Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Easy Rules of Good Web Writing


Good web writing is like other good writing: its value should be unmistakable. You have to decide what to say, to whom, and why.

Writing instructor Mervin Block says, “Write to express, not to impress.” Above all, writing should express an idea, motivate an action, communicate a value. It should support your business goals or organizational objectives. It should entice the web user to read and take action.

A tip: Mervin Block’s instructions for writing broadcast news are an excellent primer for web writing. The two writing styles are very alike because they focus on short, clear writing. I recommend his book, Writing Broadcast News: Shorter, Sharper, Stronger to enhance your web writing.

A numeric formula
In her class, Writing for the Web, Barbara Mednick teaches easy-to-remember rules for good web writing.


  • Sentences - 20 words or less
  • Paragraphs - 5 sentences or less
  • Screens - 3 paragraphs or less
I find the screen limit for paragraphs to be more difficult to follow than the other guidelines. But it’s still a good reminder to avoid excessive text on a page.


  • Use subheads and bullets generously
  • Use bolded headlines generously

I use these additional guidelines

  • Bullets kept to one line
  • Simple language
  • When in doubt, leave it out

An example of good web writing
The news media page for the Minnesota State colleges and Universities System follows the rules of meaning, brevity, and clarity. Notice the numerous bold headlines and short sentences. Notice the page length – enough info without too much scrolling.

These guidelines are simple but they require practice. If your text is dense you have to re-write. You have to be a diplomat when you re-write or re-format someone else’s work. You have to align the format with the content.

But it’s worth the extra effort to produce effective web copy.

How good is your web writing?

Upcoming post: The high value of simple content