Writing Style for Online Help Systems

Style refers to the way we express ourselves in writing. While there is no one standard style that every writer must follow, there are two key elements in an effective writing style. One is readability, meaning the use of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in such a way as to communicate facts and ideas clearly. The other is elegance, meaning the use of appropriate and interesting words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that will keep a reader's attention and interest. Good style communicates information effectively. It moves the reader along easily from word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and one section of the paper to the next. Bad style is boring and often confusing.

Effective writing style is crucial to online help systems. Online help systems should be written in clear language, be to-the-point, and help users achieve results as quickly as possible. Effective writing style involves:

  • Choosing the right words and phrases
  • Structuring sentences and paragraphs for clarity
  • Using appropriate tone

Plain-style writing
Persuasive or grand-style writing
Concise, instructional, and task-oriented sentences
Additional wording
Step-by-step troubleshooting
Anthropomorphic writing
Standard punctuation
Metaphors, sayings, or cliches
Linking related topics (see below)
Cultural, historical, or sports-related references

Suggestions for Making Your Writing Understandable and Interesting

  • Write in coherent paragraphs. A coherent paragraph is a group of sentences all relating to one basic idea. The first sentence is often a topic sentence, meaning that it states the unifying theme that binds the sentences together.

  • Write paragraphs that are neither too short nor too long. Avoid paragraphs that contain only one sentence. If you have a paragraph that is more than about a half page in length, try to break it into at least two paragraphs.

  • Begin most sentences with the subject, rather than with a dependent clause, an adverb, or a prepositional phrase. Such devices may provide useful variety if used sparingly, but they often slow the natural flow of ideas. Bad: John Smith, realizing that he had perhaps only one last opportunity to bring order to a community torn by strife and lack of bureaucratic efficiency, decided to assume absolute control over the Jamestown settlers.

  • Write with an economy of words. Communicate a fact, opinion, argument, etc. with as few words as possible. Good writers always follow this principle.

  • Avoid the passive voice wherever possible. Use the active voice instead. Passive voice: President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.The same information, recast in the active voice: John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln. (The passive voice is usually in the form shown in the first example: the word "was," followed by the past tense of the verb, followed by a preposition.) Overuse of the passive voice is one of the most common style errors in college student papers. The passive voice is weak; things are happening to people rather than people doing things. Also, the passive voice is wordier, therefore more boring. (One cannot always avoid the passive voice, especially if the subject is not known, or if it would sound strange or be wordy to specify a subject.)

  • Keep sentences relatively short. Overly long sentences slow the reader down and can hide the writer's meaning. One way to keep sentences short is to avoid excessive use of dependent clauses. If a portion of your paper seems stiff and difficult to follow, count the number of dependent clauses. If several follow one after the other, rewrite.

  • Do not overuse adjectives. Properly used, adjectives can add interest and clarity. Too many adjectives, however, slow down the flow of your ideas.

Cultural Differences in Writing Style

There are many factors to consider when writing for an international community. Communication strategies differ between cultures. Some cultures prefer direct communication, while other cultures feel that being too direct is rude. Other factors include measurement systems, currency, translation issues and differences in meanings of symbols (visual aids). It is important to use plain English when writing, avoiding the use of idioms and regional sayings. These don't translate well. Visual aids should be chosen carefully as symbols have different meanings in different cultures.

When dealing with translations, it is important to note that translation software is available. However, it is not 100% effective. The guidelines listed above are also useful for online help systems that will be translated into one or more languages. It is also important to back-translate the text.

Linking Related Topics

Linking topics will allow a user to effectively work with an online help system.

Writing Style

An online help should be written in a concise, scannable, and objective style. The system should be designed to answer the user's questions and to help complete the user's tasks. The information should be brief and get to the point quickly because users are searching for answers. Headings and subtopics should provide
enough information to allow users to correctly predict what they will get if they follow the link.

A Web usability study done by Nielsen 1997 reports:
  • users do not read on the Web; instead they scan the pages, trying to pick out a few sentences or even parts of sentences to get the information they want.
  • users do not like long, scrolling pages: they prefer the text to be short and to the point.
  • users detest anything that seems like marketing fluff or overly hyped language ("marketese") and prefer factual information.

Refer to Sample Online Help Systems for assistance with developing the writing style for your online help.


Albers, Michael J. and Marsella, John F. “An Analysis of Student Comments in Comprehensive Editing.” Technical Communication. Vol 58.1. Feb. 2011. Web. 30 Aug. 2012. <http://techcomm.stc.org/2011/04/an-analysis-of-student-comments-in-comprehensive-editing/>

Au, Tsz-Chiu. "Guidelines of Online Help Design, E-mail Help Methods and Online Customer Service for Website Developers." 15 Apr. 2000. Web. 30 Aug. 2012. <http://otal.umd.edu/UUPractice/help/>

Griffin, Roger A. "Using the Internet as a Resource for Historical Research and Writing." Distance Instruction and Lifelong Learning Online. 1999. <http://www.austincc.edu/history/inres00title.html>

Johnson-Sheehan. Technical Communication Today. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Morkes, John, Jakob Nielsen. Concise, Scannable, and Objective: How to Write for the Web, Useit.com. 1997. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. Useit.com

Weber, Jean Hollis. Is Help Helpful? How to create online help that meets your users’ needs. Ed. Tamar E. Granor. Whitefish Bay: Hentzenwerke Publishing, 2004. Print


Original Author: Sandra Ramirez
Contributors: Larita Clow, Inez Funchess, Tammy Fitzpatrick
Editors: Tammy Fitzpatrick, Sandra Ramirez