Writing for the Web: Save the Time of the Reader

If your library has a website, you are in the publishing business. Taking your role as website publisher seriously means taking writing ­seriously.

Librarians are already experienced with many types of writing, having written reams of pages for school and thousands of emails on the job. But writing for the web is different and requires a special skill set that isn’t necessarily intuitive or offered as part of a librarian’s graduate studies. Luckily, these skills are easy to understand and can be developed with a bit of practice. Good thing, too—featuring appropriate writing on your website is a kindness to users, a time­saving mechanism that will let them find what they want with greater ease.

Below are seven tips for web writing, but you don’t have to wait for new content to get started. Rewriting content already on your site is an extremely effective way to make big improvements and a good way to take stock of what you’ve got online. Just as collection development librarians periodically take stock of the materials in a library’s collection, think of this exercise as the best way to keep relevant info for your users close at hand.

1. Use fewer words
People are impatient and dislike when they’re forced to comb through a mess of words to find what they want. Be economical. Don’t bother writing marketing fluff, and judiciously use modifiers. Instead of telling people, “We’re really committed to providing the most excellent service!,” just give them what you’re promising.
2. Write like a journalist
Very few people will voluntarily read an entire web page when they’re just looking for one piece of information (cf. “people are impatient”). Web writers can borrow from the journalism world and place the most important information at the top of the page where people are most likely to see it. This is known as the “inverted pyramid” and places supporting information next, followed by any background or historical data. People who are interested in this ancillary information will seek it out even when it’s neatly tucked out of the way.
3. Make pages easy to scan
Large blocks of text are impenetrable. Instead of writing essay-length instructions or descriptions of services, break things up into discrete chunks or steps. People then will be able to skip over the sections they don’t need.
4. Use headings
Be sure to label your easy-to-scan chunks of information with a heading. Headings should let the reader know what they’re about to read so they can determine if it is relevant to what they’re trying to accomplish. Don’t let headings and body text blend together. Set the headings apart with basic graphic design techniques like increasing their size or making them bold.
5. Employ lists
Since they are easy to scan, lists and tables are an effective way to present information. Any time you’re contending with a series in a sentence—just look for that serial comma—ask yourself if converting the sentence to a bulleted list makes sense. Your loan period and late fee specifics are obvious candidates for this treatment.
6. Use images judiciously
While images can add visual interest to a web page, they can also be distracting and add clutter. Use images when they’re relevant, authentic, and add value. Avoid clip art—full stop.
7. Be friendly
You don’t have to be bland or institutional when you’re writing for the web. Conveying friendliness and making people feel welcome is just as important on the web as it is in your physical library.

Where to Start

Spending one or two days rewriting your website’s most visited pages is a great way to tune up your site—no tech skills required. Take a look at your website analytics and choose which pages you want to edit in order of their importance.

A typical rewrite process can look like this:

Assess accuracy. Check in with the owner of the content to make sure all of the facts on the page are correct.
Remove words. It will be possible to simplify sentences while conveying the same ­information.
Remove information. Web pages don’t always need to be as explicit as possible. Consider further simplifying pages by removing extraneous information. If you have trouble assessing what information people need on a page, just ask them. Spend an afternoon talking with patrons about their top questions on a topic. It will be clear what you can remove to increase the visibility of important items.

A Step Beyond Publishing

Though we began with the notion of taking our duty as publishers seriously, there’s one important difference to our benefit: our content isn’t canonical once it is published online. Plan to review it constantly and, if possible, improve the most important materials on your site.

Consider your site as a point of dialog and interaction with your users. Like any good conversation, it will develop over time and take new shape as the context around it develops. Your users’ needs will undoubtedly evolve and with them so should the copy and materials available on your site. Where once patrons needed explicit driving and transit directions, now an embedded Google Map might replace a section of text. Likewise, if your library offers streaming music or video services, see if the amount of text devoted to those is commensurate to the traffic they receive. Meanwhile, if you still have long pages dedicated to VHS lending guidelines, it might be time to revisit.

The goal here is to take writing for the web seriously but not to treat it as a blunt instrument bereft of life and unable to evolve. As you add and edit content, consider how your users are reading your site and how to save them time and hassle whenever possible—they’ll thank you by making the most efficient use of what you publish.

This first appeared in The User Experience, a column I’m writing for Library Journal.

4 thoughts on “Writing for the Web: Save the Time of the Reader”

  1. Nicely said, Aaron. We are interviewing candidates for an opening at our library right now and writing is a big part of the conversation. Of course, their letters and resumes are very important. Save my time on your resume and I may give you a chance to save others time as a member of our staff.

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