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The Yahoo! Style Guide
The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World
By Chris Barr
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Yahoo! Inc.
All rights reserved.
Write for the Web
In this chapter
* Shape your text for online reading. People read computer screens differently than they do printed materials.
* Get to the point. Put the most important information up-front, where readers can find it fast.
* Make text easy to scan. Organize your content to help people scan for key words and phrases.
* Write for the world. The Web is available around the globe. Will your text be understood in Hong Kong? New Delhi? Rome?
* Help people navigate. It's the designer's job to create a website that's easy to use — and it's the writer's job to make sure that the words support that goal.
Anyone can publish on the Web, but not everyone is publishing material that's ideal for online reading. Enter The Yahoo! Style Guide, your guide to writing and editing for the Web.
People have different expectations when they read online text — most notably, they expect instant gratification, the ability to find what they want on a webpage fast. So as a content creator, you must consider your online readers: how much text they can digest, how they scan the screen, how easily they can find and navigate your site, whether they're viewing your content on a large monitor or a tiny phone screen. You can meet their needs and expectations — and secure an audience for your site — by providing clear, organized, easy-to-understand content that works well on a variety of devices, not to mention on the Web itself.
This chapter provides an overview of the basic principles of successful Web writing; the chapters that follow will cover these principles in more depth.
Shape your text for online reading
Text that works best on the Web is text that gets to the point fast and that makes it easy for readers to pick out key information. Here's why.
Online reading is an experience that's different from reading text in print. A big part of that difference is physical: For most people, online reading takes longer — or feels as though it does. A computer screen displays text at a lower resolution, with less detail and sharpness than a printed page, so letters are fuzzier. And many people feel that their eyes tire faster reading text on a screen (especially a smaller screen) than reading type on paper.
* * *
Eye-tracking: Where do readers look first?
To catch a site visitor's eye, it helps to know where that eye is likely to look. Eye-tracking studies give us the most likely locations.
Eye-tracking technology unobtrusively follows a reader's eye movements as the person views a page. The equipment records on a "gaze map" where the person's eyes roam and where they stop to read. Several gaze maps are then plotted on a "heat map" that highlights the areas where readers looked the most.
Yahoo! eye-tracking studies reveal a general pattern to the way people browse webpages:
* People scan the main sections of a page to determine what it's about and whether they want to stay longer.
* They make decisions about the page in as little as three seconds.
* If they decide to stay, they pay the most attention to the content in the top part of the screen.
When people do decide to read a page, their eyes sweep horizontally from left to right, often focusing on a roughly triangular area in the upper-left corner of a webpage, or the upper-left corner of the webpage's main block of content. But this pattern varies depending on a page's layout and purpose. For example, a person's eyes will move differently over a photo-heavy slideshow, a text- heavy blog, or a page with a two-or three-column layout.
Most online readers scan first. According to computer usability expert Jakob Nielsen, "People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences." Eye-tracking studies, which examine where people's eyes roam on a webpage, reveal these basic truths about site visitors:
* They scan to see whether the content is relevant.
* They are more likely to scan the top of the page than the bottom.
* They look at headings, boldfaced terms, and images.
Scanning requires less brainpower than reading. Concise sentences that convey their point quickly are more likely to grab visitors than long, complex sentences and are more likely to entice people to explore further.
TIP Look at your page as if you're visiting it for the first time, or enlist a friend who's never seen it before. Where does your eye go first as you try to determine the gist of the page? This is the area that should contain the most important words, headlines, links, and other content. Loading relevant words and images in that area helps people quickly determine whether your page has the information they need. Often this part of the page is the triangular area in the upper-left corner. See "Eye-tracking: Where do readers look first?".
Get to the point
Readers assess webpages in an instant. Your content has a few seconds — three or less! — to encourage people to read more, to take action, or to navigate to another of your pages. Impatient readers will click the Back button in a hurry or will stop skimming and go to a search box.
To get to the point fast and keep people on your site, follow these three guidelines for effective online writing:
1. Keep it short.
* Use short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, bulleted lists, and short pages.
* Slim down copy from print sources (a company brochure, for example) to suit the online format.
Architronixx, founded by an architect, Jay Pogue, an engineer, Barry Beasley, and a sound engineer, Mari DeHart, was a totally new concept in 1981, when it was founded. The idea — a firm that merged architecture, structural engineering, and acoustics — was brand-new. Today, Architronixx is still the leader in the field it pioneered almost three decades ago, and our buildings have garnered praise from national and international authorities ...
In 1981, Architronixx invented a new concept: buildings that combine innovative architecture, intelligent engineering, and acoustic design. Today, Architronixx is still the leader in the field it pioneered almost three decades ago.
Learn more about how our designs work.
Walk through our award-winning buildings.
Read about our founders.
* * *
2. Front-load your content.
* In general, put the most important content in the upper-left area of the screen. Put other important pieces of information at the top of the page.
* Decide what's most important to communicate, and emphasize it with prominent headings, boldface type, and other visual cues.
* Put the most important information at the beginning of headlines, paragraphs, and sentences. Don't spend time leading up to your point.
* Place the most important words at the beginning of page titles, headlines, subheadings, and links. The most important words are typically your keywords, which are the words and phrases people may use in search engines when trying to locate your type of content. For information on keyword selection and placement, see Chapter 17, "Optimize Your Site for Search Engines."
* Place important but supplemental or tangential material in a secondary position on the page.
TIP If your content is unavoidably lengthy or complex, consider putting a summary or a bulleted list of topics that the page covers at the top of the page.
3. Keep it simple.
* Include only one or two ideas per short paragraph.
* Choose common words over more difficult ones. Even if more technical or sophisticated language is appropriate for your site, your readers will appreciate simpler language in the areas where their eyes are scanning to determine what a page is about.
