The Web is the first truly interactive mass medium. Because of this, a unique approach must be assumed in order that your communication gratify, entertain, and communicate with your readers.
The two most critical factors that impact on the online ‘reader’ are time and control. A person who accesses content online is aware that, if they can’t get what they want here at Site A, they’re sure to be able to find it at Site B, C, or even Z. So they’re always conscious of making the most of the time they spend on your site.
Secondly, the Web puts users in control of their online destiny. If the activities they undertake on your site don’t deliver what they want, when they want it, they’ll leave.
For the writer, this means pressure! The Web writer must present the content the reader wants as clearly as possible. Navigation is critical in communicating to the user what they can expect as they pass through your site (each click moving them one step closer to their goal).
So, to be successful, a Web writer has to be more than a great creator of word combinations. The Web writer has to understand the configuration, architecture and capabilities of the Web. They have to understand how people read on screen, and how they deal with the demands that the writer places on them.
Content as a Product
Too often we talk about users ‘reading’ text, but this term in itself implies a range of characteristics that don’t often apply online. Reading is what you do with a newspaper or the latest best-seller. But the key to users’ online ‘reading’ habits is their strong goal-orientation.
Users on your business Website aren’t looking to be swept away by deathless prose. They want a ‘content product’ — something they can use, action, or implement. The difference from the writer’s perspective, is that users don’t want to read what’s written — they want to know the facts that are presented. In truth, many users have no intention of ‘reading’: their intention is simply to consume.
For instance, I might go to the GE site looking for details on a new fridge. I don’t want to read information, though: I just want to know it. I want facts presented so clearly and simply that I don’t really even notice that I’ve had to look for them, or concentrate long enough to absorb them.
The Writer is Not Alone
Of course, this apparently utilitarian approach doesn’t have to relegate the Web writer to the limited domain of bullet points and boredom. Indeed, text conveys the content of a Website, but it also helps to reinforce the site’s branding, through tone and style.
However, the writer is by no means the only one charged with creating mood or conveying brand attributes. They’re part of a team that presumably includes the talents of designers, developers, maybe even an information architect — and communicating the brand in a way that allows users to identify with its characteristics is the responsibility of all.
For instance, if one of the key selling points of your Web design business is a quick response — that you cut through the clutter to get to the heart of what the client wants, then swiftly build their online product, making use of cutting edge technology — you won’t want reams of text on your promotional site. The writer needs to know this, but so does the designer, otherwise you could end up with a maximum of 70 words per page, set out in a text space that was designed for at least 500. Writers and designers need to work closely with an information architect, to ensure that the content layout and structure meets the audience’s needs. And developers need to know what the content will consist of, and what features it will include, so they can develop the site’s functionality to best meet these requirements.
Communication is a team effort. Building a Website shouldn’t start with a design, nor with copy. It should start with collaboration.
The Writer’s Role
You might be wondering, with all this collaboration and shared responsibility, what is the writer’s role? Trying to make usable the words and their environment should be the primary concern of anyone who undertakes the challenge of writing for the Web. Their challenge, at the end of the day, is to create content that successfully communicates in the environment in which it is displayed.
Kathy Henning, a prolific Web writer with substantial experience in both writing and editing, claims that Web content must exhibit seven qualities to be successful.
Clarity is more than an absence of ambiguity. Writing clearly is like telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Your writing needs to make sense, just like your Website does.
"It is sobering to observe a test where a user repeatedly asks, ‘How do I go to the next step?’ and you want to scream ‘Click the Next button!’ that they just somehow can’t see," observes Dan Bricklin, a renowned software engineer, on his Website.
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Readers expect relevant content online. If they don’t find it quickly, they’ll leave. One way to increase the relevance of your writing is to have plenty of relevant links within your Web page that will add to your arguments, and back up your claims.
Make sure your writing isn’t woolly. You need to write with the precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel. No superfluous words allowed. Write for effect, by all means, but get to the point — and fast! In other words, be succinct.
4. Scanability and Readability
A study titled "Concise, SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web" indicated that users prefer to scan rather than read, want text to be short and to the point, and detest overly-hyped promotional writing ("marketese").
The researchers found improvements in usability for new versions of a site that were either scannable, concise, or objective (rather than promotional) in style. When all three writing style improvements were combined in a final version of the site, its usability increased 124%.
So make it easier for users. If you have obvious sections to your writing, divide them up using numbers. If you have lots of small points to make, then use a bulleted list. Users should be able to scan your document and immediately pick up the main points of your communication.
Be consistent, not only in your writing, but also within the site itself. Have consistent navigation aids throughout your work that allow the user to know where they can go next.
And try to keep to the same theme on all your pages: inconsistency will confuse your readers. They won’t know whether they’re still reading your work if the design of each page is different.
6. Freedom from Errors
Having your work riddled with errors will not only present you as an amateur, but it’ll also spoil the experience for the user. Use your spell check religiously (and please write in if you spot a mistake in this article, as it will never be lived down!).
Never be the sole proof reader of your writing. Have someone else, ideally a professional proof reader or editor, proof it both before and after coding (proofing content before coding isn’t enough. Text can be dropped, put in the wrong place, retyped incorrectly, or miscoded).
SitePoint employs an editor, so all errors can be blamed on them, which certainly makes it easier for an author to shrug their shoulders and simply point the finger. In reality, though, it’s a fact of life that other people will perceive things differently to you, so having them go over your work before it is offered to the masses will give you a different perspective of, and insight into your communication.
7. Good Integration with the Site Design
Designing Web pages should be a combined, iterative course of action between the writer and the designer, because a Website’s design can have a big impact on its content. What sounds good in a text file might be all wrong once the text is incorporated into the design.
The Writing Process
Planning your writing is just as important as the actual process itself. The process of writing needs to be organised, and revolves around certain important aims:
- to deliver the information accurately and on time,
- to make the information readily available in a format that is useful to the reader,
- to attain a consistent and natural style free from errors, and
- to coordinate its development with everyone else involved in the project.
The following description provides guide by which content may be developed for a site:
The Writing Process
1. Plan the project
Establish the schedule and determine who is responsible for each component of the writing.
2. Define a style guide
Establish the writing style, writing layout, necessary content elements, and file formats for the project.
3. Collect information
Acquire source materials and interview members of the organisation familiar with the content areas of each part of the website.
Write the text, organising and elaborating on the information you’ve collated and thus developing the content for the site. Coordinate with graphic designers to develop a cohesive page layout and the graphics needed to reinforce the text.
5. Review, test and rewrite
Check the text for accuracy with the subject matter experts, proofread, test users, have it approved by management, make adjustments for viewing online and rewrite as necessary.
6. Code the text into HTML/XML etc.
Convert the text and make adjustment to fit in with the design.
(Source: Usability for the Web)
In too many Websites, writing is considered an afterthought — it’s usually determined after the design, which leads to visually stunning pages that say nothing at all. But the opposite can occur just as easily, and here the resulting Website is full of useful readable content, but appears bleak and uninteresting at first glance. Thus it’s essential that the writer, designer, information architects and developers — or people fulfilling these roles — work together to create the site.
There has to be a balance, and remembering your users and their needs will make your writing a success. Tell your users what they need to know in a concise and clear manner. Think about your writing process, and make your Web writing usable. After all, content is about communication.
For more on style guides, check out this complete guide to developing a style guide for your site (and those of your clients)!
Nicky is a Community administrator for the SitePoint Forums. She's an advocate of accessibility and her research has been presented at international conferences. Nicky loves to travel, especially to Gibraltar, and is friends with anyone who offers her ice-cream or chocolate.
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