Don’t Be So Wordy – Using Brief Text to Best Effect

Author: Kevin Moe
Date: November 15, 2013

A web use study done by the Nielsen Norman Group showed that users, on average, read about 20 percent of the words on any given web page. Digging deeper, the study found that for each additional 100 words added to a web page, visitors spend only 4.4 seconds more at the site.

The Nielsen study was done in 2008. It is safe to assume that in the past five years, viewers have even less time to devote to a web page as the choices of viewing material has skyrocketed. The challenge facing information designers for the web is how to say more with less. Here are some ideas.

  • Use shorter sentence and paragraph structure. In general, visitors to your site are not on a casual stroll, nor are they looking for dense, fluffy prose. They are looking to complete a task, whether it’s finding information or learning how to do something. They don’t have time to wade through long sentences and even longer paragraphs. Break up your sentences so they only contain a single thought and keep your paragraphs to a maximum of about three or four sentences each.
  • Better yet, use bullet points to break up your text into even finer chunks of information. Readers have an easier time scanning and digesting information when it appears in a list form.
  • Use a numbered list if your information has a specific hierarchy, such as steps in a process. The numbers give an immediate cue to readers as to what they much do to complete a specific task. The numbers also serve to make sure they don’t lose their place while completing the process.
  • Begin each of your bullet points or numbered instructions with a verb. This brings parallelism into your structure (a grammatical concern) and also engages the reader in taking action.
  • Avoid using long words when shorter ones can do as you write your sentences. Why say “transcribe” when you can say “write?” Or “use” instead of “utilize?” An online thesaurus can help you find easier words to use in place of your longer ones.
  • Define hard words immediately. If you have to use jargon on your site, make sure to immediately define what these words and phrases mean so visitors don’t become momentarily confused. This confusion can cause their thoughts to stray from the points you are trying to make and ultimately cause them to leave the site.
  • Break up your text with white space or some graphics. A gray page, even if it is in bullet point form, will look daunting to most visitors.
  • Make sure your text is actually leading the reader to a goal. If your text is not directly involved in helping your viewers complete their tasks, it should be eliminated. Examples of this are unnecessary asides, too much redundancy, and what Steve Krug calls “happy talk,” which mostly consists of welcoming introductory text.
  • Visit a comparable site and see what you actually read on its pages. Chances are the stuff you ignore will be the same kinds of things that your visitors will ignore on your site.

Here are some sites with more information on how to use your web words effectively.

Writing compelling website copy

10 principles of web writing

How to write for a website

8 ways to get people to read your content


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