Writing for the Web : Introduction
This lesson will introduce you to the field of Writing for the Web, a segment of the publishing world that’s growing by leaps and bounds and constantly evolving, including the opportunities and requirements of writers. We’ll begin by taking an overview of writing for the web, including the basic principles, and we’ll also take a first look at the class blog.
Topics will include:
- Introduction to writing for the web
- How is writing for the web different than writing for print?
- Formatting text for visual impact – the basics
At the end of this Tutorial, you should be able to:
- Identify the kinds of writing opportunities available on the web in broad terms (later lessons will focus on the specifics)
- Understand how to develop an appropriate style of writing for the web
- Write “scannable” copy (text only – we’ll add images and video later)
- Understand the class blog and what role it will play in the course
Writing for the Web : Fundamentals
Writing for the Web
Since 1997, I’ve been writing, posting, managing topics, curating content, editing, blogging, Tweeting and otherwise socially networking on the web. When I began, people were just starting to figure out how to use the Internet – the then new and wonderful tool – to make money, and that’s an important point to remember because it has influenced the development of the web and how we write on it ever since. At that time, web publishing was an newly developing system that was based on a vague idea of transposing the written word, (largely in magazine type format,) to the screen. Sure, we tried to keep it brief, added links here and there and a single image to our posts if we could find or come up with one, but that was about it.
In the ensuing 14 or 15 years, writing for the web has evolved into a multi-dimensional field that now includes a broad range of applications, just as the web itself has evolved from a simple means of communicating information into an entertainment as well as informational, marketing and commercial medium that uses visual and interaction elements along with and incorporated into plain text. You may still find yourself writing articles similar in tone and form to what you’d submit to a print magazine, sure, but you can also write for encyclopedic or commercial websites, online newsletters, or even develop entire website contents, incorporating links, sound, pictures and video. You may find work from online listings or win it by submitting a proposal or bid in a format that is in essence an online gig auction.
People are still looking for better ways to make money from the web, of course, and that has introduced a number of new elements into the writing game. Words are no longer simply units of language, they are now also units of commerce – search terms. The people who may want to hire you may include business owners and small time entrepreneurs, web developers, agencies and what is known as “content mills”, as well as the more traditional editorial figures you might already be used to.
What it means is that you cannot assume you are dealing with people who are well versed in the publishing world or even the world of business, and have no real concept of what it takes to write great “copy” or “content” – as web writing is now most often referred to. You may find yourself dealing with people who have no idea what it is that you do, don’t value it particularly, and seem to expect the moon and the stars and offer very little in return.
At the moment, the business of writing for the web is at a kind of Wild West state, where anything and everything is on offer, including the good, the bad and the ugly. One thing we’ll do during this course is to help you set some guidelines and criteria, so you can weed out the good offers from the bad or simply pointless, and have a good idea where you want to set your own terms and boundaries. In this course, we’ll look at journalistic as well as more commercial writing opportunities, since they overlap to a good degree on the web.
Web vs. Print
How is writing on the web different than writing for print? During the course, beginning later in this lesson in fact, we’ll expand on all the ways, but for now, let’s stick to the basics.
- Keep it brief – the maxim for writing on the web is that… people don’t read much from a computer screen. That’s true to varying degrees, and there are ways of drawing people into a longer piece that we’ll also discuss, but it’s important to remember that in general, less is definitely more. It is especially true if you’re writing for wireless applications, for example, where people are reading from a small screen, and also if you’re writing for younger age groups. Study after study shows that the 25 and under set don’t read much beyond a single paragraph.
- How does it look? People are turned off by large blocks of text on the screen in a way that differs quite markedly from the way they react to traditional print media. The most common answer to that problem that you’ll encounter falls under the previous point – you’ll simply be asked to write shorter pieces. There are other ways of handling those blocks of text, however, that we’ll take a closer look at.
- Think about the words you use. Naturally, every writing instructor you’ve ever had has probably made a similar statement. When it comes to writing on the web, however, that notion takes on a new dimension. Yes, you’ll still think about writing in a way that’s compelling, striking and fresh sounding, no question. But, you’ll also be thinking of those words as search terms.
In one sense, writing has been knocked off the top of the list when people think about what’s important on the web. Certainly, you will encounter people whose main argument will be that the visual aspects – photos, video and so on – are paramount, and that the writing barely matters at all. We won’t waste our time arguing that point! However, since the advent of Google and other modern search engines, words will also likely be the way people find what they’re looking for on the web – and hopefully, your piece that talks about it. In that sense, as generators of web traffic, words have taken on a whole new importance. We’ll look at this issue and its application again and again – it really infuses all aspects of writing for the internet – throughout this course, but for now, let’s just keep the general idea in mind. Above all, make sure that your piece and its title clearly state the theme and main idea or concept in plain and unambiguous words.
Formatting for visual impact – “Scannable” Copy
You may also find this principle referred to as “readability” and some of the issues fall under “website typography”. This function is an evolution of the page layout principles that newspapers and magazines have been using in the print world for a century or two. When it comes to web publishing and writing, you as the writer will often be called upon to keep these notions in mind and use them when writing copy or content, and certainly, in a blog or any self publishing effort, a knowledge of how to write scannable copy will be a must.
What does it mean and entail exactly? The principle of page layout in the print world begins with guiding the reader through what’s available on a page. The headlines, the paragraphs and spacing of the text all contribute to that goal. People scan a page quickly to see what might be of interest, and then focus in.
