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MIT Libraries Staff Web

Writing for the Web: Guidelines for MIT Libraries: Writing guidelines

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Call attention with useful headings

Headings catch the eye

When users scan a page, headings are usually what first grabs their attention

What should a heading look like?

Questions or statements work well as headings. They draw the user into the text.


What did you expect to find under this heading? Nouns are less informative as headings.

Catch the user in the first few words

Users skim:

  • They may start to read, but they also stop quickly unless the writing captures their interest.

Think journalism (not academic writing)

  • Who, what, where, when, why and how
  • Start with the conclusion, then give the details
No: Yes:
Current MIT students, faculty, staff, (Athena-account holders) with certificates enabled, may access many of our electronic resources from off-campus. We are working with the vendors of these resources to renegotiate contracts so off-campus access will be allowed. To find out more, read our Accessing Licensed Electronic Resources FAQ.

MIT community members may now access many of our electronic resources from off-campus!

To find out more about

  • who is eligible for this service
  • how to set up certificates on your computer
  • which vendors allow off-campus access

read our Accessing Licensed Electronic Resources FAQ.

Be human! Lose the formality.

No need to be too formal! Write what you would say to them if you were talking on the phone. 

Think in short stories (scenarios):

  • Write in terms of "who does what to whom."
  • Use active voice, personal pronouns, action verbs, & contractions.

When users "think aloud" through a paragraph in typical academic style, they translate the passive, noun-based writing into scenarios.

No: Yes:
An acknowledgement of the order will be issued via an e-mail message when payment is made by credit card. If you pay by credit card, we'll send you an e-mail acknowledging your order.
It is, we will, you are. It's, we'll, you're.


Use consistent punctuation, capitalization, and spacing

Consult the MIT Libraries House Style Guide for details.

In short:

  • Oxford commas: Use them! (ex. "red, white, and blue" NOT "red, white and blue")
  • Single-space after periods.
  • Capitalization:
    • For blog titles and LibGuides box titles, capitalize only the first word. 
    • For web page or guide titles, capitalize only the first word.
    • Always capitalize proper names!
  • Sentence case vs. title case example: 
    • Yes: Open access downloads: February 2022
    • No: Open Access Downloads: February 2022
    • Yes: MIT Reads Virtual group discussion
    • No: MIT Reads Virtual Group Discussion

Use lists


  • facilitate scanning
  • create chunks
  • separate ideas
  • show relationships
  • allow counting
    • Use numbered lists for steps that must be taken in a certain order.

Think about the order. If some list items are more important, put them at the top of the list.

Give instructions with imperatives

To make instructions easy for users to follow:

  • Use numbered lists.

  • Use imperatives: "Do this."

  • Put some space between the steps.

Use parallelisms

People like patterns

  • We grasp the information more quickly if we can anticipate the pattern.
  • We try to see patterns in information even when there are none.
  • When we have to switch patterns, we use extra mental energy.
No: Yes, uses parallelism:

Members of the MIT community interested in borrowing library materials not held by the MIT Libraries should contact the Interlibrary Borrowing Service.

Document Services lends original materials owned by the MIT Libraries to other institutions. It also provides photocopies, including copies of dissertations and theses.

Interlibrary Loans

Use words users know

Your audiences are almost always broader than you think.

  • If your site is for the public, avoid internal language.
  • If your site is internal only, consider how many different audiences you have inside.

Instead of this:

Try this:


borrowing library items

checking out a book

interlibrary borrowing

borrowing items from other libraries

ordering articles from non-MIT libraries


Request an item from storage: The Library Storage Annex (LSA)


Use simple words

Even highly educated people read simpler words faster.

Instead of this:

Try this:



prior to





ask for







Also, consult the MIT Libraries House Style Guide for commonly used terms.

Try fragments

Space is always at a premium.

  • Complete sentences are not always necessary.
  • Distinguish between:
    • fragments - coherent phrases
    • telegraphic writing - leaving out words like "a" and "the"
  • Telegraphic writing may be OK in navigation, but avoid it in text. It doesn't save time because the user has to mentally put the little words back in.

Telegraphic writing - no:

Fragments - yes:

User gets receipt in e-mail message when pays with credit card.

More fun in the great outdoors! The thrill of adventure. The beauty of nature. The exhilaration of your favorite outdoor sports.

Make links descriptive

Links that are descriptive are more useful than links that name categories.

  • Words must be informative - not fluff.
  • Use the page title in your link.
  • Action words and imperatives serve as calls to action (ex. "Renew books").
  • Never say "click here..." 
No (too vague): Yes:




Search Our Collections:
databases you can search for books, journals, e-journals, theses and more

Subjects + Courses:
pages related to specific subjects & courses at MIT

Borrowing + Ordering:
borrowing FAQ, ordering articles from other libraries, requesting books from remote storage, and more

Use shortcut links

If you're linking to a popular page on the Libraries' website, check the shortcuts page. If you find a shortcut URL, use it!


No: Yes:



  • When we have a web site redesign, shortcut URLs won't break. 
  • Shortcut URLs looks better.

Format links properly

Don't show URLs unless there's a really good reason.

An exception might be a "get" URL if you want people to bookmark it. If you do show the URL, don't include the "http://" in the text.  (But do include it when you hyperlink it, so the URL works!)



Check out this website for more info:

Check out this website for more info:

Check out the Nature website for more info.


Keep it clean!

Only underline the text you're linking, not spaces before and after the link. In some systems, the underline will look hyperlinked, and that looks sloppy!