Content basics

Seven tips to write or adapt content so it is readable online.

People read online and printed material differently. Online they usually scan pages looking for information. They expect to find it quickly without having to wade through blocks of dense text.

The way you approach writing for online has a big impact on the usability and credibility of your information.

Here are seven tips to ensure you will achieve useful, user-focused content.

Focus on the audience

The most effective writing targets the specific needs of the audience.

  • Consider who your audience is and what they want to know.
  • Have a clear purpose in mind for each page.
  • Don't include every piece of information on the subject you are writing about – only include information that is central to the topic.

Say it simply

Plain English improves readability and comprehension. Avoid jargon – department terms may not be understood by your customers or users.

  • Stick to one idea per paragraph
  • Aim for a maximum of around 20 words per sentence.
  • Limit acronyms and always write them out in full in the first instance on every web page.
  • Use half the word count (or less) than conventional writing.
  • Opt for the simpler, shorter word – for example, 'use' not 'utilise'.

Get to the point

Your users will scan the first sentence and subheadings to decide if they'll read on.

  • Summarise the page in one short sentence. Avoid background information and repeating the page title,
  • Answer the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ first.
  • Include extra details at the end if you need to.
  • Link to other pages with background information, if it's relevant.

Break text up

Present content in layers. Break up the text on a page into easily readable chunks. This helps your users to scan and digest the detail. Use subheadings and bulleted lists to help the process.

  • Identify the most important points you want to make. You don't need to cover the topic from all angles – just include the key information.
  • Start each section with the most important information.
  • Use the shortest word, phrase or sentence you can. Limit your paragraphs to two or three sentences.
  • Try breaking up your sentences into short and medium sized sentences. This also helps with readability.
  • Remember less is more.

Show the way

Use lists and subheadings to help users absorb detail. We call them ‘signposts’ to help the user find their way.

  • Use clear and unambiguous subheadings. Don't try to be clever or humorous.
  • Make sure your subheadings follow a logical hierarchy to help orient the audience. Your first heading after your introductory text should always be H2, followed by H3, H4 and so on, as needed.
  • Use bulleted lists to further break up the page and help your audience scan the information. 
  • Limit list items to between five and seven, to hold your user's attention.

Keep verbs active

Active voice helps your text sound more positive. Use verbs to direct your user through the information.

  • Aim for active voice at least 80% of the time.
  • An active sentence follows the format ‘A does B’. Passive sentences sound more like ‘B is done (by A)’. For example:
    • Active: The director raised this issue with the minister.
    • Passive: The issue has been raised with the minister.
  • Watch for ‘hidden verbs’ that express the action in a noun. For example:
    • Active: The premier agreed to meet the delegation.
    • Hidden: The premier agreed to hold a meeting with the delegation.

Cut down on capital letters

Online, capital letters make content harder to scan and read. Use them sparingly and appropriately.

  • Reserve capitals for proper nouns, which identify a particular person or a unique entity.
  • Use capital letters for official titles of people, organisations, programs and publications.
  • Use lower case for abbreviated or generic forms, including ‘the department’.
  • Use sentence case for headings. This means the first letter is upper case but the rest of the heading is lower case, except for proper nouns.
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