Last month, I presented a seminar called Web101. It focused on what educators, learning designers and learning support professionals can learn from disciplines related to the context we operate in: the web. The web is my classroom, and I know that pedagogy is only one part of good learning design. The other part is about understanding the web as a context for learning, knowing how it works, and borrowing from disciplines like web design, information architecture, user experience, and communication to design learning experiences that work online.
This blog post is the first in a series of short posts related to that seminar. In each post, I’ll briefly introduce a discipline or domain and talk through a handful of tips about how we can operationalise some of the practices from these domains in our teaching practice.
Let’s get started.
Writing for the web
Reading on the web is different, so our writing needs to be different, too.
When we read online, we typically scan text in an F-pattern, with our attention focused on words at the left of the page – particularly the top of the page. The word ‘scan’ is key here. If you think about your own practices with regard to reading online, you’ll probably recognise that you read differently on a screen than you do when you’re reading a printed book.
People don’t usually read every word on a webpage, in an app, or even in an article or text passage. Instead, they often scan — because their experience with many websites has taught them that scanning can deliver almost the same value (that is, amount of information) with significant less time and effort.The Layer-Cake Pattern of Scanning Content on the Web.
These reading patterns don’t change the minute a student logs into the learning management system. Students bring their usual reading habits with them into the learning environment.
And yet, we often deliver text-heavy online learning content that is not appropriately structured for the web environment.
In this post, I’m sharing eight tips for writing engaging, web-appropriate teaching content.
Tip 1: Know and write for your audience
If you’re writing web content for a first year undergraduate cohort, odds are you’re presenting foundational content that students may be unfamiliar with. This is not the time to bring out your best academic jargon and write in lengthy, flowing prose. Quite aside from the fact that these aren’t good practices for writing on the web, they’re also not great practices for promoting student learning in general. It’s important to understand who your audience is and what they need to know, and to tailor you’re writing to the audience.
Tip 2: Make it scannable
On the web, people tend to scan, rather than read. Structuring content well for scanability makes it easier for readers to extract meaning by scanning, but it can also be a way of hooking them and getting them to transition from scanning to reading.
Here are some things you can do to make your content more scannable:
- Break up chunks of text with headings and subheadings that are highly relevant.
- Use short sentences and paragraphs.
- Use simple sentence structures. If you have find yourself using lots of ‘ands’, semicolons, dashes or parentheses, you probably need to look at breaking those sentences up.
- Write in a pyramid style, the way newspaper articles are written. The most important information should appear first. This ensures your reader actually engages with the important materials, but it cam also be a way to hook them.
- Emphasise keywords to draw attention to them. This can be done using formatting (e.g. by bolding the words) or with hyperlinks to related content.
- Pull out key quotes. Make use of the block quote format (in HTML, embed the text within the element) to both acknowledge that the text is a quote and draw attention to it. Select interesting, illustrative quotes that add value to the content.
- Use appropriate anchor text for hyperlinks. I’ll come back to this one, as it’s a really common issue.
- Use bullet points wherever you find yourself writing a list within a paragraph.
- Limit yourself to one idea per paragraph. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that signposts what the paragraph is about. When you find yourself writing about something different, start a new paragraph.
Tip 3: Be succinct
Succinct content is easier to scan and easier to understand. In the online environment, when our readers are less likely to read every word we write, writing succinct content is critical for comprehension. The following tips can help you with producing succinct text for the web.
- ‘Chunk’ information into sections to make content portable, reusable, scannable, and digestible. Chunking also helps people remember what they’ve read.
- Don’t include background or explanatory information on the page. Instead, link keywords to explainer content. People can then read it if they want or need to, and it’s not cluttering up the page.
- Cut unnecessary words, phrases or sentences. If it’s not critical to the meaning, consider giving it the chop.
- Use bullet points to avoid writing ‘filler’ content – the stuff that we write to stitch sentences together into prose.
- Instructions for simple functions are not needed. Most people (me included!) don’t read instructions until they’ve tried and failed to do something independently – often many times. They clutter up the page and are unlikely to be used.
- Write once, edit twice (at least). And don’t be like me, adding more content with each edit. Focus on reducing.
- Avoid ‘happy talk’ like welcome messages and unnecessary instructions. It’s okay to put up a welcome post on your announcements feed in Week 1. But you don’t need to write ‘Welcome to Module X!’ at the start of every module. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_talk
Tip 4: Use plain English
There’s a common misconception that writing in plain English is ‘dumbing it down’. It’s really not. Even when we’re writing for academic publications, using plain English is always a good idea. But when it comes to communicating complex concepts to audiences who are unfamiliar with them in a learning context, using plain English becomes even more important. In fact…
[in a] usability study with domain experts in science, technology, and medical fields, we discovered that even highly educated online readers crave succinct information that is easy to scan, just like everyone else.Plain Language is for Everyone, Even Experts.
