Writing for the web
How to write engaging and impactful content for the website.
Keep it simple
Anyone can put information online. But we want to do it really well.
What you say should be easily understandable. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought, so think about what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.
- short sentences and paragraphs
- subheaded sections
- simple vocabulary (see our list of words to use and avoid in the section 'Use plain English')
Keep complicated sentence constructions to a minimum. This helps users find what they need quickly and absorb it easily.
What the user wants matters most
Users don't usually read text unless they want information. When you write for the web, start with the same question every time - what does the user want to know?
Meeting the user need means being:
- clear and to the point
Don’t be stuffy. Use the language of everyday speech, not that of spokespeople, lawyers or bureaucrats. Pomposity and long-windedness tend to obscure meaning, or reveal the lack of it: strip them away in favour of plain words.
Use the active voice
In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. This sounds more clear, conversational and engaging than the passive voice, for example, 'Professor Walker will deliver a lecture on data modelling'.
Try to avoid using words such as ‘by’ that may suggest that you are writing in passive voice, for example, 'the lecture on data modelling will be delivered by Professor Walker'.
One exception to this rule is when you want to specifically emphasise the action or impact over the subject of the sentence, for example, 'Bath is named as one of the world's top 100 'most international' universities'.
Seven golden rules for writing for the web
- Make it brief and to the point
- Break up text into subheaded sections
- Use bulleted lists (see our formatting guide for how to create lists)
- ‘Front-load’ subheadings, titles and bullet points by putting the most important information first
- Include links to external sites and relevant pages
- Use words that are easy to understand
- Use active, not passive, tense. This gives your writing more energy and clarifies who the main actors are in your writing
Use plain English
Users don’t stop understanding text because it’s written clearly, they understand it more.
When writing content, avoid formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’ and ‘like’ instead of ‘such as’.
We also lose trust from our users if we write ‘buzzwords’ and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague, and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. You can generally get rid of this type of word simply by saying what you are actually doing. Be open and specific.
Write conversationally – picture your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-to-one but with the authority of someone who can actively help.
All audiences should understand our content. This isn’t ‘dumbing down’; this is opening up our knowledge for all.
Words to avoid
This list isn’t exhaustive, it’s an indicator of the sort of language that confuses users:
- additional – use 'extra'
- advise – use 'tell'
- agenda (unless it's for a meeting)
- applicant – use 'you'
- commit/pledge (be more specific – you're either doing something or you're not)
- consequently – use 'so'
- deliver (pizzas, post and services are delivered – not abstract concepts like ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities’)
- deploy (unless it's military or software)
- dialogue (you speak to people)
- disincentivise (and incentivise)
- dispatch/despatch – use 'send'
- ensure – use 'make sure'
- facilitate (instead, say something specific about how you are helping)
- forward – use 'send'
- foster (unless it's children)
- impact (as a verb)
- key (unless it unlocks something. A subject/thing isn’t ‘key’ – it’s probably ‘important’)
- land (as a verb, unless you are talking about an aircraft)
- leverage (unless in the financial sense)
- liaise - use 'meet with', 'to discuss with', 'to work with' (whichever is more descriptive)
- on receipt – use 'when we/you get'
- on request – use 'if you ask'
- particulars – use 'details'
- per annum – use 'a year'
- persons – use 'people'
- prior to – use 'before'
- progress (as a verb – what are you actually doing?)
- promote (unless you are talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion)
- remittance – use 'payment'
- slimming down (processes don’t diet – you are probably 'removing x amount of paperwork', or similar)
- strengthening (unless it’s strengthening bridges or other structures)
- tackling (unless it's rugby, football or some other sport)
- transforming (what are you actually doing to change it?)
- utilise – use 'use'
- whilst – use 'while'
Always avoid metaphors and idioms, particularly clichéd ones, such as:
- drive (you can only drive vehicles; not schemes or people)
- drive out (unless it's cattle)
- going forward (unless you are giving travel directions)
- in order to (this is superfluous – don’t use it)
- one-stop shop
- ring fencing
This isn’t just a list of words to avoid: it’s a way of writing.