We've logged lots of online hours searching for sites that illustrate the Web writing principles in our new course: Writing for the Web.
After checking out hundreds of sites, we found those that fail often do so because they have writing and content problems.
We've developed a list of four fatal errors that prevent a site from helping users find information quickly and easily.
Avoiding these fatal errors will take you a long way toward making your site user-friendly.
Shoveling Print Online
"We've already got the print brochure, annual report and product catalog. Why rewrite?" Because print materials usually don't work online.
Reading on screen is slower and information is harder to absorb. On-screen readers scan rather than read word for word. Web writers need to write text that is scannable, text that helps users find key words and concepts quickly.
To write scannable text, think short and write shorter, whether sentences, lines of text, paragraphs or pages.
Use heads and subheads instead of introductory paragraphs.
Use bulleted text instead of full sentences.
Use white space to keep the page looking light.
Use hypertext links. Links enable you to keep text short while providing additional information to accommodate readers who want more.
Writing Like A Bureaucrat
Online readers expect a personal, upbeat tone in Web writing. They find bureaucratic writing so offensive and out-of-place that they simply ignore the message it's trying to convey.
To avoid bureaucratic language, turn the tone down a notch. Search out and destroy jargon. Write in the active voice -- "We will customize the curriculum for your company," -- rather than the passive voice -- "The curriculum will be customized for your company."
Active voice, which emphasizes the doer of the action, is naturally less bureaucratic.
Take a look at the tone of the Peace Corps and IRS Web sites. If the IRS can write in plain English, anyone can!
Making a Mission Impossible
"Who are these people? What do they do?" Some Web sites make it impossible to figure out who or what the host organization is.
Remember that users get to your site from somewhere else in cyberspace. The link or search engine that sent them to you probably did not explain who you are. Visitors might have missed entirely your home page where you spelled out your mission.
Orient your visitor by writing useful signposts throughout your site. Make sure each page includes your tag line or a short, descriptive mission statement.
Burying the Lead
Web users are busy and impatient. They want the bottom line up front, on the first screen.
You can't count on your visitors scrolling through several screens of background to get to the information they need.
Recently, we worked with a client who was writing Web content. She wanted to present background information before she made her main point.
We pulled her text up on screen to show her how deeply she'd buried her message: A reader would have to read two screens before getting to the main point -- the program's accomplishments.
She rewrote, putting her main message on the first screen and linking to the background information.