Writing for the Web
Make a good impression on line by writing clearly
and concisely and with visual impact in mind
In cyberspace you are what you write, says Charles Rubin,
author of 30 books about technology, including Guerrilla Marketing
Online. Whether you've created a Web site to promote your organization
or to share your enthusiasm for jewelry, you should pay close
attention to the words you use.
"People's opinion of you on line is determined to
a large extent by your command of the written word," Rubin
But don't think you can simply apply the lessons you learned
in English class. "Writing for the Web is different,"
says Ed Trayes, a professor of communications at Temple University
who spearheaded the school's electronic information gathering
coursework. "People go to the Web because they want to get
To meet this need, think in terms of individual screens. "Ninety
percent of people reading a Web page don't scroll down,"
says Jack Powers, director of the International Informatics Institute,
a think tank on interactive media in New York City. "You
need to grab the reader's attention and make your main points
in the first screen."
People on the Web have short attention spans. If you don't
hook them quickly, they'll be off to any of the millions of other
sites just a few clicks away. "Because people typically
don't make an investment to view a Web site, unlike with magazines
or newspapers, they have less incentive to keep reading,"
says Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, an
information technology consultant in Atherton, CA.
Information for the Web must be concise, but it must be comprehensive
too. This is only an apparent contradiction. Web surfers may
be in a hurry, but if they like what they see, they'll want as
much of it as they can get. The Web makes in depth elaboration
possible by having fewer space restrictions than any other medium.
After you present the big picture, unfold the rest of your
story through links to interior pages. Make it clear up front
how many links are involved so readers know what they're getting
But don't straightjacket readers into following only one path.
If you don't let them take control, they'll do so anyway by clicking
to another site. Providing a search engine is another way to
let readers control their own surfing experience.
Links are fundamental to the Web, but subdividing pages too
much and forcing readers to tunnel down through too many links
will frustrate them. With each page, provide a link back to the
For most people, reading on the Web is more difficult than reading
from a printed page. Studies show that reading speeds are around
25% slower on a monitor than on paper. That's why you have to
coddle the reader on the Web, says Marcia Yudkin, author of Six
Steps to Free Publicity and eight other books about writing and
Keep words, sentences and paragraphs short. Use meaningful,
not clever, subheads to break up and summarize text. Many readers
will just scan your pages, reading only the subheads. Use lists
whenever possible. Make the width of columns shorter than the
width of the screen, and remember many users have monitors with
medium to small screens. Cut excess verbiage.
The Web is a personal communications medium, and people expect
distinctive voices. Infuse as much of your organizational or
individual personality into your text as possible. Be conversational,
though not chatty, using words such as "you, "we,"
"us" and "our."
On the other hand, keep in mind the Web is also an international
medium. Half of all surfers today are non native English
speakers. So avoid regional slang expressions.
One of the worst mistakes you can make is repurposing stuffy
bureaucratic sounding text from printed sources, says Powers.
Similarly, says Nielsen, avoid "marketese" exaggerated,
self congratulatory puffery. "Web users are skeptical.
The more you exaggerate, the more they'll blow you off,"
Words may still be paramount on the Web, but in this multimedia
age, you need to think visually as well as verbally to make your
content compelling. When appropriate, use drawings, photographs,
animation, audio or video. Your site will be more convincing
if these multimedia enhancements relate to your words instead
of being gratuitous glitz.
Build your Web site in such a way that readers can react to what
you write, such as e mail feedback, discussion boards and
chat rooms. More than anything else, the Web differentiates itself
from other media by its interactivity.
Finally, keep in mind the Web is a young medium, like TV was
in the 1950s, says Matt Friedman, author of Fuzzy Logic: Dispatches
from the Information Revolution. "Not all of the rules have
been ironed out yet."
By Reid Goldsborough
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of
Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached
at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.
Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.