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Web Writing Guide

You don't need to be a web developer or professional writer to create accessible and effective web content. You just need to know a few tips and tricks to get started on your next web writing project. 

What is writing for the web? 

The main goal for web writing is to present engaging and accessible content to all users who come to our website searching for information about Pima.

Effective web writing addresses the needs of users and helps them get involved with your team's program or resource. Clear, easy-to-understand content informs Pima students, faculty, staff and Tucson community members about what your team does and how you can connect them with relevant information, resources or services. 

Web content should be conversational, direct and written in plain language.

How do I use this guide? 

Use the following guidelines, tips and suggestions to create inclusive and effective content that engages your audience and advances your team's organizational goals.

There are three parts to this guide:

  1. The Getting Started section helps you start and plan your web content. 

  2. The Content section has specific guidance on writing effective content for your webpage.

  3. The Organization section has tips on how to structure the content on your webpage.

Questions? 

Interested in refreshing the content on your webpage or have questions about the web writing guide? Email websystems@pima.edu to get started. 

Key Terms

Throughout this guide, we use a few keywords. Here are some quick definitions:

  • Content
    • The text, images and graphics on a webpage
  • Webpage
    • Where your team adds content to provide information about your program or resource on the web 
  • Site
    • The full Pima.edu website 
  • User
    • Anyone who is engaging with and using your content. For Pima.edu, that will mostly be students, faculty, staff and community members.

Getting Started

Write for a specific audience. 

Sitting down with your team to outline who you want to read your content and why you want them to read it is crucial to writing effective web content. 

Pima.edu's primary audience is students. Its secondary audiences are community members, faculty and staff. In a nutshell, your content needs to be useful and relevant to future, current and past Pima students first and foremost. 

A few tips to write for a specific audience:

  • Use language your audience is familiar with and uses themselves
  • Write out what acronyms mean and then name the acronym within parentheses the first time you use them in your content (e.g. Pima Community College (PCC))
  • Add links to other Pima pages that help connect users to additional relevant resources
  • Make your contact information clear and visible on the page

You know the people your team works with best, so write with them in mind. Everyday conversations with students and community members can be effective starting points to identify language that is relevant and understandable to users.

Write content that helps and informs. 

The website is a first introduction to Pima for many students and community members. The website can't tell users everything they need to know about your program or resource. But, it can be an effective starting point for users to find clear, understandable answers to their questions.

Before adding content to your page, it's good practice to think through the following questions:

  • Does this content answer questions about my program or resource? 
  • Does it paint a clear picture of what my program or resource can offer students? 
  • Does it help students and community members take an action to get involved at Pima (i.e. enroll in classes, attend an event, talk to an advisor, etc.)? 
  • Does it need to be on the main website, or can we get this information out another way?

If the content in question doesn't address one or more of these questions, it is likely not the right fit for Pima.edu. If it's a resource for staff and faculty, consider adding it to the intranet or to an internal communications tool, like a shared Google Drive.


Content

Use a welcoming tone, and have empathy for your user. 

Developing empathetic content starts with engaging and listening to users. When planning content updates, do your best to include students and community members in the conversation. Reviewing the questions your team frequently receives about your program or resource can be a helpful starting point to plan content that is relevant and responsive to users' needs.

Users connect with content that is clear and relevant to their lives. Dense, formal writing is often confusing to follow and understand. It can frustrate users searching for concise and accessible information.

Writing with empathy starts with putting yourself in your users' shoes and writing with them in mind.

You also want to maintain a welcoming tone in your writing. Finding your voice as a web writer is an ongoing process, but there are a few things you can do to create a welcoming tone: 

  • Use the first and second person when possible. Talking to students? Use "you" to address them instead of "students." Describing your program? Say "our" program. People connect with web content that sounds like it's speaking right to them. 
  • Use contractions. Change "do not" to "don't", "cannot" to "can't" and "will not" to "won't." Contractions are conversational and make your writing approachable. 
  • Keep your writing around a 6th to 8th grade reading level, and use language your users would use. 

Use inclusive language. 

Empathetic content also strives to do no harm to users. Commit to using inclusive language, and educate yourself about biased, prejudiced and stereotypical language that can harm users from underrepresented backgrounds. 

Inclusive content is clear and accurate. It avoids assumptions about who your users are or what they value. Instead, it requires designing content for all users and centering user feedback from traditionally underrepresented communities. 

Developing inclusive content is an ongoing commitment. A few ways you can start to implement inclusive language in your web content are:

  • Avoid gendering your language. Instead of saying "he or she," address your audience directly as "you." Or, if you must use a gender pronoun, use "they" to talk about a general person in your writing. Use words like "everyone" or "all" instead of "ladies and gentlemen" to address a broader audience. 
  • Familiarize yourself with slurs and harmful stereotypes. Work to remove them from your content. 
  • Focus on the user you’re writing to or about with compassion and respect.

