There are several levels to this. On the most basic level, a well-conceived, well-written, and well-edited document is simply easier to read. The words carry you along, they don't confound or confuse you. That has been true of writing since writing itself began, it's not new to the online world.
Text is the basic building block of the Web. Text plays a key role not only in terms of a site's content, but also in reader orientation and internal or external navigation systems. In this regard, the role of text is somewhat different in the online world than it has been in the print world.
For instance, It's almost always a great idea to include some basic text that orients the visitor right up at top of every Web page in the site. Remember, people can enter a Web site at any point. So there should be text that answers these questions:
This stuff can be plain text, or it can be text contained in images (logos, buttons, image maps, etc.) However, if the text is contained in images, ALT tags always should be used to provide information for people who will not or cannot download the images (including the handicapped).
Another example of the importance of good writing and editing on the Web is the role of microcontent. This includes headlines, subheads, link text, navigation bar text, etc. Basically, on the Web microcontent should be as self-explanatory as possible. Microcontent items should provide context, not depend on context.
"Cute" headlines or other microcontent that is utterly context-dependent (like "click here" or "this page" links) can create problems. Remember, on the Web it's very likely that section headings and other microcontent will appear out of the original context you create for them -- people could link to the middle of one of your pages, or a blind person's Web page audio reader might be set to read only the link text on your page. A page full of "click here" links wouldn't make too much sense.
Of course, other key Web editorial considerations are length and tone. The Web tends to be a more personal medium, so the use of "you" is more common on the Web than in print -- even for corporate Web sites. Similarly, it's generally more effective to use shorter sentences and paragraphs on the Web -- that's easier on the eyes, and works particularly well for sites that display text in thinner columns. This also makes it easier to "chunk" content, so readers are presented with digestible and navigable sections of content rather than an unbroken river of text.
There are lots of other ways that the quality of writing and editing impacts the usability and effectiveness of the Web site, but those are some of the most important ones that often get overlooked.
Well, in the big picture editing the work (or at least thinking like an editor while you're writing) is at least as important as the actual writing.
Getting down to specifics, there are a few guiding principals for writing and editing on the Web.
First of all, no matter what you're writing, never bury your "lead." Web users are notoriously fickle. Don't make people wade through a bunch of background to eventually arrive at your point -- most of them will never make it that far. In fact, this is one of the greatest challenges that Web sites about scientific or medical research projects face -- scientists are trained to write papers with methodologies up front, and conclusions at the end.
Second, "tight" writing usually is a great advantage. Learn to ditch as many prepositional phrases as possible, avoid the passive voice...all the standard copyediting tricks. At the same time, however, be sensitive to tone and flow. Don't edit copy so tightly that it becomes choppy and abrupt -- which ends up interfering with readability. This point applies to both the main content of a site (or page) as well as microcontent (headlines, link text, etc.)
Third, take advantage of the structural opportunities that hypertext offers you as a writer -- but don't get carried away with it. You can break pieces of the document off to separate sub-pages as warranted, or make connections to other pages on the site (or outside the site) to add context or otherwise aid the reader.
In my experience, this point is something that most print editors have a really hard time doing -- they tend to end up with really long, structurally complex pages rather than coherent, tighter groups of related pages. However, some Web writers go too far and place on separate pages material that really should be places in separate sections on the same page. This is all really a judgement call and a matter of taste, but I do think a general aesthetic is evolving here.
Fourth, get used to writing your own microcontent, including the text for navigation within the document being presented (the index to subsections, etc.). Don't leave this task up to the designer, because microcontent is much more an editorial issue than a design issue.
For instance, if you're writing a bunch of text describing a new software, write your own subheads for the various sections (or sub-pages), and then add a collection of links at the top of each page that correspond to those heads and subheads. This collection of links functions as a very brief summary. A summary is an editorial concern.
I mention this because I've seen far too many examples of good content mangled by ill-chosen text for internal navigation: things like section indexes that are links that say, nothing more than "Section 1," "Section 2," and so forth. That is not considerate of the reader, and it also reflects poorly on the writer.
Finally, it's important to understand where redundancy in Web content is and is not OK. If a text-based work is divided onto multiple pages, any one of which theoretically could be accessed first, you may well have to repeat some information on more than one page, just so you don't force your readers to jump around too much and lose their place. However, if you have too much redundancy, that will frustrate and confuse readers too. Again, this is a fine line to draw, it's something you only learn over time.
There are lots of other tips, but those are some of the main ones that often get overlooked by Web writers.
Well, hopefully CONTENTIOUS is one of the best. Not that
I'm biased, of course ;-)
In addition, there is the Online-Writing e-mail discussion list, co-hosted by myself and fellow journalist Steve Outing. That list has attracted a wide variety of content creators, would-be content creators, and related audiences. The discussions often are very interesting.
Again, this really depends on the subject matter and venue. Sometimes it's actually very similar to writing for a magazine. For instance, the Web site of the Eastman Kodak Co. offers a monthly home page "feature story" -- an in-depth exploration of a topic or a photographer's work that in many ways is very similar to how Life Magazine would treat the same subjects.
The most obvious difference is that the Web offers reader the opportunity to access information nonsequentially. This is a different experience for the reader, and to aid that experience the writer and editor must approach the work with a different mindset. If you're presenting some kind of informational material, it's a good idea to have the main page be more of a summary or overview, with sub-pages addressing sub-topics in progressively greater detail. I call it the "concentric approach."
However, most article-style content still seems to work best when it offers strong sequential guidance (next page, last page, etc.).
Another difference is the ability to link directly to source materials and outside resources. For instance, if you're publishing an article about some new legislation, you can link directly to the online text of the law, as well as to Web pages you've published yourself containing full transcripts of key interviews done for the story. This is great for readers -- the information is there if they want it, but they don't have to wade through it if they don't have to.
However, this approach also has some pitfalls. The main one is linking to external Web sites -- their content can change radically, very quickly. If your story is littered with broken links (or links to pages that no longer contain the same stuff they did when you chose them), that interferes with the reader's experience.
Magazine writing often utilizes sidebars. You can have sidebars on a Web page too, but usually not very big ones or the layout becomes unworkable. Usually, it's best to create a separate Web page rather than try to cram a sidebar into the layout.
It helps to know how to use this medium effectively, to
know what resources and options are available. I'm not saying you have to be a Web junkie,
but if you never get your news online, or if you've never been on an
e-mail discussion list, or if you've never browsed a Usenet newsgroup, or if you
think AOL is the same thing as the Internet, I'd say you're at a disadvantage.
In addition, if you're freelancing, learn the business of writing! In many ways, that's not much different for online writing than for print or broadcast writing. A lot of writers who come into this field never use a contract for their work, they don't understand copyright issues and law, they don't understand the importance of deadlines or how the Web production process affects the editorial schedule...some of them even think it's "the norm" to do significant amounts of work for free!
That kind of stuff makes the work of writing more difficult for all writers, and it leads a lot of very good writers to become discouraged and give up before they learn the ropes.
(This interview was conducted via email by John S. Rhodes.)
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