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 Sustainable Development Communications Network

Web Writing and Editing Guidelines

By Ron Kim, World Bank Institute
May 2001

The typical Web audience is fickle, with a relatively short attention span and accustomed to many different choices. One of the keys in making a site appealing is good writing. After all, who wants to wade through poor grammar, frequent misspellings and ridiculously long sentences? Such shortcomings, in fact, would lead the user to believe that the site's organizers do not take their work seriously.

Two important initial points come to mind. First, so long as the writing is concise and conveys the site's objectives, and so long as it uses the inverted pyramid approach, its actual style is irrelevant. What this means is that there is no one style that should be followed at all costs. Not only would using one particular style be difficult to enforce and maintain, it also makes little sense for sites with a diverse, multinational audience for whom one style might not be better nor worse than another. The critical criterion, though, is making the information organized logically and quickly accessible in the form of an inverted pyramid. A variety of e-newspapers that, by definition, contain an enormous quantity of information and are able, through good writing and effective information architecture, to provide easy access to their users use this type of inverted pyramid. For example, a typical article in the BBC or the New York Times begins with a short summary that then leads to an entire article with links to related stories and resources.

Second, the connection between the writing and other vital elements of a Web site—graphics, navigation, overall information architecture, i.e., how the writing is presented—is so strong that they either complement each other or serve as distractions. Good writing will not be noticed if the user is turned-off by overly complex graphics, poor navigation, or too much "clutter." If a PDF is poorly linked, how will anyone know it exists? If the writing is done in 15 different fonts and sizes, will it be read at all? Bad writing may annoy users who otherwise like the site's other features. If the writing is full of poor grammar, who will care if the site contains much useful information? The point here is to underline the importance of a Web site as a whole whose constituent parts can enhance each other.

Two examples of this type of connection can be found in numerous examples including OneWorld the Global Knowledge Partnership. Both sites rely heavily on an inverted pyramid approach combined with relatively simply yet attractive graphics and colors, easy navigation, and a straightforward writing. In the case of the GKP site, this was accomplished through close and productive cooperation between an editor, graphic designer and overall Web architect.

Guidelines are clearly useful (and even better when they are agreed upon) and, in the end, absolutely critical with an understanding that every organization will have different guidelines. Of even greater importance is consistency: a site must be consistent in its use of navigation tools, logos, colours, fonts, other graphics, meta-tags, etc. A consistent site is simply more effective in sending its message and easier to use and understand.

Other key issues and challenges include:

Site management/updating – who will finalize the content and manage the people providing content? How will responsibilities be divided? Can consistency be maintained if more than one person serves as editor?

Information management – what meta-tag system will be used to make the information easily accessible?

Simplicity – given the Web audience, keeping everything from the front page to individual descriptions might be the best choice.

Depth and breadth – how many topics should be covered and in what detail? Is it counter-productive to be too ambitious?

Identifying and dissecting good examples/case studies – what are the best-written and designed CSO sites? What lessons and best practices can be learned from them?

Evaluation – what is the best way to evaluate the writing and editing of a site? Can it be done in-house or should it be contracted out?

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