How Do I Write A Site?
November 16, 2009 8:22 AM   Subscribe

What are your most critical and helpful tips to keep in mind when evaluating the copy -- not the design, but the copy -- on a website? I'm doing some volunteer editing and want to help the organization I'm working for as much as possible.

Thanks for reading "more inside." Previous AskMes are full of site advice, but it seems to be all on coding and design.

The organization I'm working for doesn't have the budget or the time for a site re-design, so they need feedback on organizing and presenting information within the limits of the current design.

I'd love your advice on specific considerations to keep in mind for creating effective website copy (i.e. keep paragraphs to three lines or so since it's harder for people to read large chunks of text online; make sure the presentation of points coheres with the site design).

More details: the organization is a project that advocates for an issue on a high level (the US govt., the UN etc.). It needs to show that its approach is sophisticated and thoughtful and demonstrate a high level of professionalism. Yet it also needs to frame its objectives and method in lucid and approachable terms to introduce people who are sometimes skeptical of its mission to new ideas.

I know how to achieve this balance with traditional documents, but I want to make sure what I come up with is well-suited to the particular demands of a website.

Thanks so much for your suggestions!
posted by foxy_hedgehog to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
People browse text online in an F-shaped pattern, according to Jakob Nielsen, Web usability god-man. It's not surprising, if you think about the way text is laid out, but it might help you to think about how to capture their interest.

(I'm not sure whether this is different from browsing on the printed page, BTW.)

Nielsen's index of Web writing tips.

(You may not agree with all of them, and you very well might find Nielsen's site to be so usable that you cringe, but all the same there's a lot of good stuff there.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:30 AM on November 16, 2009

This advice is part content, part design, but as the medium is the message, I think both are appropriate here. Also note that I have no actual experience creating websites, but that all of the following are things that have pissed me off about advocacy websites.

First and probably foremost: don't require horizontal scrolling. Ever. If the site currently requries it, fix it, even if it costs money.

Second, avoid vertical scrolling. Main pages should be digestable at a single glance as much as possible, even if this means more links. Think a main page with links to issue pages, with the issue pages containing a single-screen summary with links to more detailed documents for the truly interested.

Third, know your audience. If your main source of traffic are policy wonks, you can probably get away with a higher reading level than you could if you were pitching your site at the general public. Along with that, assuming that like most policy sites you use no small degree of technical terminology, provide links to definitions or explanatory sites.

Fourth, have someone else go over your site map. Just because the way you have it organized makes sense to you does not mean that said organization would be intuitive for someone who isn't part of your organization, particularly if, as with many government issues, the issues in question are not named as intuitively as they might be. Consider using intuitive titles in the place of official terminology.

Finally, have a summary of your issues and perspective on the main page. There are far too many advocacy sites where it is impossible to tell what the group is actually about and actually doing unless you've been following them for months if not years. Every issue creates its own discussion, but you need to make sure that someone who wasn't party to that discussion will stull understand what's been going on. A timeline linked by the main page listing important events in chronological order could be really useful.
posted by valkyryn at 8:35 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ex-usability guy here. Valkyryn's points are all great, other than the second, which I think is well-intentioned but not really true anymore. In general, users much prefer single long (vertical) scrolling pages rather than one short page that branches to many other short ones. Think about those NYT articles spread across 10 pages, or any "Top Ten" list, and how so many readers react violently with "where's the damn link to the whole thing on one page" comments. If you have 10 points to make, just lay it out in a nice bullet list on one page, no matter how long it gets.

The "keep everything above the fold" argument was probably a good one in the web's early days, but it came from the print world, and the rise of blogs (and their inherent looooong format) has taught readers that scrolling down a long page is preferable to click, click, back, click, back, click, click, back.

Writing for the web, in general: brevity. Short sentences, short paragraphs, bullet points, clear headers and pull-quotes that attract, introduce, summarize, conclude, introduce again, and so on. Make it easy to scan/skim and find the part a reader is interested in by including the most important points as headers or bold items, with levels of detail beneath, using typestyles or weights of decreasing emphasis. Present info as a hierarchy, even when there are no visible (3).III.2.v numbers.

Some of the best-written websites, I have noticed, include a bold sentence or sub-headline to introduce an idea or milestone, then discuss/expand on that idea for a few regular paragraphs. It's a noisy-looking format in print, sometimes, but that's because you're judging an entire magazine page or broadsheet at a glance: it works much better on the web with its scrolling viewports that are all necessary sub-views.

In usability testing of info layouts, I used to run different testing groups with different layouts of the same information. We'd use an artificial topic like "Which is the best banana?" laid out in different ways to measure which delivered information most reliably. We'd then quiz the test groups who had each read the info a certain way. Those who retained the most info, on average, were reading the "most usable" layout.

It would take a large pool of test subjects, in order to keep their eyes clean, but I believe the same idea could be used to writing formats and methods quite easily.

Hope some of this helps you.
posted by rokusan at 9:17 AM on November 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Keep it scanable, which is to say I can get your point if I'm not reading everything. That involves lots of sub-heads and short copy blocks.
posted by willnot at 10:11 AM on November 16, 2009

This might be helpful for you; I know I need to grab somebody's attention within the first five words or so.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:17 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

rokusan, your point about vertical scrolling is well-made.

My thinking about advocacy websites was that I've seen far too many of them cram far too much information onto the front page, when they should really have a separate page for a lot of things. Yeah, if a single article goes for more than one screen, let it. But I don't like having to scroll down just to find out what exactly is on the page in the first place, and I think that links (those not embedded in articles anyways) should be largely visible without having to scroll.
posted by valkyryn at 12:34 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks, everyone! Really helpful.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:24 PM on November 16, 2009

Yeah, Chesty, "Nielsen's" F-pattern is an old saw that holds up on the web as well as in print. I remember it from newspaper work in the olden days.
posted by rokusan at 7:00 AM on November 17, 2009

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