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 CD Home < Web Techniques < 2001 < February  

Effective Web Writing

By Crawford Kilian

Several years ago, I stood in a university bookstore and counted at least 170 shelf-feet of books about the Web: books about HTML, CGI, and Java; books about Perl and Web site administration. Not one book was about the text that all those tools were supposed to display. And although every one of those books could have been archived on a Web site, in practice the Web-creator market wanted print on paper.

That made sense. The Web is a pretty lousy way to transmit information—especially the text that gives the Web its chief reason for existence. But you can use writing techniques to exploit the Web's strengths while avoiding its weaknesses.

Let's start with the weaknesses. Reading text on a monitor is physically tiring and unpleasant. Intellectually, it's truly dangerous. Computers rev us up and dumb us down, leaving us in no frame of mind for logical thought or analysis.

They rev us up by conditioning us for jolts. A jolt is a sensory and emotional reward that follows a prescribed action. Turn on the machine and it boings at you. Click on an icon and a window opens up, delivering a jolt. Type a flame to your favorite adversary, and he'll send you back a jolt as repayment.

Like Pavlov's dogs, we're now conditioned to expect such stimuli. Addicted, we develop a tolerance and soon need more and bigger jolts to feed our habit. We grow impatient if a site loads slowly, or if we can't find what we're looking for—the jolt of useful information, a pretty graphic, or a funny noise. We demand faster connections because we need faster jolts.

At the same time, computer monitors dumb us down by their awful resolution. Jakob Nielsen, the usability guru who's been studying computer communications since the 1980s, warns that low-res text slows reading speed by up to 25 percent. (For more wisdom from Nielsen, see this issue's cover story, "Building Sites With Depth.") It also destroys our ability to proofread accurately, which explains why so many students hand in beautifully laser-printed garbage—and why so many Web sites look as if they've been written by a 12-year-old in a hurry.

It gets worse. As people have swarmed into this new medium, they've brought all their bad habits from other media—especially from TV and its obsession with moving images. Simple, boring text just doesn't seem to cut it, except as something to keep the animated GIFs from bumping into each other. Emigrés from print media aren't much better because they still think in terms of long columns of closely-packed text.

So people from other media are trying to impose their habits on this new medium without even troubling to see what their audiences want, or how they behave on a Web site.

Understanding Web Visitors

Web designer Jeffrey Zeldman makes a crucial distinction about those who use this medium. He says there are three very separate groups with different goals and attitudes:

  • Viewers who would rather be watching TV. This group goes to the Web in search of eye candy and other audiovisual jolts. They use text only as directions to the next surprise.

  • Users who want information they can apply to their own work. They want your stats for their report, or your business plan as a model for their own. They love "hit and run" retrieval, they hate to scroll, and no one has ever built a site that they find really sticky.

  • Readers (a rare breed). They will actually scroll through long documents, even whole books. Or they'll download what they find, print it out, and read it in an armchair like any other print document.

  • A new but growing fourth group is the listeners. Whether sight-impaired or not, they use programs that read text off the screen. As voice programs improve in quality, more people will adopt them.

Each of these groups needs a particular kind of text, and if they don't find it on your site, they'll move elsewhere.

Viewers and users both prefer chunks—stand-alone blocks of information, filling the screen with 100 words or less, requiring little or no scrolling. For viewers, chunks should contain very brief text excerpts with clear directions to the next big audiovisual jolt. Users need concise, well-organized, and well-mapped sites so they can go straight to what they want.

In the early days, some Web content developers worried that jumping from chunk to chunk would be unpopular because of the lag time. Better to scroll, they argued, than make visitors wait. One technical writer, Michael Hoffman, makes a strong case for putting a Web site on a single page of scrolling text, but with a detailed, linked table of contents and numerous internal links. (See " Online" for a pointer to "Enabling Extremely Rapid Navigation in Your Web or Document," a persuasive demonstration of his thesis.)

But machines and connections are much faster now, and surfers routinely jump from page to page. Jakob Nielsen recently reported on a Poynter Institute study that found people on the Web now engage in "interlaced browsing," switching back and forth, for example, between CNN.com and MSNBC.com, comparing coverage of breaking news.

