Writing great content clearly, in plain English, and optimized for the web helps people understand and find the information they need quickly and easily. This approach is based on research about how people use the Internet.
As a state resource, we must write so that our site is accessible to anybody. Our users have different reading abilities and check our site on a range of devices. We are required to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) level AA 2.0.
WCAG 2.0 covers a wide range of recommendations for making web content more accessible. Following these guidelines will make content accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity and combinations of these. Following these guidelines will also make our web content more usable to users in general.
You may also want to access the WCAG Writing for Web Accessibility page.
Guidelines to ensure readability
Visitors to our website are often in a hurry to find the information they need. They may scan a page as they look for quick answers to their questions. Help our readers find what they need by following these guidelines:
- Be concise
- Use heads and subheads to “chunk” your content
- Use short lists and bullets to organize information
- Write short paragraphs—even shorter than you would on paper
- Write short sentences
Know your audience
Your writing will be most effective if you understand who you’re writing for.
To understand your audience you should know:
The HFS Audience
Our website audience is primarily prospective residents who need information about on campus housing and dining. Our secondary audience are residents and parents, then staff and faculty.
Use inclusive language
As creators and editors of website content, we have a responsibility to carefully consider the language we use and its impact on the diverse community we serve at the University and beyond. Therefore, we are accountable for ensuring racist, sexist, ageist, ableist, homophobic, or otherwise non-inclusive language are not used in our online resources.
The aim of these guidelines is to make us aware of our own biases and to help us overcome them. As with everything else we do, the inclusive language guidelines are a constant work in progress.
References for inclusive language
Use plain language
When you write clearly and get to the point without using unnecessary words you get your message across quickly and increase the chance the information will be understood and used. For more information visit the Federal plain language guidelines site.
Talk to the user. “You” is the most powerful word on the web, and a conversational tone is appropriate for our site.
If you don’t believe the difference plain language can make, look at this example:
Wordy The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half-hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing.
Clear Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.
Page titles and headings
Most people who use our site get here via a search engine. Use the same vocabulary as your audience so they can find your content. This begins with your page title and first paragraph.
When writing a page title consider if it makes sense:
- by itself—for example ‘Agreements’ doesn’t say much, but ‘Housing Agreements for Residence Halls’ does
- in search results
There is no minimum or maximum page length for our site. However:
- people only read 20–28% of a page anyway
- remember that the pressure on the brain to understand increases for every 100 words you put on a page
This means that the quicker you get to the point, the greater the chance your target audience will see the information you want them to.
Writing body copy
Keep body copy as focused as possible.
- Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ approach with the most important information at the top tapering down to detail.
- Break up text with descriptive subheadings. The text should still make sense with the subheadings removed.
- Include keywords to boost natural search rankings.
Make sure your sub-headings are front-loaded with search terms and make them active.
- gerunds, e.g. ‘Apply for housing’ not ‘Applying for housing’
- questions—answer your user's questions
- technical terms unless you’ve already explained them
- ‘introduction’ as your first section—users don’t want an introduction, just give the most important information
The alt tag is the most basic form of image description, and it should be included on all images. The language will depend on the purpose of the image:
- If it’s a creative photo or supports a story, describe the image in detail in a brief caption.
- If the image is serving a specific function, describe what’s inside the image in detail. People who don’t see the image should come away with the same information as if they had.
- If you’re sharing a chart or graph, include the data in the alt text so people have all the important information.
Don’t use FAQs
FAQs are strongly discouraged on our site. If you write content by starting with user needs, you won’t need to use FAQs.
FAQs are discouraged because they:
- duplicate other content on the site
- can’t be front-loaded (putting the most important words people will search for), which makes usability difficult
- mean that content is not where people expect to find it; it needs to be in context
- can add to search results with duplicate, competing text
The main purpose of links is to eliminate duplicate information. If the content exists elsewhere on our site or on an external site, link to it instead.
Provide links in context
Make sure all links are provided in context, at the point in the content at which they’re useful. Don’t group links together at the bottom of the page.
Don’t use unsorted lists of related links to point users to content you think they might be interested in.
Writing link text
When writing a link, make it descriptive and front-load it with relevant terms instead of using something generic like ‘click here’ or ‘more’. Generic links do not make sense out of context or tell users where a link will take them. They also do not work for people using screen readers, who often scan through lists of links to navigate a page. It’s important the links are descriptive so they make sense in isolation.
For links that lead to information rather than action, use the text about that information as the link. For example, ‘Husky Card Services’. Consider using the title of the page the link goes to as your link text.
If your link takes the user to a page where they can start a task, start your link with a verb. For example, ‘apply to live on campus’.
Do not use the same link text to link to different places.
Links help people scan content, so do not create too many or link to the same webpage throughout your page.
Think about the size of the link users need to select. For users with reduced motor skills, a one word link could be very difficult to select.
You can add links anywhere in body text, but not in titles, summaries or subheadings.
Link to an external website if:
- a user can only complete a task using a third party website, for example a Google form or training site
- there is a user need for content that is not published on our site, for example information about awards we have received
- a third-party solution has been purchased, for example Bay Laurel Catering order site
Rules for linking to external websites:
- Users must be able to access the content without having to pay or register to see it.
- Check if the site is usable and accessible (especially on mobile) and if it’s a safe place to send a user. Read the site’s privacy and cookie policies.
- Plan how you’re going to maintain the link. The content on the website can stop being useful. Links break and the design, content and privacy can change without warning.
The data behind our Web writing standards
and a Tip:
Testing your document’s readability
Use Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics feature—part of the Spelling & Grammar check—to measure your progress as you write and edit copy. Try to make your reading ease number go up and your grade level go down. You can improve your readability by using active voice and short words, sentences, and paragraphs.