Web writing 101

Support subhead scanners

In most online contexts, people scan and deep dive to find the information that meets their needs, then read about it. Consider a bird of prey scanning for its next meal, then swooping in on its conquest: no eagle ever flies without a purpose, and few visitors to the Furman website will read without a goal. How can you offer content that supports this behavior?
  • Favor subheads that actually introduce or summarize content, rather than merely allude to it or repeat internal terms or acronyms that may confuse your audience.
  • Maintain internal consistency: all subheads on a page should start with the same part of speech and ideally be about the same length.
  • Use the words or jargon a member of the specific audience might use when scanning the page—especially if you’re addressing FAQs.
  • When you can, use short, strong verbs before the main noun of the subhead.

Solve or share, don’t shill

In Content Rules, Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman make that recommendation for creating valuable content that bolsters your authority without undermining credibility or trust. Just as good content meets specific needs, it positions recommendations only when they meet a need a visitor expresses through implicit or explicit action.
  • Where possible, bring other voices into the conversation by quoting members of the Furman community.
  • Only offer recommendations where they are relevant. Don’t push applicants to download a planning checklist if they’re beyond that point in the process.
  • Maintain a human perspective by communicating your passion and using first-person pronouns.

Create a conversation

If people read content to meet a functional need, they’re usually trying to answer a question: How do I contact a professor? How do other people do this? What classes do I need to graduate? If they come to the Furman site with specific needs, uphold the message architecture: be a gracious, welcoming host and make them feel comfortable with content that’s conversational and in the tone this guide describes.
  • Don’t hide content behind labels, buttons, or calls to action they may not understand just yet.
  • Favor active voice and direct, informal statements and sentence structures. Passive voice only hides the action in false formality, nominalizations, and verbal excess.
  • Don’t confuse informality with sloppiness. Take care to maintain consistent structures, steps, and directions if the reader is trying to learn how to do something, follow your guidance for an activity, or improve their process. Remember, a good host doesn’t welcome someone into a party but then disappear before introducing them to a few people or conversation topics.

Limit page length

A website is not a book, and a webpage serves a different purpose than a page in a book; despite the impact of IMDB.com, there’s no “getting lost” in it if the majority of your users want to resolve needs and questions. Focused pages help them do this.

So what’s a focused page versus a page of a specific length? Remember how the “Sentence length” section in this guide advocates writing cohesive, consistent sentences and paragraphs that fall from a single topic, describe it, then finish. Pages can do that too. Each page should serve a single purpose: describe a department, introduce department faculty, describe a faculty member with full biographical information, etc. Focus on the goal of that page, follow the guidance for cohesive sentences, and stop when you complete the goal.

Content consultant and author Ginny Redish acknowledges users will scroll to read more editorial content. “But they won’t scroll forever. Think of three or four scrolls’ worth as the maximum length,” and cohesive writing should cut that down even more.  

Write in the inverted pyramid

Longer-form copy in blog posts and emails still needs to meet the informational needs of scanners. Much like the “Sentence length” section describes, you’ll maintain their attention if you focus and write in a cohesive, consistent manner. The inverted pyramid, a favorite of news journalists, favors this:
  • Start with your lede, or the key message or point of advocacy, grounded in a personal message.
  • Offer supporting points—even in bullet form under equally scannable subheads—to draw in readers that “self-qualify” with their interest.
  • Close with less necessary information, history, and final call to action.
Consider how this plays out in an email: you should make the call to action evident from subject and headline. By the time readers who choose to keep reading reach the end, a button or link can merely reiterate the point.

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