writing for the web

Abstract art in front of James Graham Building on Headingley Campus


We read differently online

So, the principles for writing good copy for print aren’t always the same as those for creating good online content. Luckily, as creators of online content, we can adopt a few simple techniques to help our audiences.

Content that works is...


It must be something that our audience needs.


Always use Plain English - this isn't dumbing down, it's opening up.


Craft your content to make it both captivating and convincing.


Tell them everything they need to know in order to achieve their goal.


Get straight to the point and only tell them what they need.


Make sure it’s accurate – if you’re unsure, check.


Approach all content – whether it’s copy, maps, images, videos – with the belief that what your users need is always more important than any message the university wants push.

Also, words, not design or images, bring users to your webpage – from the terms used to search, to choosing the page from the search results. So, use smarter copy not more copy in order to help your users.


user journey

Your content should take the user on the following journey:

  1. I have a specific question that I want to answer.
  2. I’ve found the right place quickly and easily.
  3. I understand the information.
  4. I’ve answered my question.
  5. I trust what I’ve been told.
  6. I know what to do next.

keep it simple

Use short sentences, clear headings and subheadings. Use simple language – help our users find the information they need quickly and easily. Help them absorb the information they need effortlessly.

Who, what, how

It also helps to check user profiles – this helps us make sure we’re giving our users what they need from the page.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who are we talking to?
  • What do we want them to do, feel or think?
  • How can we use page structure and words to achieve this?

Who is the page for? How’re they feeling by the time the get to your page? What do they want to know and, what do they need to know? Also, what do they already know? Answering these questions will help you to tell them the right things, at the right time and in the right way.

This covers two aspects of communication:

  • What do your audience want to do as a result of this conversation? This could be as simple as paying their rent, finding out where an event is happening, or registering for a newsletter
  • What do you want your audience to understand at the end of it? This is usually a secondary consideration but can have a profound effect on how you say what you say – are you offering a warning? 'Pay your rent or THIS will happen', or saying how easy a thing is? 'Paying your rent couldn’t be simpler…'

Knowing this from the start will help you to think about what you are going to say and how to say it.

So, you’ve thought about who you’re talking to, and you know what outcomes you’re aiming for. Now it’s time to think about how to make sure it happens.

  • What’s the best way to have this conversation? Is it a web page? A blog? Social media?
  • How should the information be given?
  • Do the most important points come through loud and clear? Are they highlighted or at the beginning of what you’re writing or saying?
9 years

The average reading age of the UK population – that is, they have achieved the reading ability normally expected of a 9-year-old. The Guardian has a reading age of 14 and the Sun has a reading age of 8.

Don’t mistake reading age for stupidity

Reading age is a reflection of the fact that people are busy, possibly stressed and are looking for an answer. As such, they want copy that is easy to read – this means using a lot of high-frequency words – namely, prepositions, conjunctions and pronouns (and, the, on, but, by, me, she, it).

Obviously, you need the low-frequency words too – nouns, verbs and adjectives (kettle, making, lovely) – but by keeping your language to commonly used terms, you make it easier and quicker to read.

respect yor readers

If you respect your readers, you’ll make your content work for them. Never underestimate how sophisticated your audience’s use of language can be, or their understanding of language and marketing techniques.

If you make your content work for them, your readers will notice – and they will feel as though you respect them.

  • If they feel that you respect them, they will trust what you say
  • If they trust you, they will interact with your content

Language is a living thing

Humans learn, evolve and adapt and you need to adapt with them. Focus on making all your content user-centred. Don’t be wedded to grammar rules you were taught in primary school – language moves on and you should move with it. You’re trying to communicate as effectively and efficiently as possible.

The links below will take you pages that compile more detailed information about how to make specific elements of your page as useful to your users as possible.

Tips for microcopy

This includes browser titles, headlines, taglines, email subject lines, tooltips, CTAs, navigation labels, form fields’ validation messages. 

Read about microcopy

Calls to action (CTAs)

CTAs are distinct enough to warrant their own section as they’re the keys to our users’ interaction with our pages.

Learn how to write effective CTAs

General tips and best practice

We've collected together all the current wisdom on how best to present your online content in the most user friendly way possible.

Read our best practice tips