Before you start writing content, familiarize yourself with Pima's mission. The College has a commitment to meet each member of our community where they are and to improve equity in our community through every decision that we make, including designing web content. 

Use an active voice instead of a passive one. 

Always name who or what is doing the action in a sentence. For example: 

  • Preferred: Carlos taught the class.
  • Avoid: The class was taught by Carlos.

Use effective keywords. 

What are keywords?

Keywords are the most important words and phrases in your content. They are words or phrases Pima students and communities use and search for on your webpage. 

Keywords also improve the searchability of Pima’s website. The more words you include in your content that users search for on the web, the more likely users will visit your page. 

How do I identify keywords?

Start by asking your team what words best represent your program or resource. Review other marketing materials to see what words and phrases you repeat often.

If you work directly with students or community members, listen to what words they use and ask for their feedback on your content. 

Another good way to identify keywords is to Google your program or resource. Looking at the search results, consider:

  • What are the top search results? What titles or headlines are they using?
  • What words or phrases repeat in multiple results? 
  • At the top of the search, there is also a list of search ideas that Google suggests as similar to your search. What words and phrases are used in those suggestions?

While repeating keywords throughout your content is a good practice, there is such thing as too much repetition. Use synonyms once in a while to keep your content varied and interesting. 

Link to relevant information. 

As you write your own content, you also want to consider what other webpages would be good to add links to on your page. All web content is connected and an effective webpage helps make those connections for the user. 

Use internal links to other Pima pages and external links to outside sources to add credibility to your content. 

If you do add links, remember to return to your page periodically to check that links aren't broken or inactive.

Internal Links

If you mention another program or resource at Pima, link to its webpage. If you include someone’s contact information, link to their email address. If you want the reader to view your FAQs page, link to it on your main page in a visible and consistent location. 

These are all examples of when to add internal links, or links to other Pima webpages, to your content. Adding links to other Pima pages helps the user find what they are searching for without having to start a new search from scratch. Adding relevant links also builds connections between pages, which makes the Pima website streamlined and helpful. 

External Links

You can also add links to pages outside Pima.edu! If there is a helpful news story, resource or research that makes your content more dynamic, link to it. Just be mindful that these pages are relevant and credible.

Use external links sparingly as the main goal of our website is to keep the reader on Pima.edu. It is also good practice to set external links to open in a new browser tab so users are not taken away from Pima.edu.

Naming Links

Web usability experts discourage phrases like “click here” or “follow this link” for naming links in your content. These names don't help the user understand where the link goes. Also, if there are multiple links named "click here" on the page, screen readers and other assistive technologies can't follow where those links go or what makes them distinct from one another. 

Instead, add the link to the part of a sentence or phrase that makes the most sense, usually the name of the thing you’re linking to. Keep your links 4-8 words in length. For example: 

Translate the content of a PDF onto your webpage. Don’t just link to it. 

A lot of time goes into making a well-designed PDF. It can be tempting to post the PDF everywhere. PDFs can be great resources for students and staff, but many users will skip over PDFs when reading a webpage and miss important content. Also, PDFs often aren’t accessible for web users who use screen readers or other assistive technology. 

Instead of linking several PDFs to your page, translate the content onto your webpage. PDFs can support content on your webpage, but they shouldn't be used as a substitute for web writing.

If you must include a PDF on your webpage (like an application or form), work with Pima's media and alt-media teams to make sure your PDF is fillable and accessible before including it on the web as a resource that supplements your web content. 

Keep your content up to date. 

Check on your content regularly. Outdated web content can confuse users. It can also affect users’ trust in the accuracy of your information.

Make sure your staff and contact information is up-to-date and take down any past events from your page. 

Check that links still work and point users to the correct location. 

It's also helpful to add new and interesting content to your page regularly. Your page is a great place to feature student success stories, new opportunities and additional resources. 

Work with Websystems to add original photos and videos. 

Photos and videos add creativity to your page. Reach out to the Websystems team to discuss adding image or video content to your page.

We always encourage you to provide photos or videos your team has taken. Your photos have to be original and have no copyright issues (see our photo release form). The Websystems team makes the final decisions on whether/how to use these files.

Accessible Images

If you do add photos or videos to your page, you must include text alternatives (or alt text) that describe the content of the image.

Alt text describes the content of an image with enough context that a user listening to the alt text can understand the image without the visual. Visually impaired users may rely on alt text to make sense of images and icons.

