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Web Writing Guidelines

Users want to find what they are looking for as quickly and easily as possible. Web-oriented writing and editing are essential for optimal content delivery.

Key Concepts

  • Omit non-essential words. Users don't read -- they scan.
  • Use "inverted pyramid" writing style: start with the point, then support it, using links for more in-depth details.
  • One idea per paragraph.
  • Keep the most important elements "above the fold," that is, visible upon initial page view without scrolling.
  • Categorize according to users' needs, not by departmental organization or hierarchy.
  • When creating a link, highlight only the one-to-three most important words, NOT "click here."


  • Facilitate scanning with subheads, bullet points, lists, and captions.
  • Provide links to related and additional detail.
  • Use an active voice: "The company published the book."
  • Use lists or tables when possible.


  • Expect your visitors to read everything.
  • Put everything on one page.
  • Use a passive voice: "The book was published by the company."
  • List items in a paragraph to save room.

Consistency of Style

The only web constant is change. Stylistic debates continue ("Is it E-mail, e-mail, or email?"). Style manuals will help, but the most important style and usage point, one that cannot be emphasized enough, is consistency. You must adhere to the style you choose.

Writing for Search Engines

Keyword Research and Implementation

The proper keyword research strategy and implementation is essential to findability on the web. The main question to answer is, “What words or phrases are people searching for when they should be finding my content?” A good strategy is to start prioritizing keywords from general search terms to more specific keywords and phrases your audience will be using.

Here are some external resources to learn more about keyword research:

It is important to include these keywords and synonyms in the site URL, the title, headers, subheads, anchor texts, meta description, first paragraph and throughout the text body, as well as in image alt-texts, image filenames and captions.

Relevant Information

For every page you create, your users’ goals should be at the center of your content decisions. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and think about what information your users would be seeking on your webpage. Try to use language and terminology your audience would use.

Make sure to include a clear call-to-action (CTA) somewhere on the page. When you know why your readers are coming to your page, you can tailor content that naturally points them to where they ultimately want to end up.

Formatting and Organization

When you are writing for the web, it’s vital that you organize your content in a logical and targeted way. The title tag, headers, subheaders, bullet points, short paragraphs, and callouts all make content easy to scan and digest.

The title tag should reflect the subject, relevancy, need and target keyword. It is the first thing that users see on the page and in the search results listing, so it’s important to accurately label the content.

Using heading tags in the correct order allows search engines to index your page properly and creates a hierarchy of importance for the content on your webpage.

Headings also make your webpage scannable for users. Page and section headings allow users to quickly identify the content that is relevant to their interest.

Meta Descriptions

Meta descriptions are brief summaries of a webpage’s content. Because search engines display meta descriptions in search results, they are important in crafting a short compelling story about a webpage that will influence the user’s decision to click on a specific search result.

A good meta description should use active voice, accurately reflect what’s on your page, incorporate targeted keywords, and have a character limit between 100 and 160 characters. The goal is to ultimately compel users to click on your link.

Frequent Content Updates

If you don’t update your content frequently, your page rank will drop. It’s important to schedule regular updates to page content and media files. Not only does this improve your ranking, but it gives your audience insight into your latest news and updates.

A to Z Style Guide

Northwestern University Global Marketing and Communications' maintains an A to Z style guide that addresses many stylistic issues you may encounter in University-related communications. Standard University terminology can also be found here. If you have any questions regarding reference to a specific University entity, please confirm information directly with that entity.

Copyright Issues

Follow all applicable copyright laws.  See content policy for additional information.