On the web, that principle becomes even more important. In fact, you’ll often hear and see figures that claim 20% or less of people on the web actually read all the words in any given context. Remember too that many if not most of them have arrived at a webpage via a non-traditional means. There are those who do subscribe to certain newsfeeds and use other online delivery models, but the majority of people will find a post or article on a given subject via a web search. They arrive, in other words, not so much with an open mind waiting to see what you have to offer, but with a specific goal.
Once they find a page that seems to contain the information they want to read, people scan it quickly to zero in on exactly what they’re looking for. The principles of writing scannable copy all work towards making that task easy – helping your readers to find what they want and then absorb the information quickly.
Shorter is better – think about length and brevity in all of these respects. You’ll want to have a really compelling reason not to follow these guidelines:
- Sentence length – opt to break up lengthy sentences into shorter blocks
- Line length – use columns if you can, rather than lines that run the full width of a screen
- Paragraph length – break longer paragraphs into shorter bites
- Screen/page length – yes, the scroll button is there and it does work, but people most often won’t bother to look beyond the first page full of text
- Hierarchy and section length – avoid long units even if they’re broken up into smaller paragraphs. Break sections into subsections, long chapters into several sub-units of text in a way that’s logical and makes sense. Again, think of how you can help your readers to find and read what they want as quickly as possible.
Add focal points with these methods:
- Using bold type and italics to highlight the key words and phrases your readers will be looking for – you can also extend this to highlighting additional and related terms they will find of interest
- Create lists and use bullet points or a numbering/lettering system where you can and wherever it makes sense
- Add links to flesh out concepts, points and people – use this for elements you don’t want to deal with specifically in your piece, i.e. the bio or website of someone who you only mention in passing.
As an example, at this link you’ll find the review of a film by the New York Times, and when you get to the name of the screenwriter – and they only mention just that, his name (Paul Laverty) – you’ll find a link to an interview I did with him last fall.
On Wikipedia, the links refer to other pages on the website. For example, an entry on a baseball player would include a link to the page on his team(s) and probably to one that explains the game of baseball.
Other visual considerations
- Use white space to contrast blocks of text, and think about using the size of the font, along with placement on the screen to add emphasis as well. Have a look at the effect created in the following example that uses only text and white space for effect:
Rodin, (the sculptor,) said, (and I’m paraphrasing,) that a work of art is never really finished, it’s just that, at a certain point, you decide to stop.
|Rodin, (the sculptor,) said, (and I’m paraphrasing,) that a work of art is never really finished.|
It’s just that, at a certain point, you decide to stop.
- Using color is an option, but typically you wouldn’t want to go overboard in that respect, creating a page with so many distractions your readers won’t be able to focus in on anything. You might use color to emphasize certain words and phrases.
You’ll also want to consider color when setting up your own webpages that contain text. Black and white is still the standard, and for an obvious reason: it’s the highest contrast and therefore naturally draws the eye. You may want to veer from that for your own aesthetic purposes, but always be concerned with reader ease. If it’s too bright or outlandish, it becomes unreadable.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
There may be reasons for you to get more colorful and creative than usual when writing web copy. Advertising and marketing materials often use more of these visual elements. It may also be appropriate if you’re writing for a children’s website, for example. A good guideline would be to look at the style of writing on a website; the more conservative the topic(s) and approach, the more conservative you will want to stay visually speaking. A website dealing with financial news will by nature look and sound more “standard” and plain than one that talks about video gaming.
- When it comes to line height and letter spacing, the standard settings will all work well. If you have the urge to customize those settings, make sure that the resulting type doesn’t look crowded, is still clear and easy to read. Use standard fonts like Arial and Times Roman unless you have a reason to do otherwise.
About the writing:
- Use the present tense where possible. A website can acquire a “dated” feel rather quickly, so using the present tense offsets that impression. There may be reasons not to, but make the present tense your default setting.
- Use a conversational, relatable tone. It will help to read it aloud so you can hear the flow of the words. As in all non-fiction writing, remember your reader as you write, and speak to them eye to eye.
- If you want your readers to follow through with an action of some kind, which may include things like clicking on a link to buy a ticket to an event, or to donate $ or show support in other ways, or other activity, then don’t rely on one link that you’ll put at the bottom of the post. Your readers/post scanners may never get that far! As a good rule of thumb, include the “action reference” three times: at the very beginning, somewhere in the middle, and then yes at the end as well.
Writing for the web is an evolving and exciting field where there is much more to consider than the meaning of the words themselves. Traditional editorial concepts have expanded to include a wider variety of elements and influences, including a strong visual component along with commercial and marketing issues like search engine optimization. As a writer, it requires a new mode of thinking about your work.
Writing for the Web : Points to Remember
The most important issues to retain from this lesson are:
- Shorter is better in all aspects you can think of, from sentence level to line and page length.
- The visuals – think about how your writing will look on the page, and find ways to break up uniform looking paragraphs in the various ways we discuss. It may seem initially disheartening to discover that people aren’t reading much on the web, but there are ways we can direct their attention to what’s important.
- Words on the web carry more than their esoteric, philosophical, concrete or conceptual meanings. They are now viewed as units that will direct traffic to your post/their website. Think about how people will find your work, and how they might search for it.
Most importantly – when writing your introductions and posts, use the principles we discuss in the lecture with respect to writing “scannable” copy. How interesting can you make your posts using text methods (i.e. not images or video).