TIP Write for a lower reading-comprehension level than you expect many of your readers to have, and you'll make all your readers happy. To learn how to assess readability, see "Test your copy's readability".
* Delete fluff. Direct, objective text — not promotional copy — is more helpful to the site visitor, and readers perceive it as more trustworthy. For more about this topic, see "Get to the good stuff".
Not only can you indulge in relaxing spa treatments at this newly renovated hotel, but so can your dog. The Paws-and-Relax Resort offers complete individual and customized service for people and their canine companions, focusing on deep-tissue massage and acupuncture. No other spa packages in the city offer this decadent, pet-friendly deal.
The newly renovated Paws-and-Relax Resort offers relaxing customized spa treatments for you and your dog.
Pamper yourself and your pet with deep-tissue massage and acupuncture.
No other spa package in the city offers this decadent, pet-friendly deal.
* * *
Short, simple, and front-loaded: These qualities are Web-writing essentials, whether you're crafting text for an email or a webpage, whether readers are viewing your copy on a mobile device or a desktop computer. As we delve into different types of content, we'll mention these principles again and again.
Make text easy to scan
Help people scan for important information by breaking up text into digestible, interesting chunks.
* Meaningful headlines and subheadings break up a page of text by visually grouping related chunks of information. Avoid overly cute or clever headlines that may confuse or alienate visitors. Just say what the section is about. For help with writing compelling headings for the Web, see Chapter 4, "Construct Clear, Compelling Copy." Well-written headings also help search engine optimization (SEO). For details, see Chapter 17.
* Bulleted lists (like this one) help readers spot important points. "Lists" gives guidelines for creating effective, well-formed lists.
Everyone loves a picnic, which makes this deluxe picnic basket set the perfect gift. You'll find it's fully loaded with plates, glasses, flatware, and napkins for four, plus a bread knife, a cutting board, salt and pepper shakers, and a corkscrew. It even comes with a fleece blanket for the family to sit on. Buy it now for only $49.99.
This deluxe picnic basket set makes the perfect gift. It's fully loaded with:
Plates, glasses, flatware, and napkins for four
Bread knife and cutting board
Salt and pepper shakers
Buy it now — $49.99
* * *
* Tables organize and make sense of information and add a graphic element to a page.
* Short paragraphs, with one or just a few related sentences, leave white space on a page and draw attention to key ideas. See "Paragraphs".
* Bold text catches the reader's attention. But be careful not to overuse this effect: Too much bold text is hard to read and obscures the essential information.
* Pull quotes — particularly important or engaging snippets of your text set off in an eye-catching way — can be used as graphic elements that also underscore key points. But beware of fancy formatting: In one study by Nielsen Norman Group, people ignored a key area of a website because the words were in large red text and resembled promotional copy.
TIP These principles also apply to publishing online versions of printed documents such as brochures, press releases, newsletters, and manuals. Cut, restructure, and rewrite the content as necessary so that people can grasp the core message quickly and easily.
For more detailed information on writing headings, sentences, and paragraphs that work well on the Web, see Chapter 4.
Write for the world
Even though you are writing for a specific audience (see Chapter 2, "Identify Your Audience," and Chapter 3, "Define Your Voice"), your actual audience may have a variety of characteristics you haven't considered. For example, they may have disabilities that affect how they access and navigate your site; they may also be older or younger than you realize, more or less proficient in reading comprehension, and more or less knowledgeable in the subject matter of your site.
Keep in mind, too, that your site may be viewed in Antarctica or Zambia — virtually anywhere in the world. Your readers may not speak English as their first language. Even native English speakers may be American, Australian, British, Canadian, or another nationality.
The Web is a global, multicultural environment, so write to appeal to the widest possible audience:
* Keep words and sentences short and simple unless your site specifically targets a sophisticated audience that expects complexity.
* Use gender-neutral terms whenever possible (for example, firefighter instead of fireman or humankind instead of mankind).
* Avoid location-specific references. Writing our country and foreign country and sometimes even us and we automatically alienates readers who are not in the same country or interest community as you.
* Avoid culture-specific slang or puns. For example, baseball metaphors may not be understood outside the United States.
The swimwear will be promoted in May by our country's best- known swimmer. The style has already gained popularity in a number of foreign markets.
The swimwear will be promoted in May by Australia's best-known swimmer. The style has already gained popularity in many countries.
* * *
For more instruction on how to make your language accessible and inclusive, see Chapter 5, "Be Inclusive, Write for the World."
* * *
Test your copy's readability
Your readers may include kids, people who don't speak English as their first language, and busy people who need to decide quickly whether a site is relevant. All of them appreciate a clear, straightforward voice based on simple words and sentence structures. That doesn't mean you need to talk down to your audience; on the contrary, you're respecting your readers by not wasting their time.
Readability statistics count characters, words, sentences, and paragraphs and tell you the reading level of your writing. Testing readability is easy. Microsoft Word, for example, can show you how your copy scores on the Flesch Reading Ease test and the Flesch- Kincaid Grade Level test.
The Flesch Reading Ease test checks syllables per word and words per sentence. The test rates text on a 100-point scale: The higher the score, the more understandable the copy. Aim for a score of 60 or higher.
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test scores text according to U.S. grade-school levels. For most websites, a sixth-to eighth-grade reading level is appropriate for readers who scan. If your audience is younger or less proficient in English, you may want to target a sixth-grade level or lower.
To test your copy in Microsoft Office Word 2007 for Windows:
1. Make sure that your copy of the software is set up to show readability statistics:
* Click the Microsoft Office button, then Word Options.
* Click Proofing.
* Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Word, check the Check grammar with spelling and Show readability statistics checkboxes.
Excerpted from The Yahoo! Style Guide by Chris Barr. Copyright © 2010 Yahoo! Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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