Four Guidelines For Readable Web Content
Readability is the capacity to which a person can read a passage of text and understand and recall what they just read. Here are some tips for improving the readability, presentation, and expressiveness of your writing on the web.
1. Write For The Web
Reading on the web isn’t easy. Computer monitors have a low screen resolution, and their projected light quickly makes our eyes fatigue. Plus, many websites and applications are built by people with no formal training in the art of typography or graphic design.
Here are some pointers to consider during the writing process:
- The average user will read at most 28% of the words on a web page, so make the words you use count. The guideline we suggest to our clients at Tuitive is to cut your copy in half, and then cut it in half again. We know this makes your inner-Tolstoy cry, but your readers will appreciate it.
- Use clear, direct, and conversational language.
- Avoid “marketese”, the exaggerated boastful text that fills bad advertisements (“Hot New Product!”). Instead, provide useful, specific information.
- Keep paragraphs short, and limit yourself to one idea per paragraph.
- Use bullet lists
- Use the inverted-pyramid style of writing, keeping your most important information at the top.
2. Organize Your Content With Sub-headers
Sub-headers are very important in allowing the user to disseminate a page of content visually. They divide the page into manageable sections and declare what each section is about. This is important to a user who is scanning the page trying to find what is most important.
Sub-headers also create a visual flow that allows users to move their eyes downward across the content.
Try limiting the main body of your web page (excluding navigation, footer, etc.) to three sizes: page title, sub-header, and body copy. Make the contrast between these styles clear and effective. Too little contrast in size and weight will make the elements clash rather than work together.
When writing, make sure sub-headers condense the point of the text they represent to a handful of words, and don’t assume the user has fully read the section above or below. Avoid overly cute or clever language; clarity is critical. Meaningful and beneficial sub-headers will keep the reader engaged and invite them to continue reading.
3. Communicate With Formatted Text
- Italics: Italics can be used for emphasis, and give your sentences a more conversational tone by implying vocal inflection. For example, the phrase “I told you I saw a monkey” has a different meaning than “I told you I saw a monkey”.
- All Caps: People read by making out the shapes of words rather than computing words letter-by-letter. For this reason text in ALL CAPS is more difficult to read because it disrupts the shapes of words we are used to seeing. Avoid using it for long passages of text or full sentences.
- Bold: Bold can make portions of your text stand out, but try not to overuse it. If you have a large blob of text that needs to be emphasized, try using a background color instead.
4. Negative Space Can Be Oh-So-Positive
The appropriate amount of space between lines of text, between letters, and between blocks of copy can greatly improves reading speed and comprehension. This white (or “negative”) space is what allows people to distinguish one letter from the next, associate blocks of text with each other, and keep track of where they are on the page.
As you’re looking at the page, squint and blur your eyes until the text becomes indecipherable. Does the page divide neatly into sections? Can you tell what the header for each section is? If not, you may need to rework your design.
- How Little Do Users Read? by Jakob Nielsen
- How To Write Exquisite Subheads by Brian Clark
- 10 Principles For Readable Web Typography by Matt Cronin
Great content here! So many times the less said well is much better that the more, more, more said badly. One of my favorite books is “Don’t Make Me Think.” for some of the same reasons pointed out here.