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NOF-digitise Technical Advisory Service

Writing for the Web

David Dawson, Nick Poole and Marcus Weisen, Resource
An Information Paper from the NOF Technical Advisory Service

Writing for online collections

Writing specifically about online collections is a new and emerging skill, for which few guidelines currently exist. Best practice is based upon writing ‘universal text’ for exhibitions, accessibility guidelines and web usability studies. Few really good examples currently exists, this is one of the areas where we hope to be adding more details in the future.

General principles

Writing for the web is not the same as writing for a print, in the same way that web design is different to page design. There are a number of important differences to remember and issues to bear in mind.

  • According to research carried out by Jakob Nielsen, people rarely read Web pages word by word. Instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In one study carried out by Nielsen’s company, it was found that 79 per cent of users always scanned any new page they came across, with only 16 per cent reading word by word.
  • As most people scan Web pages, and also to assist those with reading difficulties and those using assistive technology, it is very important that the information contained in a document is presented correctly. The correct use of bullet points, headings and summary paragraphs throughout a publication will ensure that the maximum number of readers will gain the information you wish to impart.
  • Writing for the web is a specific skill. It is more like writing copy for adverts, brochures or exhibitions than writing books or articles.
  • Every page should be written as if the user has not seen the rest of the site. Many visitors will access Web pages direct from internet search engines, or through links from other web sites. Although good design, branding and navigation will help, the text on a page must stand alone.
  • An editorial style guide will help maintain target tones of voice. It should also enforce uniform language usage to maintain basic editorial quality, for example, stipulating that “web” is not capitalised, that gender and group neutral words are used and that active and personal language is used - using ‘you’ and ‘we’ makes your writing more direct and understandable.
  • Copy should strike a balance between using plain language and being patronising. This is hard to define but a good editor will help, as will user testing to ensure that the language is appropriate for the target audience.
  • Jakob Nielsen has identified four ways in which existing text can be adapted to make a website more usable:
    • Using objective language. The usability of the information on a site can be improved by 27 per cent by using neutral language —simply stating facts and drawing a conclusion —rather than boasting or using exaggerated language.
    • Making the text scannable. Modifying text to use bullet points, instead of lists within the body copy, improves usability by 47 per cent.
    • Making the text concise. If the word count is cut by half, usability will be improved by 58 per cent.
    • Combining all three. Using all three techniques together in a fourth, master method of writing for the web leads to an overall improvement of usability of 124 per cent.
  • Content should ideally be displayed in three levels: a short, scannable headline; an intermediate précis; and the full document. Nielsen recommends this approach as it orientates users to what is on the site quickly and efficiently. However, the first two levels should not replace whole documents, such as in depth articles, no matter how long they might be.
  • To achieve scannable text, web pages should employ:
    • highlighted keywords using, for example, hypertext links, bold text or colour contrast . However remember that too many type face variations will lessen the visual clarity of the text)
    • meaningful sub-headings;
    • bulleted lists;
    • one idea per paragraph. Users might miss additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in a paragraph;
    • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing;
    • the inverted pyramid style. This means starting with the conclusion and ensuring that the “Who”, “What”, “Where”, “When”, and “Why” of a piece of copy appears at the beginning with other main points following on. In this way, if a piece of text has to be edited, it can be cut from the bottom without the salient points being lost.

Audiences experiencing barriers to the web

There are many people who find it difficult to interact with computer technologies. One of the ways in which NOF-digitise projects differ from commercial sites is that the needs of these audiences are important to the Digitisation of Learning Materials Programme.

Key audiences to remember

People with no prior experience and apprehensive of technology

Electronic devices such as video recorders and microwave ovens cause confusion for some people. Others have little experience of computers. For both audiences, the inherent complexities of a home computer can make retrieving information from the web very difficult.

People who are socially excluded

A proportion of the public do not have the means to purchase a home computer. Their job may not bring them into contact with IT and a digital TV may be out of the question. A PC with limited capabilities or a computer in the local library may be the only resource available to this sector of the population.

Older people

Advancing years can bring a combination of disabilities to a user.

People for whom English is not their first language

Many people in the UK do not use English as their first language. Extra care should be taken to ensure that the English used on a web page is clear and simple to understand.

Assessing readability

In addition to guidelines for creating readable text, there are a number of systems which allow automated calculation of how easy or difficult something is to read. These systems, which include the Dale-Chall formula, Fry Graphs and the Flesch Reading Ease Index, make use of factors such as the total number of words in a piece of writing and the complexity of the sentences. The most popular of these are the Flesch Index and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade level, both of which are used as part of the Grammar & Spellchecking functionality in some word-processing software, such as Microsoft Word. Use Help from your software to see if and how this functionality can be implemented. If not, or you want further information, then see the MAGDA website for more detailed information.

For most general documents, a score of between 7.0 and 8.0 is appropriate on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade level and 70 on the Flesch Reading Ease Index.. Scores higher than this indicate that the document is overly complex and could usefully be simplified to make it more readable.

To make the text simpler, the following guidelines should be adopted.

  • Avoid using long words when shorter substitutes are available (use ‘try’ instead of ‘attempt’, ‘event’ instead of ‘occurrence’).
  • Don’t use words with extra, or ‘padded’ syllables (use ‘administer’ instead of ‘administrate’, ‘oriented’ instead of ‘orientated’).
  • Where possible, use compact substitutes for long phrases (use ‘since’ instead of ‘in view of the fact that’, ‘consider’ instead of ‘take into consideration’).
  • Avoid combinations of words with the same meaning (use ‘ principles’ instead of ‘basic principles’, ‘history’ instead of ‘past history’).

