||Writing for Interactive Media
||For an hour long seminar called Copywriting
and the Internet and others on Writing for the Web, I'm working on the basic
differences between writing for print and writing for the web. (I'd eventually like to
abstract a larger set of rules for new media that includes CD-ROMs, fax and beeper
publications, virtual reality and other interactive formats.)
As a starting point, here
are a few big and small ideas that I'd like to develop:
- Print authors are usually not concerned with their reader's reading experience.
Even after the typed manuscript is transformed into galleys and pages, the work looks
pretty much the same as it was created: horizontal lines of type wrapping over many
columns and pages. Images, if any, are used to compel readers to enter the text, to
illustrate ideas from the text, or to "break up the monotony" of the text, but
usually the author has no control or interest in those pictures.
- Text is the principal component of print.
Comic books, fashion magazines and other image-intensive publications aside, a page is
mainly text, and the primary creative challenge is to craft narrative that holds the
reader's interest while it informs, entertains or persuades.
- Text is not the principal component of Web publishing.
Tech doc, newsgroups and other text-only sites aside, images--more precisely, the
multimedia environment--are more important than words on the Web. The jazzy elements of
that environment can either complement or compete with the text:
- One IMAGE element can be worth a thousand words.
- AUDIO and VIDEO elements can even be worth more.
- HYPERLINK elements destroy the linear flow of the text.
- The TIME element, the expectation of immediate gratification (plus the expensive ticking
of the on-line services clock), pressures the narrator to get to the point.
- The SURFING experience, with a million other pages competing for a peek, makes every
pitch an all-or-nothing gamble.
- The Web is an unstructured place, hostile to narrative control.
The inherent structure of a two-dimensional printed page is lost on the Web (although most
Web pages themselves are merely 2D at this point). Writers therefore have to emphasize
their copy's structure, making it visible on the screen when it might have been more
subtly communicated in print.
- Web readers don't read every word.
The texture of reading on-line is more like speed reading than line-by-line decomposition.
Reading off a CRT is uncomfortable, and scrolling through an unknowably long file is
unpleasant. The reader's investment in the copy had better have some short term payoffs
along the way.
- Most of the copy on the Web is poorly written.
Many pages are sophomoric in the original sense--created by sophomores--and much of the
rest aspires to the same tone. As in most vanity publishing, self-indulgence is rampant,
copyediting is cursory and editorial discretion is non-existent. Good writing stands out.
- Every Web reading is unique.
With all the possible combinations of computers, browsers, CRTs and line speeds, every
reader experiences the text differently. Who knows whether graphics loading is turned on,
what point size and typeface the browser displays, whether the page loads in one second or
||Posted by Jack Powers
August 28, 1995
September 12, 1995
Clients: Wordsmyth 95
Spring 96 Internet World
Web Developer '96
Publishers of America
See also: Seminar Slides.
- Web writers should create with both the content and the form of their work in
For years we've recommended that magazine writers and editors write their copy in
"pre-galley" form, setting their Mac and Windows word processors to mimic the
font and measure of the printed book. In addition to slashing AA cycles, pre-galleys also
give authors a better appreciation of the reader's experience. Writing for the Web should
be even more form-conscious, and authors should think about writing directly in HTML (or
at least with HTML-compatible style sheets), previewing screens as they write and working
with the page designer on the multimedia elements.
- Copy should be tightly structured, and that structure should be immediately
apparent to the reader.
A road map, preferably clickable, of the narrative should be available either in list form
or in a graphic map so that the reader can skip forward and backward. On-line readers
value interactivity and can only be compelled to follow a story if they feel rewarded and
- In-line links should be treated like footnotes, not continued lines.
The author's complete work should be able to stand on its own as a page. Interior
hyperlinks should be quick diversions to get a definition, refer to a citation or view a
graphic. Major exterior hyperlinks that branch to different paragraphs, narrative paths or
sidebars should be clearly marked, for example in a numbered or unordered list or in a
short launchpad paragraph.
- If the text has to be heavy, prompt the reader to print it out.
There's no shame in printing, and a complex set of specifications or a densely written
narrative might be better consumed off a paper page than off a scrolling CRT. In that
case, the print format should be carefully planned, maybe an Acrobat page with a good font
formatted properly or a specially-layed out Web alternative that prints better than the
standard 80 column screen dump.
- The new vocabulary of the Web is not always good, but it's not always bad.
Like every subculture, the Web has developed it's own dialect. Cliché's like Hot,
Cool and cyber- this and that have lost their impact, but neologisms like de-select,
flame and the use of email and ftp as verbs are sensible and
- The reader is a partner in Web writing.
In addition to paying attention to voice and tone, a Web writer should incorporate the
physical actions of the reader (clicking, scrolling and posting) in the creation process.
In many sites, the feedback or newsgroup features are more interesting than the
- Novels, short stories and essays don't belong on the Web.
Traditional writing forms that depend solely on the progression of the text don't fit on
the Web screen just as they don't fit (without extensive re-working) on the movie or TV
- Writing for the Web should be tight and to the point.
We'll list some editorial rules for interactive text by following good copywriting
techniques. I'm reviewing Strunk & White's Elements of Style (of course), the
Chicago Manual of Style and a recent book by William Brohaugh, the editorial
director of Writer's Digest Books, called Write Tight. Any other
suggestions--especially Web-based publications--would be appreciated.
At the copywriters' conference, we'll probably get some interesting perspectives on
writing for the computer screen. Most of the attendees will not be familiar with the Web,
though, and I'd like to hear from people who have been reading and writing Web pages.
If you've got any comments or arguments about this initial set of premises and
conclusions, please POST me a note. After the
conference, my notes and the slides from the session will be available here on ELECTRIC PAGES.
September 13, 1995 Update
- Time-Warner's Pathfinder
- Hot Wired
- Hot Hot Hot
- Internet Shopping Network
- MasterCard list of shopping sites.
- Adobe Systems
- General Electric and GE Plastics
- Eli Lilly corporate Home page, with Chairman Randy
- CBS Television Network
- Mama Ragu
- Miller Genuine Draft Taproom
- Alamo Rent-A-Car
Writing Page for a comprehensive set of links.
- Beginner's Guide
to HTML from NCSA, the people who developed Mosaic.
- Marius Watz' Computer-Generated Writing
Page covering machine-generated fiction and related topics.
- David Siegel's Net Tips for
Writers and Designers about Web typography and design.
- Vanderbilt University's Project 2000,
an academic research program on marketing in computer-mediated environments, including a
paper by Hoffman, D.L. and T.P. Novak, "Marketing
in Computer-Mediated Environments: Conceptual Foundations."