Web Writers Guidelines

Writing for the Web

According to a few studies, reading from computer screens is about 25 percent slower than reading from paper. There's some evidence that suggests that people also feel uncomfortable reading from a screen. As a result, a number of gurus recommend writing 50 percent less text onscreen than you might for a printed piece.

Admittedly, this research reflects the general Internet user, not the experienced academic population that Oswego is addressing-so one might expect more latitude on the university site. On the other hand, it's known that college applicants make snap decisions based on an institution's Web site, and make those decisions in less than 90 seconds-which again argues for brief, Web-savvy copy. Accordingly, we use these guidelines in writing for our Web site:

  • Be succinct. If there's a shorter, simpler way to say something, do it that way.
  • Respect your interface. The interface that you're working with may allow as few as 150 words of text before "the fold"-this means that the gist of the page, and the fact that there are child links, should be apparent without requiring the visitor to scroll.
  • Keep paragraphs short and the eye-swing narrow. This-especially if paragraphs have topic sentences-speeds scanning and alleviates fatigue.
  • Make copy "scannable." Bulleted lists, contextual hyperlinks (links imbedded in blocks of text), and identifiable subsections bolster scanning of copy onscreen.
  • The name of a link should always match the name of the page it links to. Click on "Admissions" and you should get to a page named "Admissions," not "Getting In" or "Forms & Applications." There is more latitude with hyperlinks, but the relevance between the name of the hyperlink and the page it links to should be readily apparent. (Otherwise, visitors get irritated.)
  • Use common nomenclature. A clever, but somewhat obscure, link name can cause frustration and confusion. These should be used only on minor links (links not on the main grid).
  • Hyperlinks should be phrased. By that, the gurus mean that a hyperlink should be more than one word. "International graduate students should apply early." The reason: It's easier to spot a phrase than a single word.
  • Create "levels of information." The most general level is on the top of the hierarchy: It answers the most basic questions. The most detailed information is at the bottom of the hierarchy. This hierarchy speeds reading: Users looking for the gist get it right away; users looking for details click downward, through links or hyperlinks. This structure allows for great Web-like structures of information that reverberate with connections and ideas.
  • Guard against irrelevant hyperlinking. Just because you use a word that is the name of another page on your site doesn't mean that it's relevant. Be sure to check the content of the linked page to ensure that it is relevant and will help the reader.
  • Avoid Web clichés. Early on, when the web was young and we were all a bit unsure of whether people would "get it," we created a lot of unnecessary directions, introductions, and other embarrassing stuff that young users find cliché. These include:
    • Welcome to the Benneton College Weaving Department Web Page. This suggests that Web pages aren't an everyday communication tool, such as a brochure or newspaper is. ("Welcome to the New York Times front page..." See the problem?)
    • Click here to find out more! The hyperlink should be imbedded in the text-young people know what a contextual link is and what it will do without being told to click. Frequently, we develop short paragraphs, which end with the word "more ..." or, if necessary, "more about what students say about Oswego"
    • On this Web page you will find... The only time you'll need to explicitly state what is on the page is when the page is lengthy and dense.
  • Use anchors. When you have tons of weighty stuff that belongs together on a single page (three academic calendars, for instance), create internal links so that the reader can scan the list of internal clinks (called anchors), and then jump to the section of the page that's of interest, rather than scrolling in a blind search.
  • Remember you're in a nonlinear medium. It's possible for a visitor to reach your page from Google...which means top-level pages in particular should recognize that the visitor is likely to need context. This is why the Admissions page has introductory copy even though there's an About page with introductory copy. (But of course we don't want to restate everything, so...be brief.)
  • Use a style sheet. Some institutions use a modified Chicago Manual of Style. We use Associated Press (AP) style, because AP's book is much easier to use, even though the style can be quirky and outdated. Typically we recommend these and other modifications to AP style:
    • Recommended names for the college are SUNY Oswego and Oswego State (the latter favored particularly by the athletics department). Calling the college just Oswego as shorthand is OK in a Web context. We are NOT Oswego State University, Oswego State College, Oswego College, Oswego University or The University of Oswego, among other misnomers.
    • The names of courses are italicized when they appear in text. They're not italicized when they're in a list of courses.
    • The titles of publications, films and other stand-alone media are italicized.
    • Use easy-to-identify times like "noon" and "midnight" instead of "12 a.m." and "12 p.m." The latter two phrases are confusing, as not everyone agrees which is which, with the former are universally understood.