Disabled people

Recent figures for the UK suggest that there are:

  • over 8.54 million people with a disability
  • of these over 2 million have a visual impairment;
  • eight million people suffer from some form of hearing loss
  • approx. 60,000 deaf people, the majority of whom do not read print;
  • one million people have a form of learning difficulty;
  • over seven million people have literacy problems.

Reading difficulties such as dyslexia and limited mental agility can all limit the understanding of information. Users may have problems with memory recall or text recognition; they may also have problems entering information correctly, such as querying a search facility. It is good practice to include a useful example alongside a search box, to guide users who may not be familiar with the content of your site.

Remember that there is a legal requirement under the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure that websites, along with many other services, are accessible to disabled people. Basic principles of accessible website design are required under the NOF-digitise Technical Standards but it is also important to ensure that text is written to ensure that it is accessible.

Writing for disabled people

Inclusive or universal text for all audiences will not guarantee accessibility for disabled people. The medium of the web allows multiple layers of optional information, and this can be a powerful tool for engaging a number of audiences.

For most visually impaired people, enhanced descriptions are vital for gaining access to online collections. In addition to a simple description, these enhanced descriptions should draw out the meaning impact or significance of the object. They could include colour, a description of how a machine works or the main elements of a painting, all of which are likely to be of interest to many more people. Most visually impaired people have some sight and good descriptions help them see images better (see example below). It may also be possible to include a spoken description, as an audio file, which will be more informative and engaging than text read aloud by speech synthesis software.

For people with learning difficulties, images such as photos, drawings or symbols can be used to support the text. These can be used to make the subject of your material clear at a glance, even to a non- reader. Place images that help explain the text next to the relevant words to make your meaning clear. If a large number of visitors to your site are likely to be people with a learning disability, consider using computer software symbols, like Widgit or PCS (see the Mencap links below for more information).

Navigation to these enhanced descriptions should be simple and use inclusive wording, such as ‘fuller description’ rather than ‘for visually impaired people’ or ‘level 1’.

With the advent of broadband film will become an increasingly common feature on the web. In the future, inclusive provision is likely to include:

  • British Sign language for deaf people;
  • sub-titles for hard hearing people and many other viewers who will find it useful;
  • audio description for visually impaired people. Visually impaired people will also benefit from dialogue and commentary which “stands on its own” and can be understood irrespective of the visuals.

However, at the time of writing, these are not required in the NOF-digitise Technical Standards.

Example Websites

Captioning Images

Formal garden on Dogpole, Shrewsbury. c.1710. Oil painting. Artist unknown.

This image is reproduced with the permission of Shrewsbury Museums Service, and can be found on the Darwin Country website at

Good Practice

Formal garden on Dogpole, Shrewsbury. c.1710. Oil painting. Artist unknown.
The garden shows a geometric arrangement of paths and beds (parterre), using gravel and other materials such as red brick to define the shapes. There is a lead figure of the god Mercury on a plinth in the centre. Clipped evergreen trees and bushes have been used to provide three-dimensional effect. Fruit trees have been trained against the walls of the garden.

Best Practice

Planned Gardens
This is an image of an oil painting, showing the garden of a Tudor house in Dogpole, Shrewsbury. It was painted in about 1710 by an unknown artist. The garden, a rectangular space, has been formally designed with gravel paths, neat lawns and clipped trees and bushes. The artist has tilted the garden towards us, so that the rectangle narrows at the top - creating an exaggerated perspective.A path follows the four edges of the rectangular garden. A number of figures walk along this path, showing it to be wide enough for couples to stroll comfortably arm in arm. In the centre of each of the sides, a short path connects this outer pathway to an inner path - this one an oval shape.In the centre of this oval - the focal point of the garden - is a lead statue of the Roman god Mercury, standing on a stone plinth.The sections of garden left between the paths are a dark lush green. Lining the inside of the rectangular path are a number of neatly clipped, conical trees.The garden is walled around three of its sides, and fruit trees have been trained against the walls. The fourth side, to the rear of the garden - opens on to the house. This is a substantial three storied dwelling of white plaster - its oak frame visible. To the left a high gable, and a red tiled roof.Beyond the house is a church tower - and to the right, in the distance, the spire of another church pierces the cotton wool clouds of the sky.


Much of the content of this Information Paper is taken from publications of the Office of the e-Envoy, and is therefore a mandatory requirement for the whole of the UK public sector.

  • Office of the e-Envoy, 2001, Guidelines for UK government websites; Draft Illustrated handbook for Web management teams
  • Office of the e-Envoy, 2002, Quality Framework for UK Government Website Design, Consultation Draft
  • Jacob Nielsen’s website is full of useful information on Usability, see
  • ‘Am I making myself clear?’ and ‘Making your website accessible for people with a learning disability’ Mencap. Both available from


If you have any information that would help revise or update this information sheet, then please contact



This paper was commissioned from David Dawson, Nick Poole and Marcus Weisen by UKOLN on behalf of the New Opportunities Fund in association with the People"s Network and is one of a series of Information Papers that will be produced by the NOF Technical Advisory Service.

Queries about the Information Papers should be addressed to:

Marieke Napier
The University of Bath
Bath BA2 7AY

Telephone: 01225 386354

UKOLN is funded by Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives & Libraries, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) of the Higher and Further Education Funding Councils, as well as by project funding from the JISC and the European Union. UKOLN also receives support from the University of Bath where it is based.


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