Most of us are aware of the golden rule for plain writing on the Web: Keep It Short and Simple.
But there’s no getting around it — at some point you are likely to have a long piece of complex material that you have to put up on your website.
It might be a ‘terms and conditions’ page for a contractual agreement. A set of instructions for a new product. A detailed explanation of a business policy. Whatever it is, you want your customers to read it because it will improve your business.
You can’t force them to read it, but you can encourage them to read it. You can make it inviting. Enticing. Kissable. Here’s how.
1. Break the Text into Shorter Pages or Sections
Nothing is more forbidding to an online visitor than a long page of unbroken text. If you can break the text into shorter pages, do so. And be sure to put a navigable menu at the top or left of the page, so users can see at a glance what the material covers and get to the page they want easily.
If you do have to keep a long piece of text on a single page, put a clickable list of subheads at the top of the page, so users can jump down to the section they want. ‘Back to top’ links every two or three paragraphs are also thoughtful and help visitors cut down on scrolling.
2. Keep Sentences Short
Online visitors get lost in long sentences. Don’t present them with something that they’ll have to reread and decode. Keep sentence length to about 15 to 20 words, with no more than two clauses.
One way to keep sentences short is to break them, with the most natural break being at a second ‘and’. The sentence ‘This agreement is between the Widget Communications Company and customer and applies to the customer’s use of Widget services’ isn’t that long, but would work better as ‘This agreement is between the Widget Communications Company and the customer. It applies to the customer’s use of Widget services.’
If a sentence has a long list of words or points, recast it using bullets.
3. Use Plain Words
Officialese is so pervasive that we hardly recognize when we read it. But it still has an effect, and it still sounds pompous and impersonal:
- ‘Due to the fact that’ instead of ‘because’
- ‘Regarding’ instead of ‘about’
- ‘For the purpose of’ instead of ‘for’
- ‘If this is not the case’ instead of ‘if not’
The list goes on. Review your text and mercilessly strip it of officialese, which only alienates visitors.
4. Get Rid of Unnecessary Words
You’ll recognize these when you see them-words or phrases that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence, clutter up a page and make it longer. Strike out useless words:
- ‘We are in the process of developing’
- ‘We are not accepting applications at this point in time’
- ‘Our product includes added features such as’
- ‘Our products are of a superior quality’
Sometimes you’ll need to rewrite or amend capitals and punctuation, as in this stem for a bullet: ‘Please note our refund policy, which is outlined in the following list:’. This would be better as a straightforward subhead: ‘Our refund policy’.
5. Use the Active Rather than the Passive Voice
The passive voice is a dead voice: ‘Your bill has been designed with you in mind’ is a good message, but would be livened up with the active voice: ‘We’ve designed your bill with you in mind’. Put the subject first, then the verb.
6. Don’t Turn Verbs into Noun Phrases
Perfectly good verbs get turned into long noun phrases to make the text sound more authoritative. It doesn’t work. It makes the text longer and it’s tedious for a visitor. There’s no good reason to use:
- ‘Conduct an analysis’ in place of ‘analyze’
- ‘Give a presentation’ in place of ‘present’
- ‘Make a sale’ in place of ‘sell’
- ‘Submit an application’ in place of ‘apply’
7. Don’t Use Double Negatives
Double negatives sound hedging and leave the visitor not knowing where you stand. Instead of saying ‘I do not disagree’, say ‘I agree’. A ‘not unwelcome move’ should be ‘a welcome move’. Positive constructions sound committed and their meaning is easy to grasp. A common marketing blurb says: ‘Saving energy doesn’t go unnoticed.’ Does that mean it does get noticed? Not necessarily. ‘Saving energy gets noticed’ makes the meaning clear.
8. Use Lists to Highlight Points
Lists of bullets or numbered points are great for:
- Breaking up text
- Presenting text in an organized way
- Leading the visitor through text
9. Add Subheads
Subheads help website visitors get straight to the section of web copy they are interested in. They also make a long piece of text look less overwhelming. Use simple, everyday expressions for subheads and be sure to clearly explain what each section is about.
If you can present the subheads as questions in the first person, even better. This shows visitors you’ve really thought about what they might want to know:
- ‘What’s different about this model?’
- ‘Why should I buy this product?’
- ‘How can I order this product?’
- ‘Where can I find more information?’
- ‘What do I do if I want to return an item?’
10. Think About Other Ways to Present Information
Finally, take a close look at your web copy and ask yourself if it has to be straight text. A user guide or help text works well in a question-and-answer format. Tables and flow charts are ideal for presenting statistics and financial information. And although it’s not always a solution, a picture really does say a thousand words.