Nielsen found the Poynter study supported his own earlier investigation of the ways people read Web text. One key discovery was that people ignore graphics in the first three "eye fixations" they make on a page. Eight times out of ten they look for text—particularly headlines, summaries, and captions. Because only a third of a site's visitors read a whole article, simple headlines and concise summaries are critical.

So on sites like CNN and MSNBC, the top stories are designed pretty well, at least for users: headline, summaries, and full story—if only the site builders wouldn't add those slow-loading graphics. They rarely add value to the text, and viewers won't bother to stick around for them.

Readers, who are in less of a hurry, aren't as interested in chunked text. They like archives—complete texts, written for print on paper and shoveled onto a site. They may well prefer text adapted for screen display, such as that with lines running only halfway across the screen, and with blank lines between paragraphs. But they're often quite content to scroll through annual reports, long articles, and whole books.

When listeners become a significant group, they'll want writing that can be spoken clearly, even by a voice program, and understood at one hearing. Otherwise, their Web experience will resemble being trapped in an infinite voicemail system inhabited by robots.

Stepping into Your Visitors' Shoes

One of the sweetest ironies of Web culture is that it operates on a very modern constructivist communication model, while most of its creators are still stuck with an old-fashioned instrumental model that should have gone out with vacuum tubes.

In the instrumental model, your information is a tool operating on a passive receiver, intended to get the receiver to do as you wish. Instrumental communication likes ballistic and postal metaphors: Marketers "target" consumers, advertisers yearn for "penetration," and voters "send a message" to politicians, who in turn combine the metaphors with "bomb-o-grams"—launching cruise missiles to send a message to their enemies. The implicit message in this model is "Do what I say."

Instrumental communication is OK for radio, TV, and movies, and for print on paper, because users of those media really are targets who can't effectively reply. But Web surfers sure can, and most of the time the reply is "Goodbye forever."

And why not? They came looking for something and you didn't provide it.

The constructivist, interactive communication model isn't concerned with firing an information bullet between anyone's eyes. It wants to start and maintain a conversation. In any conversation, those who take part are both sending and receiving, changing each message in light of the latest response. They may be amazed at where the conversation leads them. The implicit message here is: "Is this what you want?"—which presumes a very different social relationship from the instrumental model: a relationship of equals. (See " Online" for a pointer to "The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business As Usual" for an extended treatment of this idea.)

Three Basic Principles

Once you understand the people for whom you've designed your site, your text should reflect three basic principles of Web writing: orientation, information, and action.

Visitors have two questions on arrival: they want to know where they are in the site and how to move around within it. Because visitors may arrive via search engine at a page buried deep in your site, you need to provide those answers everywhere—not just on your front page. Your site name should be self-explanatory, stating its purpose, and every page should provide links to other pages, showing how the site is organized and how to navigate it.

The links themselves should also be self-explanatory, though a blurb is sometimes helpful. As a navigation aid, blurbs prepare visitors for what they can expect, and help save time. Suppose your organization has departments called Information Services and Information Management. The blurb for the first might be: "Public relations, Newsletter, Technical Editing, Advertising Purchases." The blurb for the second might be: "Webmaster, Intranet, Staff Training, Computer Support." This makes it easier for visitors to go to the appropriate destination, especially if the terms in the blurbs are links themselves.

Molding Information to the Web

Information is what your visitors are here for, but unless they're all readers who are content to scroll, you need to adapt your text by cutting, hooking, and organizing.

Cutting is essential for text adapted from print. Even if you're archiving huge documents, you should also include summaries of them. Because visitors are reading at 75 percent of normal speed, and are impatient for those jolts of gratified inquiry, Nielsen suggests you should cut any given text by 50 percent—especially if you're adapting from print, which relies heavily on transitional phrases that don't belong in hypertext.

Even if you're creating original text, writing long and cutting short will keep your text tightly focused. If the writing still makes sense when cut in half, great; leave it short. If you need more text, add it word by word until you have just enough.

Don't be tender with your text, but be tender with visitors who read it. That means writing "use" instead of "utilize," which is identical in meaning but has two more syllables. It means writing "decided" instead of "made a decision." And cutting whole paragraphs of non-essential information. Every word and phrase should have to fight for its life.

Hooking an impatient visitor is vital. Your readers are skimming and scanning, so use both headlines and text to grab them. Headlines should be simple and informative. Text can exploit gimmicks long known to magazine writers for catching readers' interest.

