Web writing best practices: Keep it lean

Photo credit: Cynthia Zullo on Flickr
  • By Team CSI
  • |
  • Mar 9 2016
Categories: |Toolbox

Write lean to keep your message clear

When you stuff your pages with extra articles, adverbs, and roundabout phrasing, your message gets fuzzy. Write lean and your readers will thank you.

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Write lean to help people scan

Web readers scan a page before they decide to read it. Giant walls of text are intimidating. The less content there is, the easier it is for people to scan. Readers are trying to figure out if a page is relevant to them. Make it easy for them to get the main message of each page. 

Plus people are impatient in general! No one wants to decipher long sentences with lots of punctuation.

Write lean with these strategies

Use short sentences

  • Write sentences that are less than 20 words.
  • Use simple sentence structures. There’s less room for confusion, interpretation, and error. when you keep your sentences simple.
  • Keep each sentence to one thought.

Use short paragraphs

  • Write paragraphs with no more than three sentences.
  • Use one sentence paragraphs. (Don’t worry, they’re legal.)

Eliminate unnecessary words

  • Rewrite bloated phrases with these simpler versions. For example: 
    • At this point in time = now.
    • As a means of = to
    • Due to the fact that =  due to or since
    • In addition = also, besides, to
    • In order to = to
    • In the event of = if
  • Download the Unnecessary Word List for a complete list of simple word options.

Use simple verb forms

  • Use present tense verb forms. Use past and future tenses only where necessary and meaningful.
  • Rewrite verbs ending in –ing wherever possible. For example, instead of, Start uploading the app to use Upload the app to.
  • Replace two-word verbs like look at or carry on with single-word verbs like examine or continue.
  • Replace three-word verbs like put up with or keep abreast of with tolerate or monitor.

Use active verbs

  • Avoid nouns made from verbs (nominalizations). For example, instead of have an objection, use object. And instead of provide a solution for, use solve.
  • Be wary of verb phrases beginning with have, make, give, or do.
  • Be wary of nouns that end with “tion” or “-ment”

Use lists and tables

  • Use lists and tables to remove redundant introductory phrases.
  • Use lists and tables to turn information into more visually digestible chunks that aid skimming and scanning.

Use illustrations

  • Use labeled images, graphics, and illustrations to explain concepts or instructions.

Further reading

Content toolkit: Unnecessary word list 

Content toolkit: Copy editing checklist

Content toolkit: Substantive editing checklist

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