If an image is meant to be read (i.e. an image of a quote, a list of instructions, a complex diagram, etc.), don't include it as an image on your page. Instead, write the text included in the image directly on your webpage. 

Accessible Videos

Users who are deaf, hard of hearing, new to a language or in any place a device should be muted rely on captioning or transcripts for videos and audio. Be sure to include captions and/or a transcript for all video content.

 


Organization

Start with your most important content. 

Your first paragraph and introductory sentences are the most important sections of your webpage. The first paragraph should give the user an overview of what they will find on your page. Think of this as an outline of the most important details. It should also draw the user in with interesting and relevant information that inspires the user to stay on your page. 

Introductory sentences in the following paragraphs should state the main idea of the paragraph. They are also good places to use key words and add creativity. Think of these as hooks that draw the reader in. 

Finally, save more specific, supporting information for later on the page. Links to additional resources, information about next steps user can take, or specific program details are good ideas for the last part of your page. 

Short sentences and paragraphs are key.

The main goal of web content is to be accessible for all users. 

Keep your sentences under 30 words and your paragraphs less than 5 lines long. Avoid complicated sentence connectors like semicolons or dashes. While they look creative, these connectors can make your content unnecessarily complicated to follow.

When in doubt, break down long sections into multiple, shorter sections to make sure all important details are clearly understandable to the reader. 

Cover one idea at a time. 

Focus on one topic per paragraph. When you’re ready to cover a new topic, change to a new paragraph. Creating multiple, short paragraphs makes the page easier to read and helps each of your ideas stand out.

It’s okay for paragraphs to look short and fragmented on the web. This means there is a good balance of text and white space, aka the blank space around the text, which makes the page visually easy to read. This is especially true for users who use mobile devices to access our website. 

Make your content scannable. 

"Scannable" content means users can easily find the main ideas of your page, even if they don't read or listen to every word. Creating a clear structure to your writing not only helps users who visually engage with your page. It is also crucial for users who listen to content or use assistive technologies, like screen-readers. 

Research shows most users don't engage with web content word for word. Instead, they hop around searching for the content that is relevant to their interests.

In general, you want to keep your webpage under 700 words to avoid overwhelming users with too much content.

You can make your content more scannable by:

  • Using bulleted or numbered lists to describe processes or details instead of long paragraphs
  • Adding headings to organize the sections of your content
  • Breaking up long paragraphs into shorter sections of 2-4 lines

When creating lists, make sure to use the bullet point or numbered list feature in your text editing navigation bar, instead of using dashes or numbers from your keyboard. The bullet point or numbered list features mark your lists as lists so that screen readers and other assistive technologies understand that you are listing your content. 

Write helpful headings that give your content a recognizable structure.

A heading is a title for a webpage or page section. They act like guideposts that outline a webpage’s information for the reader. Headings should:

  • Be short and direct (5-8 words is a good length)
  • Be understood on their own without further explanation
  • Use keywords that are important to your program or resource
  • Get to the point. Creative headers can be fun but aren’t helpful to the user who is looking for quick answers and direct information.  

Pima’s content management system (CMS) has different sized headings you can apply in our text editing system. Using different sized headers in your content creates visual interest and helps organize your sections. A general rule of thumb is to use:

  • Heading 1 (H1) for the page title
  • Heading 2 (H2) for the main headings
  • Heading 3 (H3) for subheadings
  • Heading 4 (H4) for additional subheadings

Webpages should only have one Heading 1 on the page, and we automatically apply Heading 1 to the page title on all Pima.edu pages. A page can have multiple occurrences of the other heading sizes.

All other content should be formatted as regular paragraph text. 

It is important to use heading sizes in order to create an accessible content structure. For example, if you include an H3 heading, it should come after a broader H2 heading. 

Don't use bolding or italics to create headings in place of the H1/H2/H3/H4 tags. Screen readers and other assistive technologies won't recognize bolded or italicized phrases as headings, meaning the content organization will not be detectable to the user. 

Formatting really matters. Screen readers identify and describe content based on how your text is structured, not how it looks.

Using the H1/H2/H3/H4 tags to mark content as headings provides effective, recognizable structure for all users. Simply making text bold or italic does not.

Use text formatting purposefully. 

Use text formatting like bolding and italics sparingly and with a purpose. Too much special formatting is distracting for the user. Instead:

  • Bold keywords and important phrases that really need to be emphasized 
  • Italicize supporting information, like a caveat or clarification

Underlining should only be used on hyperlinked text, not for emphasis. Underlining a word makes it look like a link and will be confusing to the user if the text is not in fact a link. 

It's also good practice to avoid all-caps. All-caps can create an aggressive tone and cause usability issues for assistive technologies, like screen readers. 


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