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Writing For The Web, Part I

By Jack Powers

Published: April 15, 1996 Revised: February 9, 2002

This article is adapted from Powers' seminar on Writing for Interactive Media.

Everybody knows that writing a script for a TV commercial is different from writing an article for a magazine. We all understand that the original novel of "The Scarlet Letter" was substantially re-worked for the movie, and even the Superman comic book series needed to be editorially adapted for television.

So why should we think that text on the World Wide Web can just be "re-purposed" print material squirted out through an HTML word processor? Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, and while web art directors love to tinker with huge modem-hostile GIF images, few writers and editors pay much attention to the crafting of the text.

The Internet is a unique reading environment; it's highly competitive, it demands concision, and it gives writers some exciting new editorial techniques that make for better communications.

The web is a surfer's paradise. At last count, the Google indexing robot found over 2 billion HTML pages. Every reader on the web has 2,000,000,000 other places he can be instead of your page, and if he logs on outside the U.S. he could be paying a nickel a minute or more to read your copy. You had better produce some compelling text or you'll be zapped down the memory hole in a microsecond.

The web rewards tight writing. The reader is captured by the first screenfull in the first 20 seconds: bullets are better than paragraphs, one picture is worth a 1000 textual bytes, and the voice of the writer has to be heard loud and clear. There's nothing sadder than a huge block of re-purposed text torn out of its original context and blurted across the screen with no hints as to where it's coming from or where it's going.

The web is a page-less paradise, an unstructured morass of ideas, information and opinion. In a printed piece, we see the shape of a story before we dive into it. We can flip a few pages ahead to see how much of a commitment we have to make to a magazine article. We can scan brochure copy to see whether it's dense text or short, light paragraphs. We can even weigh a book in our hands to know how long the writer takes to get to the point.

Browsing a web site, we don't have the same three-dimensional hints about a text. We may be looking at the whole story in the first 20 lines, or we may be at the beginning of an HTML trek that runs on for 100K or so. We can scroll top to bottom before we start reading, but there's no guarantee that the writer doesn't jump to another unknowably long page with a hyperlink in the last graph. That's why people print out so many pages off the web, to get a glimpse of the structure from the printed page.

In a medium without limits, it's up to the writer to provide the structure that helps a reader find his way. Good web writing is somewhat didactic, telegraphing the outline of the narrative to come in the first few sentences or diagramming it in a set of hyperlinked heads and subheads at the top of the page. Paragraphs are short and full of information, written in the active voice and wasting no bytes on rambling subordinate clauses: readers shouldn't have to hunt for the subject, verb and predicate of a sentence.

A hyperlink within a line should be used as a footnote, not as a branch to a wholly new thread of narrative. If you're sending the reader to a new page, it should be done with a separate button or a text link at the end of the paragraph. Putting the branching links within the graph is crazy: what kind of writer creates a paragraph the end of which no reader is ever expected to reach? (Similarly, every link that says "click here" is a failure of the writer to find a more informative description of the jump.)

Writing for an interactive medium means trusting each reader to take what he needs, not what you want to give him. Some will read every word start to finish the old-fashioned way, others will click around through the subheads and hyperlinks until they get the gist, still others will land in the middle of the text through a web search on their favorite keyword. With all the variations of access, linking, display and transmission, no two readers may ever experience the same material in the same way.

If the electronic medium puts new demands on writers, it also gives them new tools to craft better texts. Next month we'll look at the editorial use of the six new media advantages of customization, timeliness, comprehensiveness, searchability, economy and participation.

See Writing For the Web, Part II



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