Web pages share similarities to individual pages in print publications, but because Web pages may be accessed directly with no preamble, Web pages must be more independent than print pages. Too many Web pages end up as isolated fragments of information, divorced from the larger context of their parent Web sites through lack of essential links, and the simpler failure to properly inform the reader of their contents.
The best overall publication guide we know of is an information design classic, the Xerox Publications Standards manual. The Xerox manual has formed the basis for countless company and institutional publications standards manuals. We think the best writing guide is not Strunk and White, but William Zinsser's On Writing Well. Zinsser's book is better on all counts, and contains much more practical advice for writing in different publication formats and for different audiences.
Titles and subtitles
Forget icons, banner graphics, bullets, horizontal rules, and colored backgrounds. Editorial landmarks like titles and headers are the fundamental human interface issue in Web pages, just as they are in any print publication. A consistent approach to the titling, headlines, and subheads in your documents will aid your readers in navigating through a complex set of Web pages.
The text styles used in this manual follow suggestions from the Xerox Publishing Standards:
HTML and page titles
Web page titles are designated in the HTML document head section with the "TITLE" tag. the title is crucial, because the page title is often the first thing visible to users using slow Internet connections, and because the title becomes the text for any bookmarks the reader makes to your pages. The page title should:
Always think of what your page title will look like in a long list of bookmarks. Will your page title remind the reader what was interesting about your pages?
Style for online documents
Documents to be read online must be concise and structured for fast scanning. The "inverted pyramid" style used in journalism works well on Web pages as well. Get the important facts up near the top of the first paragraph where users can find them quickly. Assume readers will print anything longer than half a page rather than read the text online.
Many types of documents (like this manual) are not well suited for the telegraphic style that works well for documents designed to be read online. Web authors often cut so much out of Web presentations that what is left would barely fill a print pamphlet. Concise writing is always better, but don't "dumb down" what you have to say there's enough dumb stuff on the Web already. Just understand that readers will want to print longer documents. Make printing easy for your readers and you can use the Web to deliver content without cutting the heart out of what you have to say.
Text for the Web
Some general points about text formatting specific to the Web:
Links and language
If you are new to the Web it can sometimes be awkward to figure out where to place links within sentences. Never construct a sentence around a link phrase such as "click here for more information." Write the sentence as you normally would, and place the link anchor on the most relevant word in the sentence.
Links are a distraction. It is pointless to write a paragraph and then fill it full of invitations to your reader to go elsewhere. Put only the most salient and interesting links within the main body of your text. Group all minor, illustrative, parenthetic, or footnote links at the bottom of the document where they are available but not distracting.
Several companies have made excellent style manuals or publications guidelines available on the Web, including:
Sun Microsystems, Guide to Web Style, by Rick Levine.
The best of a good group; excellent, self-exemplifying advice for Web design.
Ameritech, Ameritech Web Page User Interface and Design Guidelines
Apple Computer, Apple Web Design Guide
Apple Computer, Apple Publications Style Guide
Guide to good practices for WWW authors. Margaret Issacs, University of Glasgow
Jordan, L. 1976. The New York Times manual of style and usage. New York: Times Books.
Strunk, W., and E. B. White. 1979. The elements of style, 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan.
University of Chicago Press. 1982. The Chicago manual of style. 13th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Xerox Corporation. 1988. Xerox publishing standards: A manual of style and design. New York: Xerox Press-Watson Guptill.
Zinsser, W. K. 1990. On writing well., 4th ed. New York: Harper Collins.