Your writing will be most effective if you understand who you’re writing for.

To understand your audience you should know:

  • how they behave, what they’re interested in or worried about – so your writing will catch their attention and answer their questions
  • their vocabulary – so that you can use the same terms and phrases they’ll use to search for content

When you have more than one audience, make your writing as easy to read as possible so it’s accessible to everyone.

How people read

Knowing how people read means you’ll write in a way they can understand easily and quickly – so you don’t waste their time.

All of this guidance is based on the learning skills of an average person in the UK, who speaks English as their first language. This guidance also applies when you’re writing for specialists.

Common words

By the time a child is 5 or 6 years old, they’ll use 2,500 to 5,000 common words. Adults still find these words easier to recognise and understand than words they’ve learned since.

By age 9, you’re building up your ‘common words’ vocabulary. Your primary set is around 5,000 words; your secondary set is around 10,000 words. You use these words every day.

Use short words instead of long words

When you use a longer word (8 or 9 letters), users are more likely to skip shorter words (3, 4 or 5 letters) that follow it. So if you use longer, more complicated words, readers will skip more. Keep it simple.

For example:

“The recently implemented categorical standardisation procedure on waste oil should not be applied before 1 January 2015.”

The ‘not’ is far more obvious in this:

“Do not use the new waste oil standards before 1 January 2015.”

Reading skills

Children quickly learn to read common words (the 5,000 words they use most). They then stop reading these words and start recognising their shape. This allows people to read much faster. Children already read like this by the time they’re 9 years old.

People also don’t read one word at a time. They bounce around – especially online. They anticipate words and fill them in.

Your brain can drop up to 30% of the text and still understand. Your vocabulary will grow but this reading skill stays with you as an adult. You don’t need to read every word to understand what is written.

This is why we tell people to write on our website for a 9 year old reading age.

To help us do this, we use the Readable tool – https://readable.io.

How users read web pages

Users read very differently online than on paper. They don’t necessarily read top to bottom or even from word to word.

Instead, users only read about 20 to 28% of a web page. Where users just want to complete their task as quickly as possible, they skim even more out of impatience.

Web-user eye-tracking studies show that people tend to ‘read’ a webpage in an ‘F’ shape pattern. They look across the top, then down the side, reading further across when they find what they need.

What this means is: put the the most important information first. So we talk a lot about ‘front-loading’ sub-headings, titles and bullet points.

For example, say ‘Canteen menu’, not ‘What’s on the menu at the canteen today?’

Good example

At the activity centre you can:

  • swim
  • play
  • run

Bad example

At the activity centre:

  • you can swim
  • you can play
  • you can run

Titles and summaries

Most people who use our website start with a search engine – 55% in 2017.

Use the same vocabulary as your audience so they can find your content. This starts with your page title, summary and first paragraph.

If people can’t find your page, they won’t read your content.

How to optimise content

Find out what the public calls your content by using search tools to look up keywords. Your scheme, organisation or process’s official or internal name may not be what the public calls it.

An example is Council housing. Most of the public do not know that housing is run by  housing associations.

Once you know the most popular keywords you can prioritise them in the title, summary, introduction and subheadings

This is called search engine optimisation (SEO). Search engines return results based on how closely the content appears to match the person’s search term.

Our website’s goal isn’t ‘high traffic’, it’s ‘the right traffic’.

Titles

Think about how the title will look in a search on a search engines.

Keep all titles to 65 characters or less (including spaces). This is because search engines truncate (cut off) titles in Google search results over that number. Words or parts of words will be cut off.

Make sure your title is unique. It’s not helpful for people if search results show a list of pages with the exact same title.

If there are a number of pages with a repeated phrase in the title change the title so that the most important area is front-loaded. This is more descriptive and useful for search.

Titles should be clear and descriptive. The title should provide full context so that people can easily see if they’ve found what they’re looking for, eg ‘Guidance for potato growers’, not ‘Potatoes’.

If you need to use a separator to break up long title, use a colon (it helps users to scan). Eg ‘Planning appeal procedures: technical review’ works better than ‘Technical review of planning appeal procedures’.

Only use an acronym in the title if it is a commonly used search term (like EU).

Page length

There is no minimum or maximum page length. However:

  • people only read 20 to 28% of text on a web 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.

It’s most important that you write well. If you write only a single paragraph but it’s full of caveats, jargon and things users don’t need to know (but you want to say) then it’s still too much.

Active voice

Use the active rather than passive voice. This will help us write concise, clear content.

Addressing the user

Address the user as ‘you’ where possible. Content on the site often makes a direct appeal to citizens and businesses to get involved or take action, eg ‘You can contact Bromley Council by phone and email’.

Contractions

Use contractions eg can’t, you’ll. Some organisations are reluctant to use them but we’ve never encountered a problem with understanding when testing with users.

Sometimes, lots of ‘cannot’, ‘should not’ etc can seem archaic and formal. That’s a tone we can move away from without jeopardising the overall tone of information coming from government.

Date ranges

Use ‘to’ instead of a dash or slash in date ranges. ‘To’ is quicker to read than a dash, and it’s easier for screen readers.

Always explain what your date range represents, eg ‘tax year 2013 to 2014’ or ‘September 2013 to July 2014’. Date ranges can be the academic year, calendar year or tax year. This is why date ranges must be very, very clear.

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