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October 1999

Managing: Technology

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 says.

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 information efficiently."

Think Short
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.

Think Comprehensive
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 into.
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 top.

Think Simple
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 marketing.

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.

Think Personal
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," Nielsen says.

Think Visual
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.

Think Interactive
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 reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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