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TechnoFile: Writing Well on the Web
 

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If there's one thing everybody knows about the Web by now, it's that people read differently online than they do on paper.

Why, then, do so many business websites (perhaps even yours) still read like books, brochures, or reports -- and often badly written ones at that?

In part, it's because digital documents usually get far less scrutiny than their hard-copy counterparts. Typically, overworked Web teams put them online quickly, probably with a manager's approval, but without serious editing or copyediting. After all, one of the Web's greatest strengths is its capacity for limitless corrections, revisions, and updates.

But good writing -- online or off --- involves much more than fixing typos or tweaking awkward phrases after the fact. It starts at the point of creation. And in larger part, that's the problem's source. Too many wordsmiths still write for the Web as if they're writing for paper, generating page after page of densely packed content that frustrates, confuses, or alienates readers.

See for yourself

Try two experiments. First, jump online and visit a handful of business websites. Sooner or later, you'll hit one with content so impenetrable that you get tired just looking at it. Then take a hard look at your own Web pages. Try seeing them as if for the first time. Would you want to read them? Or would you decide they're not worth the effort?

The good news: You can easily improve your Web writing, making the content enjoyable, maybe even desirable, to read. Even better news: Doing so won't cost a cent.

What do Web readers want?

To a certain extent, good writing is good writing in any medium.

But Web readers do have specific expectations. Think about how you use the Web yourself. If you're like most Web users, you don't read word for word. You scan. Even then, according to classic research by Web guru Jakob Nielsen and others, you read digital pages more slowly than paper ones, and ultimately you read less online than you do in print.

Also, you're probably in a hurry. You're looking for something specific, and you don't want to hunt through screen after screen of text to find it. Finally, you may want to do something with the content: print it out, request information, make a purchase, contact a human rep. But you won't bother if it's a struggle.

So to provide a high-quality experience for like-minded Web users visiting your site, offer content that's easy to locate, easy to read, and easy to use.

The best way to do that: Apply the "three S's."

1. Keep content scannable. Write in the "inverted pyramid" style, putting the most important information at the top of each document. Consider identifying documents with brief "executive summaries."
Also try:

  • Headlines that identify documents; subheads that keep readers moving through them.
  • Bullet points.
  • Numbered lists.
  • Questions and answers.
  • Bold or colored highlights (but sparingly).
  • Pulled quotes to emphasize major points.
  • A few simple, easily recognizable icons.

Avoid: Extensive use of hard-to-read italics, mixing too many fonts, and using underlines for anything except links.

2. Keep content short. Do your readers a favor; don't contribute to information overload. Instead:

  • Write short, direct sentences (general guideline: maximum of 20 to 25 words).
  • Break up long paragraphs (general guideline: maximum of three to five sentences).
  • Be succinct. Use only your best details and examples.
  • Write less. Usability research indicates that the most effective Web documents are 50% shorter than their print counterparts. If you must include more information, see the third "S."
  • Edit ruthlessly. Trim every unnecessary word.

3. Keep content segmented. Take advantage of what the Web does well by layering information. Split long material into smaller chunks of varying lengths, linking them to the original document and to each other. Consider presenting some information as:

  • Checklists.
  • Primers or glossaries.
  • Fact sheets or "at a glance" boxes.
  • Testimonials or short case histories.
  • Formatted personal profiles.
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) documents.
  • Resource lists.
  • Price lists.
  • Quizzes (with informative answers and relevant scoring).
  • Charts, tables, or graphs.

Bottom line: Write Web content you'd like to read yourself, and present it the way you'd like to read it. Chances are your Web readers will view it the same way.

SIDEBAR: Good Writing is Good Writing

These best practices haven't changed in generations:

  • Write with a goal in mind: making a point, teaching or advising, answering a question, prompting an action.
  • Write clearly, concisely, and consistently in the right tone for your audience.
  • Write with carefully chosen details and examples.
  • Write with zero tolerance for errors.
  • Write engagingly. No one likes being bored.

WEB-WRITING RESOURCES

Web Writing That Works, www.webwritingthatworks.com
Companion site to Hot Text guide (see "Books"). Advice on targeting content, working with documents, and similar topics. Some info may be too "techie" for marketers and writers.

Writing Online, www.clickz.com/design/write_onl.archives.php
Web-writing columns by online marketer and author Nick Usborne.

Sun Microsystems Web-Writing Guide, www.sun.com/980713/webwriting/
Classic Web-writing site still offers valuable information; easy-to-use format is a good model for Web presentation.

E-Writing Online, www.ewriteonline.com/newsletter/
Free e-mail newsletter and online articles on variety of Web-writing topics.

WordBiz, www.wordbiz.com
Offers articles and other resources on writing for the Web, along with publisher Debbie Weil's WordBiz Report newsletter and books.

Good Documents, www.gooddocuments.com
Dan Bricklin's guide to business writing for the Web, particularly for intranets.

Jakob Nielsen's "Web usability" site, www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/
Research (some dated, but still useful) on how Web users read online.

Contentious e-zine, www.contentious.com and Contentious blog, blog.contenious.com
Writer/editor Amy Gahran's musings on "how we communicate in an electronic age."

WEB-WRITING DISCUSSION GROUPS

I-Copywriting Discussion List, www.marketingwonk.com/lists/icopywriting
E-mail discussion list; paid subscription required.

Web Editors Discussion List, www.topica.com/lists/webeditors

BOOKS

Hot Text: Web Writing That Works, by Jonathan and Lisa Price (New Riders Publishing, 2002).

Net Words: Creating High-Impact Online Copy, by Nick Usborne (McGraw Hill, 2001).

The Web Content Style Guide: An Essential Reference for Online Writers, Editors and Managers, by Gerry McGovern, Rob Norton, and Catherine O'Dowd (Prentice-Hall/Financial Times, 2002).

Web Word Wizardry: A Guide to Writing for the Web and Intranet, by Rachel McAlpine (Ten Speed Press, 2001).

Last updated: Feb 1, 2004




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