Writing for the Web

Stephen Van Esch

So you scan the want ads on a regular basis - and your beady little eyes caught the words "Web writer." You've heard that Web writers can make pretty decent coin, so you want to take a stab at the job and get out of the mailroom.

Not so fast; the decent wage is paid for a reason. If you can't tell a comma splice from a paper cut, this job isn't for you. Keep sorting mail while you get your professional writing degree at night school.

If you are on top of the rules of grammar and punctuation, and you routinely correct the spelling on restaurant menus, then read on.

Writing for the Web is much like writing for anything else: It's harder than it looks. Any fool can put pen to paper, but it takes a special fool to be a great writer. Fear not fair reader, by following a few simple guidelines, you'll move from the first category to the second.

Prep Work

Okay, you've got the copy in your head. You've got moxie, and you're ready to spill all those words onto the page.

Stop.

You're not ready yet, young Jedi. Lay the foundation before you start pouring concrete. A few carefully planned steps now will save you a lot of hassles down the road.

Client needs

Since you're likely doing this for someone else, nail down exactly what they want. Just like designers, you need to have a clear understanding of what the clients want as well as what you think they'll need. Talk it up with the developers and designers and compare notes. Botch this part and the rest goes down the tubes.

Tone of Voice

The tone of voice in a piece of writing says a lot. In some cases, how you word it means more than what you say. Tone of voice can count for a lot more on the Web than it does in print. In print, you sometimes have the opportunity to choose who sees your stuff. On the Web, you give up that privilege.

So think of what your target users want to see. If you're IBM, you want to sound professional, so you leave out the contractions and choose more action words. If you're Low End PC, you want to be hip and with it, so you leave the contractions in and share a few jokes here and there.

Writing Guidelines

Sound boring? It is. However, writing guidelines keep things consistent on your site. Are you going to use World Wide Web or Internet? They're not the same thing.

What are you writing about? If it's called the ADXV super colloidal juxtaposer (SCJ) will you call it the ADXV, the super colloidal juxtaposer or the SCJ? Consistency makes your writing easier to follow.

If you're developing a site for another country, take a look at some of the language differences and incorporate them into your style guide. Canadians and Brits don't always use the American spellings. Trust me, spelling color with a "u" (colour) for a Canadian site shows you care. [Low End PC recognizes the international scope of the Internet. We retain British spellings when used by international writers.]

Review Cycles

We realize that you're probably the greatest person to touch a pen since Shakespeare, but it's likely that your creative vision won't mesh perfectly with what the client wants. Set up a review cycle so that your superiors have a chance to see your stuff before it actually hits the Web. It's also a good idea to have a signoff sheet to keep track of who approved what. There's nothing worse than finishing your copy to the client's specs - only to have them to come back and say that you're way off base. Include the client in the review cycle to make sure you're on track.

Writing

All right, now you can get down to the great task of writing all those great ideas you have for the ADXV super colloidal juxtaposer (SCJ). While you're doing this, it's a good idea to think of, yes, the user. When it comes to the user, remember one thing: Nobody is reading your text. That's right, nobody is actually taking the time to read what you write. People have a tendency to scan the text on a Web page, looking for the juicy nugget they need. This really bites, since you've invested a lot of time and effort into getting your message just right. So what do you do? Make your content scan friendly. Here's how.

Use relevant headings and subheadings

Don't confront your readers with reams of text with no discernible (dictionary please) beginning or end. Use headings and subheadings to help lead readers to the information they need. Even if the information they want doesn't exist on the page, they can find that out quickly. Skip the cutesy headings (like using "the nutcases" instead of "the team") to make things even easier.

Use the inverted pyramid style

You can hear your English teacher screaming now, "Conclusions come last!" Ignore that rule when writing for the Web. People want the meat up front. They're scanning, remember? It's likely that the first paragraph will make it into their stream of consciousness.

Putting the conclusion first doesn't mean using the words "in conclusion" in the first paragraph. Be smart. Sum up the whole article or page in a couple of beautiful sentences. Read a couple of newspaper articles to see what I mean. There's a good chance that you'll only have to read the first paragraph to understand most of the story. Apply this to your Web content.

Use lists

User lists to make things easier to find. Which of the following is easier to read?


