Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

Sarah Marriot

Did you know that 79% of readers online don’t actually read at all – they just scan webpages? Or that reading online is 25% slower than reading on paper? Or that experts suggest that online content should be 50% shorter than the equivalent on paper? So how can you use this research to help you to attract readers and encourage them to read what you have to say?
One way is to follow guidelines for accessibility, as these benefit all users not only those with accessibility issues. The logo of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) appears on many websites, to show that the content is clear, concise and readable. Another advantage for public sector organisations is that following these accessibility guidelines will help you to comply with the Disability Act 2005.
Who are you writing for?
Online writers should remember that you aren’t writing for yourself – you’re writing for the public and need to look at your content from their point of view. For example, many public sector websites feature a mission statement on their homepage but how many users go to a website looking for that?
One research body describes its role, on its homepage: ‘to add value to the work of its constituent bodies through collaborative policy development initiatives’. While that might be meaningful for the organisation, it makes little sense to most of us. It also takes up valuable space on the homepage and could make users feel excluded because they don’t understand it.
Make it clear
If you want users to stay on your site, you need to reassure them that they’re in the right place. Every page needs a heading and a first paragraph that explains what the page contains, to help users to decide if they’re going to find what they need – or if they should go elsewhere.
For example, a page with information on making a complaint might have the heading: ‘How to make a complaint’ and a first paragraph that begins: ‘If you have a complaint, we’d like to hear from you. There are four ways to make a complaint. Choose the way that suits you best’. Obviously, the page would
then contain clear instructions on the different methods.
Write for scanners
After you’ve convinced users they’re in the right place, you want them to read your webpages. Since most users scan online, the challenge is to stop them in their tracks and get them to read. This is also an essential part of achieving accessibility; WCAG say you need to write for people who scan pages.
That’s where the idea of bite-sized chunks comes in. All content on a page should be broken down into short sections, each with a sub-heading. This adds ‘white space’ onto a page, gives signposts to readers about what’s coming next, reassures them they’re still in the right place and encourages them to read
on. Every screen should contain a couple of sub-headings and these need to accurately and clearly reflect the content. If it doesn’t do what it says on the tin, users may get frustrated or irritated.
Keep it short
Writing online for a wide audience is unlike other types of writing. Everything needs to be shorter – from sections (less than one screen long) and paragraphs (six lines maximum) to sentences (20 words maximum) and words. Accessibility guidelines recommend using short everyday words that everyone understands and avoiding jargon, buzzwords, slang and ‘business speak’.
Remember that you’re not writing a report for a professional readership. Some words are simply not web-friendly, if you’re writing with accessibility in mind. In an annual report, you might write ‘numerous’ or ‘further’ but online, ‘many’ and ‘more’ are often better. 
Another way of keeping it short is to cut ‘dead wood’ – words that don’t tell readers anything new or useful. For instance, ‘In the years 2010 and 2011’ becomes ‘In 2010 and 2011’ and ‘various different’ becomes ‘various’. In formal writing, it’s common (but not pleasant) to see wordy expressions like ‘in view of the fact that’ or ‘at this point in time’. But online, it’s much better to write ‘because’ and ‘now’.
When is jargon okay?
As many public sector websites are aimed at different audiences – the public, professionals, media and experts – it could be difficult to make all pages accessible for a wide audience. But it might not be necessary.
It might be sufficient to ensure that high-level ‘popular’ pages aimed at a non-expert audience follow accessibility guidelines while pages ‘deeper’ in the site are written for an expert or professional audience and use jargon and technical terms. For example, if you label a page ‘About us’, everyone should be able to understand the content – but if you label a page with a technical term that only experts will understand, then research shows that only experts will access it.
Sarah Marriott is a highly experienced trainer and former journalist who specialises in delivering writing skills courses for the public and private sectors. Sarah has worked as a feature writer and sub-editor in The Irish Times and has been involved in training Irish Times editorial staff. She is a former lecturer on the MA in Journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of ‘Common Errors in Written English’.
Sarah’s upcoming seminars with PAI include:
Plain English, November 26th:
Proofreading, December 3rd: