Writing good Web content is a lot like planning a big dinner party.
You're looking forward to inviting lots of guests, but you're not sure when they'll arrive or how hungry they'll be.
You know Deborah will only nibble on the salad; Laura will snack on the chicken; and Dan will cheerfully devour everything you serve.
As an experienced party planner, you'll accommodate your guests' diverse appetites.
A good Web writer does the same thing, accommodates the appetites of all content-hungry visitors by providing different amounts of content for different users.
Web readers are known to be both hungry and impatient. To satisfy their need to find what they're looking for, you have to write concisely. But if you only give factoids, you won't answer their questions.
As a Web writer, you have the ability to provide content in a variety of sizes and to let visitors choose the amount of information that will satisfy them. In our Writing for the Web classes, we call this writing concept the bite, the snack and the meal.
The CEO's Speech: 3 Ways
Let us show you how to provide a bite, a snack and a meal with a plausible example.
You've been asked (read: told) to put your CEO's keynote speech on the Web. The edict from on high is "Don't change a word!" The lengthy speech details the research your company, PetersMed, has done on the effectiveness of a new chickenpox vaccine. The CEO, Mr. Peters, concludes by proposing national legislation requiring the vaccine. You know that some Web readers will want to read the entire speech -- the meal -- and perhaps even print it out.
But you also know that other visitors don't have the appetite for the entire speech. Some visitors are satisfied knowing what it's about -- the bite -- and others are satisfied with a concise summary of the speech -- the snack.
The Bite: Headline With a Message
"So what did Peters say?" Some site readers only want the bottom line and they want it short. They're satisfied with just a bite, but they prefer something hearty to "lite."
On the Web, the bite is a headline. You might be tempted to use the original speech title for your bite. But the title for CEO Peters' speech was PetersMed's Research on Chickenpox Vaccine. The original title isn't enough to satisfy. You want your readers to get the entire message of the speech from the bite.
A satisfying bite would be this powerful headline's message: CEO Peters Says Research Supports Mandatory Chickenpox Vaccination. And you can make the bite work even harder for you by making it the link to the full text.
The Snack: Concise Summary
What about those who are moderately hungry? They want a snack, a good summary, two or three sentences long.
The easy way to write the snack would be to use the first paragraph of the speech and call it a snack. But in this case, you'd just get the CEO's opening joke. And in most instances, using the first paragraph of a print document doesn't make for a satisfying snack. Many articles begin with an anecdote or a provocative hook, not a summary.
Here's a satisfying snack that summarizes the CEO's speech: "PetersMed's four-year study of the chickenpox vaccine shows that it reduces cases of the childhood illness by 80 percent. CEO Sam Peters supports national legislation, and efforts by the American Academy of Pediatrics, to make the vaccine mandatory for school-age children."
Presenting Bite, Snack and Meal
How will you present these three versions of the same content at your site? Try using the bite as the headline for the snack, or summary. Link the bite to the meal, the entire document, by making the headline hot.
For example, look at the Web site for HandsNet, an organization that supports online collaboration in the human services community. Read the snack under each hypertext headline or click the headline, the bite, to go to the meal.
Or you could choose to present all three versions on one page: a headline, a summary beneath the headline or as a sidebar, and the full version.
Spice It Up: Add Hot Links
You can add spice to the meal, without changing a word, by adding hypertext links.
What else might the reader of the speech want to know?
More about the CEO? Link to his bio.
Background on the company? Link to your site's About Us page.
Results from PetersMed's research on chickenpox? Provide a link to your report.
Additional questions? Link to a knowledgeable company contact.
The Taste Test: Less Is More
Ironically, the test of good Web writing might be whether your visitor has to read all you've written to get your point. If your bite and snack are effective, your reader can choose not to read your meal.
In Web writing, the highest praise might be: "I didn't read the whole thing."