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Writing For The Web

Reading online is quite different from reading printed material.

In preparing content for your online course, you may find you have existing materials you want to incorporate. To help maximize student learning, chances are you need to do some editing to get these ready for the web.

In a 1997 survey conducted by Jakob Nielson, researchers found approximately 80% of their test users scanned web pages. A mere 16% read through the content word for word.

The study also showed most users read in a roughly “F” formation. First, they read across the top part of the page. Next, they skip down several lines and carry out a second horizontal sweep, following this up with a vertical skimming of the left side of the page.

What can you learn from the online reading habits of the test users? Put the most important information in the first two paragraphs. If students do not read any further, at least they are exposed to the main concepts you want to get across. Students who have cognitive difficulties may quit reading part way through the page and will benefit if the information is structured in this way.

Consider using more of the following guidelines from Jakob Nielson’s website.

Assist page scanning

  • Present information in chunks.
  • Use bulleted lists to further break up content.
  • Put your most important content at the top of the screen or in the region of the browser window that loads first. This portion of the web page is visible without scrolling.
  • In your subheadings, paragraphs, and bullet points, add information-carrying words. This allows students to quickly see these keywords when skimming down the left side of the page.
  • Use brief sentences.

Create well-structured paragraphs

  • Present one idea per paragraph. Limit paragraphs to two to four sentences.
  • Put the most important information in the first sentence, followed by details.

Reduce word count

  • Use 50% less words than you use in print.
  • If a page is longer than two or three screens, break it up into several shorter pages.

Highlight key words

  • Use color, bold text, italic, or typeface variations, but in moderation.
  • Avoid using ALL CAPS. This is difficult to read and carries extra emphasis in a screen reader-may sound like shouting. Moreover, capitalized words in sentences and paragraphs are harder to read than lowercase words. Capitalization causes problems for people with dyslexia.
  • Avoid underlining. Students may assume it is a link.

Use a conversational tone

  • Write as if you are having a conversation, keeping the tone informal, but informational.
  • Use personal pronouns and action verbs.
  • Use active voice so sentences are concise, flow smoothly, and are easy to understand.
  • Avoid jargon and unnecessarily complex or technical language.