Guidelines for effective writing

Keep content meaningful & user-focused

Give users clear value.
Ask yourself: Is this content saying something meaningful or adding new information?

Get right to the point.
People have limited attention and patience and are quickly frustrated when expectations aren’t met. As communicators, it’s our job to help them get what they need quickly.

Delete fluff. 
Too much unnecessary text leads to skipping. Users don’t care about what your organization and programs are doing; they care about WHAT AFFECTS THEM. Eliminate promotional, redundant, outdated, and trivial copy.

Show, don’t tell.
Language like “this page makes it easy for you to find helpful contacts” is unnecessary. If the page really makes it easy, it should be obvious.

Limit introductory text or instructions. 
If we write clearly and concisely, the purpose and meaning should be obvious.

Limit sentence & page length

Keep sentences as short as you can — the shorter, the better.
Try to keep sentences to 20 words or less. Express one point per sentence. Put the most important information at the beginning. Remember audiences are scanning, not reading.

Paragraphs should be 2 or 3 sentences max.
Put the most important information first.

Tips for web pages. 
Write content in independently meaningful chunks that make sense when taken out of context. Each content chunk should address just one issue. Readers overlook the second point when there are multiple items in a single chunk.

If your webpage requires scrolling, make sure there are headers and/or menus to help users find what they’re looking for. Consider breaking up long text across multiple pages.

Use active voice, not passive voice

Active voice helps make action more clear by highlighting the person doing the action, followed by the verb. Passive voice is often awkward, it’s usually longer, and it makes readers work harder to translate.

It can help to look for a “by” phrase, and rewrite so the actor is first.

Active voice

Passive voice

Medicare covers the wheelchair.

The wheelchair is covered by Medicare.

Your state will determine eligibility.

Eligibility will be determined by your state.

Complete your application and return it to us by June 1.

The application must be completed by the applicant and received by Human Resources by June 1.

Use common, everyday words

Use the same words your audience does. Replace complex words with simple ones. Conversational tone is easier to understand. This is especially important with web writing, as simple words are often common search terms that enhance SEO.

Language to avoid:

  • Undefined abbreviations and acronyms.
  • Using 2 different terms to mean the same thing (like doctor, physician, provider), unless unavoidable by policy constraints or intentional for SEO benefit (like health plan and health insurance).
  • Legal, technical, medical, or marketing jargon.
  • Idioms (think “It’s raining cats and dogs”).
  • Colloquialisms (think “Our team does the heavy lifting so you don’t have to”).
  • Unnecessary intensifiers (e.g.: very, much, best, quite).
  • Negative phrasing.
  • Humor, which often doesn’t translate well.
  • Talking at your reader, instead of with them (having a conversation vs. listening to a lecture).
  • Quoting laws and regulations, unless absolutely necessary.

 

 

Don’t say:

Say this instead:

assist

help

commence

begin, start

consequently

so

endeavor

try

facilitate

ease, help

for a period of

for

in an effort to

to

in order to

to

in the event of

if

previously

before

prior to

before

utilize

use

until such time as

until

with the exception of

except for

Organize information for your readers

Get to know your reader

  • Who is the reader? Remember there may be more than one audience for your content.
  • Why is the reader coming to this content? What does the reader want to know, find or understand?
  • What is the reader trying to do? People usually want to take an action, not just learn.

Meet reader expectations

  • Make any actions clear and easy.
  • Put the most important information FIRST. Especially on web/mobile, users may leave if content requires a lot of scrolling.
  • People don’t read – they scan. Users look for headings, keywords, and other "eye-stoppers" that grab their attention.

Tips to help users find what they need

  • Put the most important words first, so they’re easy to spot. The first 2 words in a heading, first 2 lines in a paragraph, and first 2 paragraphs on a page are places that get reader attention.
  • Create “sections” in your text.
  • Add hard returns to break up long paragraphs.
  • Add a subheading for more than 2 paragraphs in a row.
  • Use numbers for any text describing steps or a process
  • Use lists and tables to help organize long or complicated content, especially items or steps in a process or hierarchy. If a sentence has multiple items, break it into a list and use bullets.

Use headings & subheadings

Headings and subheadings create a visual hierarchy on the page and help users find content quickly. Strong headings help users scan and improve search engine optimization (SEO) in web copy. The most important words in SEO are keywords, the words and phrases users type into search engines.

Your reader should be able to get the gist of a document just from the headings and subheadings. A heading also may be the only snippet of text users see if they’re reading on a phone or tablet.

  • Headings aren’t the place for creativity — they’re for clear communication.  Ask yourself: “Does this heading make sense if it’s all the user sees?”
  • Research shows people focus on the first 2 words in a heading, so put the 2 most vital/compelling words first. For example, if a blog is about ACA, don’t begin the title with “The Affordable Care Act…,”; instead, begin with how it affects the reader (i.e. “Save money…”).
  • Headings should have a consistent style (questions, statements, parallel structure, etc.) and be left-aligned for scanning
  • Avoid generic headings like “Introduction,” “Overview,” “About…,” “Background,” “Questions & Answers,” and “Welcome.” These headings miss the chance to convey meaningful information.
  • Active voice and positive statements are best, but you may want to use passive voice if it lets you frontload important content and pull keywords to the front.
  • Research shows people pay more attention to headings that include numerals. Example: “3 steps to file a claim” or “Medicare covers 7 tests”

7 tips for effective headings

  • Limit to 8 words or fewer.
  • Make them independently meaningful and scannable.
  • Do they make sense without any supporting content?
  • Are they strong, unique, descriptive, and clear?
  • Use numerals; don’t spell out numbers.
  • Use positive statements and active voice.
  • Avoid generic headlines that don’t carry any information.

Get more information

Download Writing for the Web for more tips to improve online communication, or visit plainlanguage.gov for more helpful resources and trainings.

Page Last Modified:
02/02/2023 05:02 PM