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Writing for the web and content design

Content Designers are enthusiastic about language and constantly talk about user needs and how we read on the web. But, what is content design?

Content Designers are more common than I realised. For the UK government we're Content Designers, but for other companies we're Content Writers. Dropbox and Google have UX Writers, and some companies use Content Strategists.

Here, I've tried to clearly collect some of the main areas a Content Writer works in. Although not a definitive list, this covers what I've found is important.

Reading on the web and plain English

“Style to be good must be clear. Clearness is secured by using words that are current and ordinary.” — Aristotle

Plain English is probably the most important part of writing for the web. Users generally tend to:

A study by Nielsen Norman Group showed that 79% of test users scanned a new page, only 16% read it word for word.

This is why considering, and designing, your written content online is so crucial. You could write the world's greatest prose on how to use your service, but users aren't guaranteed to read it at all. Writing in a clear, concise language means the user can read the content quickly and get the information they need easily. The following are some good ways to do this.

Front-loaded headings

Users generally scan webpages for keywords. Using clear, front-loaded headings breaks up the content into manageable chunks and allows the user to easily navigate it.

Short sentences

Sentences should be kept short and clear. The Government Digital Services (GDS) recommend sentences should be no more than 25 words. Dropbox commit themselves to only 15 words or less.

Bullet lists

Lists within a sentence makes reading more difficult so use bullet lists where you can. Bullet lists can:

Structuring content

As users generally only read 20 to 25% of content on web pages it's best to think of the 'inverted pyramid' when structuring content.

This is the idea that the most crucial pieces of information are available at the beginning. Then, as you move down the page, these points are explained more. This means that users can get what they need from the content immediately, and read on if they want to understand it further.


It's easy to think of content writing as just guidance and larger pages of information, but every word and sentence should be considered. The user will interact with all aspects of your service or website so making sure everything is consistent is vital. Microcopy is the small, helpful bits of text that instruct the user. One example is when subscribing to an email newsletter and it says “you can always unsubscribe at any time”.

Microcopy is something that often gets missed but can make a huge difference to how users interact with your website or service. The little touches help the user know they're dealing with humans, even if it's through a digital service. For the most enjoyable microcopy out there, @TinyWordsMatter is good to follow.

Microcopy includes elements such as error messages. Although a standard error message might mean something to someone who understands the intricacies of code, it won't mean anything to a user. If the user is interacting with it, you want to build trust. Having a clear message explaining it's nothing the user has done and it's nothing to worry about (if it's nothing to worry about) reassures them.

If you want your user to return, it's best not to blame them or make them feel stupid. The Nielsen Norman Group has some clear guidelines that can help with writing error messages.

John Saito discusses microcopy, and its benefits, in more detail.

Working in teams

The easiest way to successfully write content is working alongside others in the team. Agile teams are particularly good at getting different roles to work together. For example, working closely with a User Researcher will help support your content decisions, or changes, with evidence. You can test variations of your content and understand how users engage with it. This can then inform how you write, the words you use, and the presentation.

You can also work with a Business Analyst to understand the sort of enquiries your customer support department is receiving. If you group this information into themes you can get an understanding of what users are looking for, but also what they're unable to find. You can then review your content, or add to it, to support this.

Building relationships

Probably the hardest part of being a content writer is making others in your company understand what it is you actually do. As content writing is still new to lots of companies your colleagues, authors, and owners of existing content may struggle to understand what you do. If they've never considered the user's perspective before they might struggle to understand your use of plain English. Lots of people think using plain English is “dumbing down”, but really, it's “opening up”.

One battle I've come across a number of times is the use of internal terminology vs. how users actually refer to things. Government departments famously use a wealth of acronyms and internal terms. If you want users to find your content, however, you have to use the same language as them. A good tool to help prove this to stakeholders is Google Trends.

Google Trends lets you enter different terms and compare the use of these in searches. This is a clear way to show your point with hard evidence.

I've found the more evidence you can provide a stakeholder showing your way of writing is correct and beneficial, the more trust you can gain. This means, in the future, stakeholders are more likely to follow your suggestions.

Style guides

After developing rules and a style of writing you'll also want everyone else to stick to it, ensuring all content maintains a consistent voice. Style guides are an incredibly useful tool to do this. Style guides are your reference for how to write, how to structure, and what to avoid.

Maintaining the standards of writing is crucial for a consistent voice and tone. At first it can be hard to find and define this. Your voice should stay the same throughout. Your tone is what changes. This is because you want to consider your user's feelings at every stage and your tone needs to change to support them. For example, if the user has completed a task, you'll probably want to use more informal language that encourages and congratulates them.

Using active voice is also important. With active voice, the user does the action. You want to avoid passive voice, where the user has the action done to them. Using words like “was” and “by” may be a sign you're writing in passive voice.

In summary

With the explosion in digital services and applications, content design is becoming more and more important. Although one of the main points of content design is the use of plain English, it's also more than this. It's having an understanding of how users read and recognise content on the web.

How we write and present content is crucial, but it's also understanding the language users' use and the most intuitive way users read. This makes sure the user can understand what they're expected to do and they can complete the task quickly and easily.

But, ultimately, it's about building trust. The user needs to trust your service to use it. If you can present your content in a helpful, friendly manner, reminding users they're dealing with humans rather than computers, then they'll engage with it.

16 April 2017

This article was originally published on Prototypr on 16 April 2017.