"For example," he said, "use quotation marks because people seem to prefer reading what someone actually said." Other hooks include:

  • questions - they make us seek the answer,
  • unusual statements - we love surprises,
  • promise of conflict - we love fights,
  • news pegs - to tie content to the coattails of some big current event, and
  • direct address - we love personal attention.

Organizing Web text isn't always as easy as cutting and hooking. Print on paper can be narrative, logical argument, or categorical. Narrative order, which relies on chronology, imposes a sequence that Web users may not want or need. Logical argument tends to be too long and sequential for impatient users.

Web writing, being hypertext, thrives best under categorical organization: "The Five Signs of Cancer," "Golf's Greatest Players," "The Best Beaches in Mendocino County." When users can jump from chunk to chunk, they get to their destinations much faster.

You should organize even within a chunk. A hundred words in one solid block of text is a symptom of paragraphosis, in which the eye becomes unable to focus or track through a mass of type. A chunk could have two or three short paragraphs, each with a subhead, all surrounded by lots of white space.

Organization can also mean junking declarative sentences and offering just fragments. Sometimes. Not always. Bulleted lists? Great!

Your site needs to welcome action by your visitors, even provoke it. If all you want is for them to click through to another page, the link title and blurb should make it seem worth their time. If you want them to join your movement, fill out your form, or buy your software, you need to make it appear to be in their interest to do so, and to make it effortless. Yes, as in the instrumental model, you still want them to do what you say, but you're also prepared to do what they say.

To achieve all this—orientation, information, action—demands much more than technical expertise with Flash or XML. It demands that you put the visitor's needs first. On the Web, the customer really is always right, and vanishes the moment you indicate otherwise. So you need to make a leap of empathy to put yourself in the visitor's shoes, and write your text accordingly.

Your own team members may not be willing to make that leap unless you persuade them to. Judging from the experiences of my Web writing colleagues, many corporate and governmental Web sponsors still think text should be like an armor-piercing bullet, penetrating the reader's thick skull with a one-way message. This is why it's said that most commercial Web sites actually harm their sponsors by driving away customers.

Politically, the interactivity of the Web is as explosive as Gutenberg's printing press, creating a highly egalitarian society. No person or idea can count on origins to enforce respect or attention. The Web is literally a free market in information, and anyone who still dreams of a captive market is dreaming, indeed. Your toughest job as a Web writer may be to wake up some of your own colleagues to that reality.

Review Yourself

You've written the text for your site. Short of hiring focus groups to test the usability and hospitality of your text, how can you evaluate it? Well, when I run into trouble writing a novel, I critique it in a letter to myself—a kind of autoreview. Detailing the story's failures leads quickly to ideas for solutions. So if knowledgeable critics aren't available, review your own and comparable sites.

You can do this by several standards—those of gurus like Nielsen, of sites like Web Pages That Suck, or of your competitors' sites. You may decide to set your own standards using some or all of the following:

  • Purpose. Is the site for entertainment, marketing, information, education? Purpose achieved? How? Not achieved? Why not?

  • Audience. Are your intended visitors veterans, experts, or novices? Are they young or old, male or female?

  • Content. Is it information rich or just a jump page? Do you have adequate chunking and archiving? Is the text clean, clear, well-organized, and suited to the purpose and audience?

  • Appearance. Do graphics enhance text or distract from it? Does text invite reading thanks to short paragraphs, legible fonts, relatively narrow columns, and white space between paragraphs?

  • Accessibility. Does the page load quickly? Does it require special plug-ins? Why?

  • Organization. Is the site easily navigable even on the first visit? Does it require a lot of scrolling? Can you get anywhere from anywhere else on the site?

Conclusion

As we Web creators and visitors learn more about the nature of this new medium, we also learn more about ourselves. It's not always good news: Many of us turn out to be jolt-addicted, impatient, and impulsive.

But as more and more people adopt the Web as a major venue for exchanging information, the jolts will become less important—or at least more sophisticated. As new Web writing genres evolve, some will become extremely subtle and nuanced, while others will stay as crude as graffiti. I think we're a very lucky generation, the first to use the Web and to learn what it has to teach us.


Crawford is a prolific writer and author of Writing for the Web: Geeks' Edition (International Self-Counsel Press). His next project is a novel that may emerge in both print and hypertext versions.




Copyright © 2003 CMP Media LLC