Creating a website? Writing online content? Please follow these best practices for writing for the web.
For more in-depth writing guidelines regarding grammar, titles, and terms, see the Editorial Style Guide.
Attention spans are short, and we have limited time to make an impact. In fact, our average visitor only spends enough time on a page to read around 400 words, so let's make sure those words count!
- If you can't make a page short, make sure your language is concise. Some pages need to be long, like policies and procedures, but double-check that you're saying what you need to say in the shortest, clearest way possible.
- Get to the point. Put the most important information up top; don’t bury it at the bottom of the page. What action do you want visitors to take next? If you don't have a goal for your page, consider adding your content to an existing page (or don't publish the content on the site at all) instead of creating a new page.
- Avoid jargon and acronyms. Make sure a visitor from outside your industry (or even just outside your program) can follow what you're saying.
- Make sure the title of your webpage is specific: “Undergraduate Transfer Student Resources,” not “Resources.” “Graduate Admissions Application,” not “Application.”
- Before publishing a webpage, be sure to proofread your content and check your links.
Here are some general guidelines for content length:
- A paragraph should have no more than 5 sentences and no more than 85 words.
- An introductory paragraph should have no more than 3 sentences and no more than 60 words.
- A list should run no more than 10 items, and each item should be no more than 280 characters.
Our goal is to help visitors find the information they need and take the next step as quickly and easily as possible. Structuring your page so it's readable and scannable is an important part of supporting visitors on their journey.
- Use headers, subheaders, and lists to break up long blocks of text.
- Write descriptive, meaningful, and relevant headers and subheaders for your content. Does your header truly reflect the content that follows? Is the subheader related to the header, or should it be its own section?
- Use bolding to draw attention to important information – but don't overuse it, or it loses its impact. Also, avoid bolding and italicizing the same content!
- Don't use underlining for emphasis – to your site visitors, underlined text reads as a hyperlink, which can lead to confusion and frustration.
- Avoid using all caps. It can come off like you're yelling at your visitor!
Use a conversational, friendly tone when writing for web readers. We want them to feel welcome in our space.
- When providing users with calls to action, use the active voice: “Apply now.” “Request information.” Avoid passive voice such as “Information can be requested here.”
- Be relatable: Use the language that your readers do – the phrases and words that they use to search the web and find your content.
- Avoid getting bogged down in writing that is overly dense and formal. Be warm, brief, and engaging.
- Too formal: As a private university in the public service, NYU has a responsibility to embed environmental values at the core of its administrative operations and academic mission.
- Friendlier: At NYU, we bring together students, families, staff, and neighbors to live our lives without harming the planet we share. We try to use less energy, take steps to ensure cleaner air and water, and use our resources carefully. Going green is a personal commitment for many of us – and becoming a campus-wide movement for us all.
- Use second-person voice (“you” and “we”) in order to speak directly to the reader:
- “We are pleased to welcome you to the NYU community.”
- “You and your advisor should make sure you’re taking the right courses.”
- “Explore our academic offerings and find the program that’s right for you.”
What is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization; these are strategies that can improve how our pages rank in searches.
How can we optimize for search?
- Use a term that people will be searching for. Use your knowledge of your topic area and your audience – what term is commonly understood? Would a newcomer use that term to find you? Is the term a real reflection of the information you’re providing, or would it be a bait and switch if someone searched the term and landed on your page?
- Focus on one term per page. Don’t stuff a page with search terms; it will come across as spammy and will minimize their impact. What’s the most important term that you want to rank for? The answer can be as simple as the name of your degree.
- Use the term throughout the page, especially in headers. Include it naturally in the body of your page, but be sure it’s also included in the title or headers. Search engines are getting smarter – show them that the page really reflects information relevant to the search term.
If you write an article or guest-blog for a non-Steinhart site on a relevant topic, include a link to one of your Steinhardt pages when you can. Links back to our site show that we’re a respected authority! Extra bonus points if the hyperlinked text uses the search term.
For additional tips on how to use SEO as part of the overall content strategy for your page, check out the Writing for Our Website Tip Sheet: Focus on Title, SEO Title, and Teaser.
Tips by Content Type
Know your call to action:
- When writing a post, ask yourself, “What program, unit, or research center does this relate to? What actions can a reader take next?”
- Make the pathway to taking the next step clear for visitors, and make it as simple to take as possible. For instance, at the end of a blog post about an A3SR alum, invite the reader to learn more about the master’s in Applied Statistics for Social Science Research and link to the degree page.
Help readers scan your content:
- Keep paragraphs short, especially introductory paragraphs.
