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Discovery & User Experience

Writing for the Web

Comic: Venn diagram depicting intersection of "things on the front page of a university website" and "things people go to the site looking for"

I presented a workshop on “Writing for the Web” at the Libraries’ In-House Institute in early May. While I could certainly go on and on about this subject, here I will just provide a quick(ish) wrap-up and share my list of suggested readings. (You can find my slides and reading list at

Clear communication is essential to delivering an excellent user experience, which is why we have a Website Editor (me!) in the Digital User Experience department.

Writing for the web includes a broad range of strategies:

  • Style/usage (and careful proofreading – typographical errors impact our site’s credibility)
  • Understanding user needs
  • Content strategy

Who’s reading your content?

  • Who are you writing for? Different audiences respond to different terminology, tone, context. For example, if international students or stuffy faculty members are part of your expected readership, you probably want to avoid slang.
  • Context. Where are your readers in the research process? What have they already read?
  • Metrics can help you understand your readers – in the Libraries we use Google Analytics and Crazy Egg.

How are they reading your content?

  • People read differently on the web. They scan pages quickly.
  • LESS IS MORE – don’t bury the important content in filler
  • Mobile devices are heavily used, especially by college students. Will your content work on a smartphone or on a tablet? Does it need to?
  • Content may be repurposed. It might be included on a class page, listened to via a screen reader, shared on Facebook or Pinterest, maybe even (gasp!) printed out on paper.
  • Content structure and metadata make it easier for your content to flow into these various containers. Improved content management systems make this easier to accomplish.

Some practical suggestions.

Content Strategy!

Kristina Halvorson: Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

  • Plans – there is an overall plan for how content is created, stored, displayed, used and reused
  • Creation – style guide, training for content writers, metadata strategy
  • Publication – editorial strategy/workflow, appropriate use of metadata to help identify, organize, and reuse content
  • Governance – responsibility for content is clear; standards are communicated to content providers; content management systems are optimized to help writers provide well-managed content; search systems and info architecture are optimized to help users find and use published content; content lifecycle is defined so that content is regularly reviewed (ROT analysis: Redundant, Outdated, Trivial)
  • Useful content – we understand our users’ needs and provide content that helps them to further their goals
  • Usable content – content makes sense to our users; they can find what they need and they know what it is when they find it; it is placed in appropriate context for them

To sum up: We need to talk to our users and listen to them so that we understand why they are here and what they need to do. We can then create calls to action that make sense to our users and help them fulfill their goals.

Suggested Readings:

The Basics

Kissane, Erin. “Writing Content That Works for a Living.” A List Apart. 4 Nov. 2008. Web. 2 May 2012.

Kupersmith, John. “Library Terms That Users Understand.” eScholarship (University of California). 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 2 May 2012.

Nielsen, Jakob. “F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content.” 17 Apr. 2006. Web. 2 May 2012.

—. “Microcontent: Headlines and Subject Lines.” 6 Sept. 1998. Web. 2 May 2012. (This is old, but still pretty good.)

Redish, Ginny. “Content as Conversation.” UX Magazine. 4 May 2012. Web. 4 May 2012. (A great article that will help you find the right tone for your content.)

Redish, Janice (Ginny). Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works. Boston: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2007. Web. 2 May 2012. (Available online with IU login at

Schmidt, Aaron. “Writing for the Web: Save the Time of the Reader.” Walking Paper. 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 2 May 2012.  (Ranganathan’s principles come through again! This is an excellent starting place.)

“The User Experience Group: Online Writing Guide.” Web. 2 May 2012. (Compiled by the Process eXperience Architecture Group, formerly the User Experience Group, at UITS. Includes some good basic references.)


Going Further: Content Strategy

Casey, Meghan. “Content Strategy Can Save Us All From Slobdom.” Brain Traffic. 4 Aug. 2011. Web. 2 May 2012. (I love this article! It very nicely explains what content strategy is and why it is important for websites. Also, it has Fraggles.)

Cohen, Georgy. “Structured Content: An Overview.” Meet Content. 27 Mar. 2012. Web. 2 May 2012.

Halvorson, Kristina. “The Discipline of Content Strategy.” A List Apart. 16 Dec. 2008. Web. 2 May 2012. (This one is a good place to start.)

—. Content Strategy for the Web. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2010. Print. (A good, thorough textbook. There is a second edition out now, but I haven’t seen it yet.)

Kissane, Erin. The Elements of Content Strategy. New York: A Book Apart, 2011. Print.

Koczon, Cameron. “Orbital Content.” A List Apart. 19 Apr. 2011. Web. 2 May 2012. (This is one of those articles that really changed how I think about content.)

Schmidt, Aaron. “Library Websites Should Be Smaller.” Walking Paper. 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 2 May 2012. (Nuts and bolts! Here’s how some of this applies specifically to library websites.)

Simmons, Amber. “You Can Get There From Here: Websites for Learners.” A List Apart. 3 Nov. 2009. Web. 2 May 2012.   (Not specifically about library websites, but definitely applies to us.)


  • Anne Haines says:

    Katherine – Hooray! So glad this looks helpful. If we can just get people thinking strategically about their content, even a little bit, I think our site will be much improved. Let me know if you have any comments or questions about any of the readings! I am always happy to talk about this sort of thing.

  • Katherine says:

    Thanks for this, Anne! I just spent the early afternoon searching for tips for redoing website content in preparation for Drupal. I should have come here first! I’ll take a look at the sources you listed.

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