Writing in plain English is not ‘dumbing it down’. It’s actually good practice.
The more complex and unfamiliar the concepts, the more important this becomes.
Tip 5: Use active voice
Passive voice over complicates sentences and impedes conversation. For clarity, write in active voice whenever possible.
- Writing in active voice is an excellent strategy for simplifying your writing.
- An excellent strategy for simplifying your writing is writing in active voice.
When you see these examples together, it’s immediately clear that the first option is more direct, simpler, and easier to comprehend. But you’d be surprised how many people naturally lean towards the second approach – using passive voice.
This can be a tough one for academics. In some disciplines (particularly the sciences), passive voice is the norm. I find PhD students often write in passive voice until they have a sense of ownership over what they are doing, because it is less direct. I used to write in passive voice a lot – not by choice, but by default. Over time, I’ve learnt to lean towards active voice. It is possible to make the switch with time and consistent editing. It is absolutely worth the effort.
Tip 6: Use specific link text (death to ‘click here’)
Don’t hyperlink the words ‘click here’. It’s always avoidable, and never a good idea.
Hyperlink formatting is a way of giving emphasis to words. People use them as markers as they are scanning the page. Nobody wants to repeatedly have their attention drawn to the words ‘click here’.
It’s also important for people who are using screen readers, as screen readers read the link text to the user.
Instead, hyperlink keywords so users can quickly and easily tell what the link points to when they are scanning the page. Choose words that describe the content that you are linking to.
Here’s an example:
- Click here to download the assignment requirements.
- Download the assignment requirements.
- Download the assignment requirements.
We see the first example all over course sites. It’s not good practice. The second option is better because the link text is more descriptive. But it describes the action, rather than the content that’s being pointed to. I’d say the third option is the best approach, because the link text describes the content that is being linked to.
Here’s another example:
- Click here to go to the forums and share your thoughts on this week’s reading.
- Head to the forums and share your thoughts on this week’s reading.
It’s also easy to fall into the trap of using ‘more information’ as link text. That’s only marginally better than ‘click here’.
The following articles from the Nielson Norman Group are really useful reads on link text:
- Better Link Labels: 4Ss for Encouraging Clicks
- “Learn More” Links: You Can Do Better
- Writing Hyperlinks: Salient, Descriptive, Start with Keyword
Tip 7: Infuse personality
When we’re working with online cohorts, the content we provide on our course sites is often one of the main ways we communicate with students. We may not get to engage with them in a synchronous environment like an online class. But it’s still possible to ‘be you’ in the content you communicate, even if you never get to deliver that content in person.
The web is a less formal medium than a textbook or journal article. I find that embracing that – infusing my personality in the content, adding warmth, being friendly – is a great way to communicate to students that I am approachable and keen to help them learn. Infusing personality is a way to make written content more accessible and more engaging.
Here are some tips for infusing personality in your writing:
- Write less formally than you might in a piece of academic writing. Use contractions, simple sentences, first person and active voice. Cut the jargon. Write like you speak.
- Tell stories and share anecdotes that you would use in your lecturing. Students love hearing about our experiences as professionals. Share those stories where they are relevant and appropriate.
- Instead of writing about a topic, write to your audience, as though you are talking to them.
- Be a little (but only a little!) lax with grammar and conventions. Start the occasional sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’. We do it in conversation, and it serves to keep the tone a little less formally in web content.
- Think about how you’d frame the content if you were writing a blog post, then write it that way.
Tip 8: Be accurate and up-to-date
The web is not a printed textbook with a lengthy publication timeline. It can be updated with minimal effort. Web users are accustomed to having fresh content on their screens constantly, and that creates a certain expectation when it comes to currency.
Don’t just roll your content over from one semester to the next without checking to make sure it is accurate and up-to-date. It’s not hard to check that links still work. It might take a little more effort to make sure you are presenting up-to-date case studies and readings, but it is worth the effort.
And don’t be afraid to make corrections or updates on the fly. If you find a mistake, acknowledge it and fix it.
There is a wealth of content all over the web about writing for the web. Some of the best content you’ll find online comes from the Nielsen Norman Group. Dig into their archive of articles on writing for the web.
Blogs related to marketing and copy writing are also great sources for inspiration on writing for the web.
Do you have any favourite places to get inspiration on writing for the web that you’d like to share?
I’ve been teaching about writing for the web for over a decade, and I’ve read widely on the topic from the start. My tips here are the product of all that reading. I have also worked with some great content professionals over the years, who taught me a whole lot, including (let’s be real – mostly) Sofie Falkenbach. A few years back, Sofie joined my team at QUT and led a project that developed a standard information architecture and generic content for our course sites. She taught us all a whole lot in the process. Thanks Sofie!