- Think about a reader’s experience on mobile – will they be looking at a block of text? Is content broken up?
- Write succinct, clear titles, headlines, and headers. Make sure they are easy to understand at a glance, and check that titles and headers actually relate to the content.
- Use bolding to call attention to important words or phrases, but don’t overuse it or you’ll lessen the impact. (And don’t use bold and italics at the same time!)
Keep your audience in mind:
- Follow accessibility guidelines on titles, headers, subheaders, and hyperlinked text.
- Keep differing perspectives in mind. How would an international student experience your post? What about a student with disabilities? Try looking at your language through the eyes of a wide range of people.
Consider SEO. Are you including keywords in the titles and headers that people are searching for? Are your posts inspired by potential readers’ interests?
Think about your audience’s experience and knowledge:
- Aim for messages that are friendly and encouraging, and avoid negative language.
- Review your phrasing (or ask someone else to review it!) for language people outside NYU Steinhardt may not understand, including undefined acronyms.
- Talk directly to your audience.
- Use “you” and “your” instead of “the student”
- Use “we” and “us” instead of “the Office of Graduate Admissions”
- Avoid passive voice – e.g., instead of “this is required” say “we require this.”
- Don’t use all caps or underlining for emphasis; use bolding or italics instead.
- Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. How will this email feel to them in context of their overall experience with NYU Steinhardt and Grad Admissions?
Say it clearly and keep it concise:
- Attention spans are short. Keep your pages as short and/or as scannable as possible.
- Check that you’re getting to your point as concisely as you can
- Use succinct, clear headers and subheaders to break up content
- Make lists when information is related and short – your list should have no more than 10 items, and each item should be about the length of a tweet (~280 characters)
- Use bolding (but don’t overuse it)
- Check that instructions are up to date and easy to follow.
Know your call to action:
- Highlight the purpose of the email – what do you want your audience to do?
- Make next steps clear – help them on their path.
- If you have multiple calls to action for an email, pick a primary one and make sure that’s received enough focus before moving on to the others.
- Follow accessibility guidelines on headers, subheaders, hyperlinked text, and image alt-text.
- Consider differing perspectives. What would an international student’s experience be like? What about a vision-impaired student?
Write a strong subject line:
- Above all else, make sure your phrasing is clear to an outside audience.
- Keep it brief – under 40 characters is best so the whole text displays in the recipient inbox.
- Double-check that the subject really reflects the content of the email.
- Be as specific as possible instead of being vague.
- Don’t use all caps or excessive exclamation points.
Think of your audience’s experience. Is the subject line friendly? Is it clear? Is it scary? Did you use acronyms or jargon someone outside Steinhardt might not understand?
For a refresher on all of our accessibility requirements and guidelines, check out our accessibility quick tip sheet. A few reminders on content accessibility:
- Think when you link! Don't leave your URLs bare, and make your hyperlinked text descriptive and brief. Review Writing Text for Links below for more guidance.
- Tag your headers, subheaders, and lists; don't just format them for style. Assistive devices won't identify them unless they are coded correctly.
- Use header tags in order. Don't use an h2 tag on a subheader instead of an h3, for example.
- Avoid recycling identical content on more than one webpage, or duplicating webpage titles. This makes it difficult for search engines – and your readers – to find the most relevant information.
- When linking to a website, use text that describes it: “For information, visit Financial Aid.” Avoid using generic or non-descriptive text like “Click to read.”
- Do not use “click here.” Link text should have context and appear naturally in your content. Using a phrase like “click here” is:
- redundant: as web users, we already know what to do when we see linked text
- not accessible: it doesn't visually stand out on a page, creates a confusing experience for visitors using screen readers, and is not descriptive enough to be "seen" by search engines
- outdated: the number of mobile visitors to our site continues to increase, and they're more likely to tap than click
- Do not use the website address itself as the linked text. URLs like https://research.steinhardt.nyu.edu/financialaid should be hidden behind a hyperlink, not visible on the page.
- Do not reuse the same hyperlinked term repeatedly on a page. For instance, if you have three videos on a page, don't hyperlink the word "video" for each of them. Some visitors using screen readers navigate by jumping from link to link, and hearing the same word repeatedly is confusing. Hyperlink a longer phrase that better singles out each video.
- Good options:
Additional Writing Resources
Editorial Style Guide
Having an editorial style guide helps us speak in a consistent, unified voice and provides a better experience for our readers and visitors.
Writing Accessible Content
For a refresher on all of our accessibility requirements and guidelines, check out our accessibility quick tip sheet.