Writing for web accessibility: 5 easy tips

Every writer wants to create content that goes viral and reaches the widest imaginable audience. These days, that dream includes writing for people who access the internet in many different ways for many reasons, including a broader reach.

Rainbow gradient of the universal accessibility symbol

Write for everyone, every time

Writing for accessibility means making sure that everyone can read and understand what you write, including those with different cognitive or physical abilities. In general, accessible writing falls under the “perceivable” and “understandable” categories of POUR as defined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Writing that adheres to these guidelines ensures that your written content is available and consumable for everyone, regardless of their abilities.

And although this sounds like a daunting task, it doesn’t have to be! Here are 5 foolproof ways to make your writing more accessible, right away. 

1. Begin with clear and concise language

This is harder than it sounds but worth practicing. Simple language is not only easier for people with cognitive disabilities to understand, but it can also be an impactful language skill that improves your reach with everyone. A few tips we’ve found helpful:

  • Keep clarity as your guiding star
  • Use active voice when possible
  • Try to write to the average reading level of your audience
  • Avoid jargon or overly technical terms
  • Explain acronyms or abbreviations the first time you use them
  • Carefully read your content out loud to yourself
  • Frequently re-read your content
  • Replace adverbs (those pesky little “-ly” words) with more powerful verbs
  • Reduce prepositional phrases
  • Shorten paragraphs to no more than 5 sentences
  • Remove qualifiers like “very,” “literally,” and “really”
  • Break down complex ideas into bite-sized pieces with headings, subheadings, and bullets
  • List items with bullets instead of commas
  • Eliminate redundant pairs like “first and foremost” and “each and every”
  • When in doubt about your conjunctions and commas, shorten compound sentences.
  • And if all of this sounds like a lot of work, use an AI tool like Grammarly! It’s free!

2. Clarify your content hierarchy with a writing outline

Many writers start off thinking that they’re “creatives” and don’t need an outline or process, only to find that their content is disorganized or confusing to even the most able among us. However, by merit of its very existence, even the simplest blog entry deserves a clear purpose and at least one point with a supporting statement. Additionally, clear outlines provide a logical and clear structure to the content, which leads to better accessibility. Here’s why:

Your writing outline informs the content hierarchy that's used by assistive technology. 

To build your outline, start by organizing your ideas from the largest category or argument to the smallest supporting statements. You’ll want to put related topics in the same larger category and clearly separate each idea with a heading. 

As you start working on more nuanced content, you’ll soon find that categories aren’t that straightforward to define, or you’re adding too many subcategories. This can quickly become confusing. Most of the time, it’s a symptom that your categories are not specific enough, or you need to move your topics up or down the hierarchy. It gets easier with practice, and once you refine your outlining process, you may find that it saves time you didn’t even know you had! 

3. Use headings to help screen readers navigate

Once your content exceeds a couple of paragraphs, it’s good writing practice to use headings and subheadings to help all readers determine the overall outline. Also, web accessibility tools like screen readers use the tags on headings to navigate users through content, so the clearer your hierarchy is delineated by headings, the easier it is for the people who use these tools to find, read, and comprehend your content (and everyone else too, for that matter). Here’s a very basic example:

Title/Heading 1 (H1): Animals

  • Heading 2 (H2): Land mammals
    • Heading 3 (H3): Cats
    • H3: Dogs
  • H2:  Sea mammals
    • H3: Dolphins
    • H3: Whales
  • H2: Land reptiles
    • H3: Iguanas
    • H3: Turtles

Headings are classified by levels, and as you might imagine, too many nested levels are confusing and difficult for screen readers to navigate through. It’s a good rule of thumb to try to limit your heading levels to 3 or 4. And don’t be tempted to simply change the formatting to look like a heading: since assistive devices can’t see that text is bolded or size-enhanced, they rely on those coded heading tags to navigate. 

4. Include hyperlinks that are descriptive and meaningful

Hyperlinks are wonderful, and because they provide users with easy access to relevant information across the web, they’re also SEO gold. However, vague phrases like, “click here” or “read more here,” don’t provide people who use a screen reader with any context about where the link leads. And to be honest, they sound a little clunky and outdated these days, too. 

To address this, the WCAG recommends providing descriptive hyperlink anchor text that blends in with your content. Common sense corroborates this recommendation because linking in context provides a more enjoyable, intuitive browsing experience for everyone. Here are some examples:

Not very good: We design and build awesome websites. Click here to learn more! 

Better: We’ve completed super cool projects with great clients that you can check out on our website

Best: We also dabble in content

5. Paint a picture using thoughtful image alt text

Images are a fantastic way to enhance the virtual curb appeal of your content. They make your content more relatable, polished, and memorable. We also know that blog posts with images tend to perform better than those without. But images also present a challenge for people with visual impairments, unless you provide alternative text (alt text). 

Alt text is not usually visible to users who don’t use a screen reader. It serves to provide those who do need this assistive device with the purpose of, or information about, your image, chart, or graph. With this in mind, try to keep your alt text descriptive, clear, and concise.

Before you start writing alt text, consider the essential information that the image offers: is it a diagram? Does it show an important step in a numbered process? As you’re writing alt text, try to succinctly tell the story of the image in a way that someone who can’t see will understand exactly what it contributes to the rest of your content.

Purely decorative images don’t necessarily need alt text, since they aren’t intended to add to the conversation. 

Writing for web accessibility: a worthwhile practice evolution

At first glance, writing for web accessibility seems like a difficult undertaking for many trained writers. Many of us have literature or communications backgrounds, and we love complex fiction, poetry, and songs. But when we write with consideration for those with different abilities, we open new doors to creativity and experiences that are better for everyone. So while it may take practice to add web accessibility to your writing process, it’s likely to pay off in ways you never imagined.

Want help writing web content?

We’d love to help! As a full-service digital agency, we can help you plan and create content that’s valuable for users and search engines and in line with your other goals. Reach out for a no-strings-attached discovery phase and start what’s next today.