Writing for the Web

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The goal of web writing is focusing on being as easy to read as possible. This is because people read differently at their computers than they do when faced with any printed document.

You may not always be conscious of it but when we’re reading at our computers, a light is shining in our eyes. This is the backlighting from the screen and we usually don’t notice it. Eye fatigue is the result.

But there are other challenges with computers. The 300 dot-per-inch typefaces we like on paper often don’t work well on a 72 pixel-per-inch screen. Each letter is represented by square pixels on a grid rather than by lines of ink on paper. This makes them harder to read. As well, our computers have less control over spacing, hyphenation, justification and column width.

Furthermore, the width of a standard column on the Internet is often too wide for the human eye.

People do not read web pages. They scan first. Determine relevance from cues and then read if it passes muster.

Bottom line? When you give your readers text on a screen, you’re asking them to work really hard. Here’s what you should do to give them a break:

  • Use short words. Always prefer one- to two-syllable words over three syllables or more.
  • Use short sentences. Aim for an average of no more than 14 to 18 words per sentence. This does NOT mean all sentences should be 18 words! Instead, have some one to five word sentences so you can also include a few 30-word ones, too.
  • Use short paragraphs. But try to avoid having more than three or four lines without a break. Remember, despite what your Grade 10 English teacher probably taught you, the main purpose of paragraphing is to give your readers eyes some nice white spaces where they can rest for a bit.
  • Use a full line of blank space between paragraphs, rather than just an indent.
  • Use subheads or small amounts of boldface type to give readers plenty of entry points. Use bullets for the same reason.
  • Run everything you write through readability statistics and aim for a grade 7 ranking.
  • Write headlines that convey the meaning and subject matter of what you’re writing about. Instead, take the time and trouble to be specific.
  • Use boldface and italics for emphasis only. They are too hard to read for gigantic blocks of text.

We’ve written about web readability before in our article:

Web readability is 16px size with gray #333.

Four variables give the most reliable measure of web reading ease:

  • Words per sentence.
  • Average school grade level of words.
  • Characters per word.
  • Sentences per paragraph.

Readability is a number one goal. Someone in your company or organization should especially check typographic elements to ensure they’re readable. This means:

  • No “reverse” (white body text on a colored background, which is hard to read).
  • As few italics as possible (they’re hard to read).
  • Not too much boldface (ditto).
  • Not too much super-wide full-width copy (ditto).
  • No type above headlines (confusing).
  • No hard-to-read colors like light grays. There should be a 30% grayscale differential between text color and background color. We search for edges of letters for character recognition.

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by - Stacy M. Jones