Constantly try to engage the reader by asking questions or giving users a chance to interact with or control what they read.

Needs EditingSuggesting Rewording
It should be noted that Glendon Security does not retain personal items beyond 30 days.Glendon Security holds personal items for only 30 days.
Check to see if there are specific duties on a committee with which you could help.Are there specific duties on a committee where you can help?
The SCR is run by a lovely woman named Marya who will take care of your form and your payment. She can be reached by phone at 417-736-2100 ext. 88285 for more information. If you are planning to come with a large group at any point in time, you must call her in advance.[Includes details corrected in March 2024]
To enquire, call Lila Manseur at 416-487-6825, or send email to lmanseur@glendon.yorku.ca. You must call in advance if you want come with a large group.
Members may apply for a leave of absence (LOA) if they do not wish to register for a course for a given academic year.Members who do not want to register for a course in the next academic year can apply for a leave of absence (LOA).
Important bulletins which are often time-sensitive are posted here. For example, when extraordinary circumstances force cancellation of lectures on short notice, we post a notice here. Cancellation on snow days will be posted by 7 am.Check these bulletins for time-sensitive announcements.
You can find a bulletin here by 7:00 am on bad weather days such as snow days and whenever the college must close.
Examples are taken from draft text proposed for the LLIR website.

Write Short and Simple Sentences

The goal is to provide information that is quick to read and easy to digest. The online world is full of distractions. Websites are a resource that some people feel uncomfortable using. You can help with writing that is clear, concise, and unambiguous. Here are some hints for saying what needs to be said in the simplest and shortest way possible:

  • Give every sentence one clear message. Split sentences that try to make more than one point.
  • Avoid ambiguity by looking for ways some users may misinterpret each sentence.
  • Make sure the first words in each sentence state the main point.
  • Minimize use of parenthetical phrases. Lots of commas or punctuation is often a symptom of too much information in one sentence.
  • Remove redundant words. Avoid adjectives, adverbs and other words that do not clarify the meaning.
  • If a paragraph or sentence contains itemized items, replace it with a list.
  • A picture or a diagram can be worth 1,000 words, especially in a webpage.

More Picky Points

  • Use the verb click without the preposition on. Professional web developers say Click the button below, not Click on the button below.
  • Avoid wordings like click here for links. The best way to make a link is by selecting a word or phrase that occurs naturally in a sentence. If that doesn’t work, you can use constructs like See page Page Title or Read more about xyz.
  • Don’t use quotation marks for anything except actual quotations. Refer to conventions for highlighting text for recommended ways to highlight text.

Prepare for a Visual and Interactive Delivery Medium

Do not ignore the huge impact that online delivery can have on success of a website. When existing paper documents are the starting point or when content authors draft text using word processors, the resulting documents tend to have a traditional style that works better on paper than online. User engagement and ease of use are key quality measures that apply to websites but not to printed documents. Therefore, the approach to presentation is very different in a website. Read Best Practices for Web Design for an introduction to the concept of transforming the user from a passive reader to an active participant.