Writing rules: guiding principles

Writing fo the web implies a thorough understanding of the internet users’ reading practices, information needs and expectations.

You do not write for yourself but for an audience

The entity’s communication needs do not necessarily coincide with the information needs of the target. Ignore your readers and their needs and you run the risk of not being read…

The reader is looking for something new

The reader want to learn something out of the ordinary, never published before, either in terms of the content (original info, new take on a subject already known), or in terms of the form (the editorial treatment is original due to the journalistic style or media used). If you do not surprise your reader, they risk being bored…

The form is as important as the content… often even more so

The reader has little time to read and when it comes to online content, the medium itself – a screen for example – makes it difficult to read. Neglect presentation and publication techniques and reading risks being superficial… or even abandoned before the end.

On the web, to be read you first have to be found

Given the competition from other web pages and sites, it is crucial to “stand out from the pack”. Writing for the web means you must work on how you are tracked by search engines, in a word SEO (search engine optimisation).

On the web, content is looked at before being read

Lack of time and the difficulty of reading on a screen (see below) incline readers to opt for a zapping type of reading that is very sensitive to formal elements. Writing for the internet means you must take great care with the page layout, publication efficiency (title, teasers, subheads, captions…), text format, paragraph length.

On the internet, the reader is essentially a novice… and impatient

Guided by search engines, internet users come across the site in search of simple, clear, concise and easy-to-access information. Writing for the web means being concerned about:
– being understood by as many readers as possible;
– applying a pedagogical approach;
– being understandable even (and especially) when the subject matter is technical or scientific.

On the internet, readers are looking for dynamism and variety

Readers will ignore or neglect content that is too static, favouring:
– originality over content (out of the ordinary news, original takes) or over form (use of several media;
– varied journalistic treatment);
– interactive content through online links or solicitations (survey, quiz, testimonial, content production…).

On the internet, there is not one but several types of reading

Four different types of reading can be found when it comes to online content:
– fast reading to locate information (homepage reading);
– fast reading or zapping to get a quick overview of the content (article reading, focused on the teaser and the first paragraphs);
– reading by bouncing from link to link;
– further reading by downloading items;
– further reading recommended through sharing and dissemination on social networks.

The editorial policy

The editorial policy is each publication’s compass and addresses 3 questions:

– the target audience: WHO am I aiming at, who am I talking to;
– the content: WHAT, what is the content – information, services – that I am offering my target;
– the treatment: HOW, how to present and treat this information.

Writing for what audience(s), for what purposes?

Two major categories of audience are targeted on our sites:

– the biggest audience in number, the “Discoverers”: the general public, present or future students, external researchers, businesses, sponsors, the media.
Most of the time, these “discoverers” are not scientists and/or are unfamiliar with the EPFL world. They want to understand the institution and its environment, read the latest news about it and find practical information quickly and easily;

– the smallest audience in number, those “in-the-know”: teachers, researchers, internal staff.

Familiar with the EPFL environment, this internal audience has 2 needs that must be satisfied:
> be aware of events and changes having an impact on their professional life;

> promote their research and publications (teachers) and in this way go beyond their immediate environment by reaching out to specific targets (young researchers, colleagues, partners).

For content, there is one golden rule, variety:
– variety in terms of format: newsbriefs, short, medium or full length articles, feature stories (see details in the rules for writing).

To be avoided:
> producing articles that are always the same length;
> excessively long, exhaustive articles;

– variety in terms of journalistic styles: summary, analysis, interview, testimony, special report…

To be avoided:
> articles that always adopt the same journalistic style, especially if it is aloof, remote (a summary or account).

– variety in terms of media: text, visuals (slideshows, videos, maps, graphics).
For each topic, ask yourself the following questions: in the information that I want to convey,
– what must BE READ?
– what can BE SEEN?
– what can BE HEARD?

To be avoided:
> articles always using the same media or one single media (text, mainly).

– Variety of angles:
> pedagogical: explain the unknown and the new in simple language;
> practical: provide information and help;
> technical: explain a process;
> visual: show readers rather than describe with words (slideshow, video, graphics, map, chronology);
> interactive: beyond reading, offer the reader a call to action, the possibility of getting involved (subscribe, vote, etc.);
> fun: have the reader play with the information (quiz);
> off-beat: use an off-beat approach (serious content, unusual or humorous form) play on humour, cultural complicity.

For the editorial tone or style, one golden rule, proximity:

– be simple:
> prefer short standard sentences (subject-verb-object). Beyond 13/14 words a sentence becomes increasingly hard to remember. If your sentence is very long but well structured, you can certainly break it up into 2 sentences…
> use simple language accessible to all. If you use a technical or scientific term, initials or an acronym, explain it and/or refer the reader to the glossary;

– choose a “human” and accessible editorial tone: use leads (short start to the article, magazine style), pictures, quotes. To get your reader involved, you can selectively use “you” to get closer to them; to keep their attention, a timely touch of humour doesn’t hurt either…
To be avoided:
> long, drawn-out sentences;
> an institutional aloof, remote tone;
> an academic, non-pedagogical, obscure approach.