Mix sugar, water, milk, salt and yeast in a bowl.
Mix the following in a bowl:
If you chose example one, get your eyes checked.

Split up your content

If you just can't get away from that 1000-word product description, pity your reader and split the text into separate pages. Label the pages accordingly to help users get what they need as fast as possible.

Skip the marketese

This is the type of language that uses up space without saying much of anything. Example: "We use quality products to empower your employees to achieve a new paradigm." Say what? Sharpen those pens, boys and girls, and start slashing.

Get to the heart of the message

List the exact purpose of the text for a specific page. Don't stop at "explain product line." Go all the way to "explain why product XYZ is superior to product XYZ from company A." Be specific and keep your message on track.

Write to the user's level of education

This may not sound particularly nice, but you should tailor your writing to the lowest common denominator of your audience. I'll admit that it isn't easy to figure out what level your writing suits. One way of doing it is to throw the Gunning Fog Index at it. This is an equation you can use to get an idea of how smart someone has to be to understand what you've written. Here's the basic idea:

The result is a general indication of how many years of schooling someone will need to understand what you've written. It's fun to mix math and writing, but it gives me the creeps.

Let's make an example of Rodney O. Lain. In his piece Rodney "Outs" Outlook for the Mac, Rodney uses an average of 18 words per sentence. About five percent of the words he uses are big. This leaves you with about a fog index of 9.2. On average, a reader needs a grade nine reading ability to understand what the heck Rodney is talking about. If your fog index is too high, you have two choices:

To help the mathematically challenged, some word processors can calculate the fog index for you.

Remember that the fog index is just an estimate.

Editing (Eschew Obfuscation)

After you've spilled your guts, it's time to clean up the mess. Editing cuts down on the amount of useless information that creeps into your writing. Great editing turns mediocre writing into something worth reading.

Cut

Really look at each and every word and weigh its meaning. In the marketese example already shown ("We use quality products to empower your employees to achieve a new paradigm."), question the relevance of the words. Products? What products? Fiber optics? Lasers? Pet vacuums? Nail it down. Empower? How? Through control, choice or what? Put each sentence through the grinder and cut the fat.

Cut some more

After the first pass, be even more ruthless with your editor's pen. If it's not immediately apparent why the word is used, cut it or find a shorter way of saying the same thing. Here's an example:

"HTML is primarily used to display text and images on a Web page."

"Primarily"? Try "HTML is used to display text and images on a Web page."

A small gain, but a gain all the same. Catch a few of these and that 200-pound gorilla will become a svelte supermodel.

Cut and Combine

If you followed the above directions, there's one thing left to do: keep cutting. Really. Look for redundancies in your writing. Does one paragraph echo or repeat another? Combine them. Are two ideas too close for comfort? Cut one and beef up the other. Repetition tends to be a hallmark of marketese. Generally speaking, your online content shouldn't be more than 50% of equivalent hardcopy content.

Proofing

Check the Message

Did you lose the message in your wild slashing and editing? This sometimes happens. Reread the trimmed content to make sure that nothing essential was lost in the battle.

Proofread

Now that most of the grunt work is done, it's time to weed out the spelling errors and grammar snafus that made it past your initial edit. Use the spell checker and grammar checker, but don't rely on them completely. The grammar checker is not exactly reliable, and you should question some of its suggestions. Be on the lookout for usage errors as well. For example, there, their, and they're are all spelt correctly here, but each has a different meaning.

Let it sit

If you have the luxury (and most of us don't), let the copy sit for a week, and then come back to it. Errors will be much more obvious after you've detached yourself from your work. At the very least, let it sit for a day or two. Sort the mail while you wait.

Update

This is the Web after all, so periodic updates remain important. There's nothing worse than a site with outdated content. Set up an editing schedule to make sure that the content of your site is periodically reviewed and changed.

Well, there you have it. Follow these basic guidelines and your copy should remain tight, consistent and relevant. This, of course, leaves all your visitors more time to admire that Flash movie the graphics gals are so proud of.

Steve Van Esch is a regular contributor at osOpinion and runs The Text Pound, a small corner of the Web that tries to find a place for homeless or abandoned articles. He also writes Mac Scope on Low End Mac. Steve loves the Mac and is bilingual, since he's also fluent in Windows and French.

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