A guide to web design


Simple and Clear Language

Keep your sentences short and break your text into short paragraphs.

Use the active voice, unless you have a good reason to use the passive. (Say ‘Janet crossed the street.’ not ‘The street was crossed by Janet.’)

Avoid jargon, slang and acronyms, and link technical terms to a definition.

Making Accessible Web Sites for
the United Nations

10 principles from the Gunning Formula of Readability.

Help with writing in English.

Constance Hale: Seven Deadly Sins

Writing well takes attention to what you want to say and the knowledge and discipline to say it clearly and simply. A place to start is this list frequent errors in English usage. They can help you focus on common errors, logic and common sense.

“The seven deadly sins” are grammatical errors I see time and time again:

its v. it’s. Many of us may have learned our grade-school grammar too well. “Apostrophe s” is the sign for possession, right? So when an it owns something, we write it’s. But it’s is a contraction of it is. And contractions trumps possessives. So its is the possessive, as in “I love grammar and all its idiosyncracies.”

they v. he or she. He or she is cumbersome when you don’t know a person’s gender. We used to use the masculine he. Modern feminism made that unpalatable. Many writers try to be politically correct, using they, and end up grammatically incorrect. If gender is unknown, you have three good choices: 1) use he or she; 2) pick he in some instances, she in others; 3) make the antecedent plural and use they. (Instead of “a person must speak his or her mind” write “people must speak their minds.”

between you and I. Between is a preposition, and prepositions must be followed by objects. This means that the pronoun here must be me not I. Between you and me is correct.

who v. whom. Who is pronoun we use for the subject of a sentence, as in “Who called?” Whom is the pronoun we use for the object of a sentence, as in “You called whom?”

good v. well. How many times have you heard a sentence like “This car runs good”? Get this straight: Good is an adjective; it modifies a noun. Well is an adverb; it modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb. When a chef cooks well, a good steak is the result. When a writer writes well, the prose is good

fewer v. less. When you see a grocery store sign reading “12 items or fewer,” congratulate the manager. Fewer is the correct adjective when the noun it modifies is a plural comprising multiple units. Less is the correct adjective when the noun it modifies is something that is a mass, or an idea, rather than a number of units. Nonfat milk has fewer calories than whole milk; we should have less Coke in our diet than milk.

lay v. lie. Learn this to stay a step ahead of most writers and editors. Lay is a transitive verb. It must have an object to complete its meaning: A chicken lays eggs. Lie is an intransitive verb. It needs no object to make sense: The dog lies down. (Down is an adverb.)

All of us commit these sins – it’s hard not to when we keep hearing the wrong thing. But let a red flag pop up every time you use one of these terms. Stop and walk through the grammar. Then relax and have fun writing.

Plain English at a glance

Plain English means creating a document that is...

How do you create a plain English document?

Use these tools to write clearly:

Design and Layout

Number of characters in a line.

Once you go beyond 65 characters in a line, readers have great difficulty reading at their normal speed. You may want to switch to another layout that makes your document easy to read.

Justifying margins.

Justifying the right hand margin decreases readability because it causes the eye to stop at irregular spacing between words. Justifying means making the margins flush. This document has a justified left margin, and an unjustified, or ragged, right margin.

Capitalizing sentences.

It‘s very difficult to read sentences in all capital letters because it’s unnatural and the normal visual cues are missing. A short header is readable in all caps, but anything more strains the reader. Consider these other methods to highlight important information: boxing the information, changing type size or font, using italics, or a light screen.

Use descriptive headers.

You increase readability by using headers that specifically describe the sections of your documents. Your reader absorbs information more quickly and easily, and understands its relationship to other information, if you use headers. The headers can then become a table of contents that communicates information more effectively to the reader.

Break up dense copy.

If dense copy fills a page, you increase the chances that your reader will become discouraged. Give your reader a visual and mental break by using shorter paragraphs and headers.

Use white space.

Although cost may dictate how much white space you can use to open up your document and make it easier to read, make use of the white space you currently have. If you have a page where the text ends in the middle, ask yourself if you could have used a bigger type size and headers more effectively.

By Nancy M. Smith, former Director, SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Assistance, and Ann D. Wallace, former Senior Counsel to the Director, Division of Corporation Finance

Web-Writing that Works

What we've discovered over the past decade is that people don't read on-line. They also don't read web pages with a lot of text. To get people to read half your words, you have to limit your page to 110 words or fewer. Some basic plain-language techniques (using active voice and avoiding hidden verbs) can help you eliminate words. But, you need to eliminate more than just words – make sure what you put up is really necessary.

Eliminate excess words and content

On average, visitors read about 18% of what's on the page, and the more words you have, the lower the percent they read. So, use an inverted pyramid. Begin with the shortest and clearest statement you can make about your topic. Remember, seconds count! Here are some more writing tips to get your users reading quickly.

Tips for web-writing

Identify and target your readers top tasks

People come to your website with a specific task in mind. If your website doesnʼt help them complete that task, theyʼll leave.