Writing for Business

by Steve Roche

Writing for the computer screen

This page looks briefly at writing for the computer screen. Many written communications and documents are read on screen and never make it to the printer. If this is likely to apply to what you are writing, there are some basic principles that you need to observe.

Reading on the web

Many business people spend a significant amount of time reading pages from the internet, and this has ‘trained’ us to read from the screen in a certain way, even if the content is not actually a web site.

We read from computer screens about 25 per cent more slowly than we read from paper. Most of us don’t feel fully comfortable when reading online text. People rarely read website pages word by word. Instead they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.

So web pages use scannable text, featuring:

  • highlighted keywords (using hypertext links, typeface variations and colour)
  • meaningful sub-headings
  • bulleted lists
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion or main point and then expanding on it
  • half the word count (or less) of conventional writing
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph).

Credibility is important to web users, since it may be unclear who is behind the information and whether a page can be trusted. Most users are busy and want to get the straight facts. They dislike promotional writing styles with boastful subjective claims (‘the hottest ever’).

This style of reading needs to be considered when writing material that will be read on screen. It does pose a dilemma if the material is also likely to be read after being printed out. How do you format material that will be read both on screen and on paper?

Consider the following web writing guidelines and use those that seem to work for any material you write that will be read on screen.

Web writing guidelines

  • Be succinct: keep your text concise.
  • Write for scannability: don’t make users read long continuous blocks of text.
  • Use hypertext to split up long passages of information into multiple pages.
  • Make your writing clear, objective and free from hype.

There are ways of increasing credibility.

  • High-quality graphics – use low-resolution for speed: jpegs for photos, gifs or pngs for graphics.
  • Outbound hypertext links. Links suggest that authors have done their homework and are content to let readers visit other sites.

Keep summaries and key text short and succinct. Put details, technical data and appendices into PDF files or other separated formats so that they can be looked at later. Protect PDF files from editing if you want them to be viewed in an exact format.

Aim to write 50 per cent less text than you would for print (not just 25 per cent less), since it’s a matter not only of reading speed but also of feeling comfortable. Many users also dislike having to scroll, which is another reason to keep pages short.

Scannability

Because reading from computer screens often creates impatience, we tend not to read streams of text fully. Instead we scan, picking out keywords, sentences and paragraphs of interest, while skipping parts of the text we care less about.

Skimming instead of reading is a fact of life on the web, as confirmed by many usability studies. So web writers need to write for scannability:

  • Structure articles with two or even three levels of headlines (a general page heading plus sub-heads – and sub-sub-heads when appropriate). Nested headings also make life easier for blind users with screenreaders.
  • Use meaningful headings (reading a heading should tell the user what the page or section is about).
  • Use highlighting and emphasis to make important words catch the user’s eye. Hypertext links automatically stand out, and coloured text can also be used for emphasis.

Hypertext structure

Make text short without sacrificing depth of content by splitting up the information into multiple segments connected by hypertext links. Each page can be brief and yet the full hyperspace can contain much more information than would be feasible in a printed article.

Hypertext should not be used to arbitrarily divide a long, coherent text into multiple pages – having to download several segments slows down reading and makes printing more difficult.

Proper hypertext structure is not a single flow ‘continued on page 2’. Instead, split the information into coherent chunks, each focusing on a certain topic. Allow readers to select those topics they care about and only download those pages. Structure hypertext according to audience needs.

Each hypertext page should be written according to the inverse pyramid principle – starting with a short conclusion so that users can get the gist of the page even if they don’t read all of it.