How to Write Content for the Web

Posted January 23rd, 2007 by Mike Cherim

Writing for the web is said to be different from writing for print; and writing for the web is said to be no different from writing for print. Yes, two contradictory points of view between which, I suspect, lies the real answer. It’s not that I’m undecided or trying to be democratic by taking the middle ground, but rather it’s what I’ve deduced. I’ve written for both media so I do have some experience, but of more importance is that I’ve read from both media. You see, the mystery can be solved I think by examining not the writing, but the reading.

Back in the day, there used to be more time.” Sure I may sound like a forty-something writing that but I swear it’s true. I remember having lots of free time in my pre-wired life. I can even remember going to a library to borrow an encyclopedia if I really needed some information. Now everything is a few clicks away. I should have more free time in theory, but I don’t. It seems for everything I can now get done in a tenth of the time, I have a hundred more things to do. I’m not getting ahead; I’m falling behind. I had no time for extraneous information fifteen years ago, now I can barely escape information overload. To the point that it’s affected my reading habits.

Unless the power goes out or I’m on the crapper, I rarely pick up a book nowadays. Sure I’ll read a magazine article while walking from one computer to another, but the idea of curling up with a good novel seems to remain nothing more than an idea. I don’t have time. I love reading, but the want of commitment to being dedicated to a singular tome seems to be missing. Now I take in a wider variety, but in smaller pieces. Frankly it’s preferred so I can somehow fool myself into believing I’m keeping up with the times.

A friend and colleague, Blair Millen, sensed an article about writing for the web would be forthcoming as he alluded to in this comment. That was a while ago and I’ve been giving it some thought ever since. I’ve had a long career writing: technical materials, business communications, advertising copy, a few short stories, even a book, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to tell anyone how to write. Especially for the web. But I am human, I do read, and I read on the web. I have favorite things to read and my own set of preferences. Maybe these are shared by others. Maybe I can broach this subject. Not with authority, but maybe with empathy.

If I look at how my days have changed and how it has affected my reading habits, maybe I can gain insights into effective web communications. Reading on computer screens can cause eye strain, that much is a given. And, for me, reading a good book in a comfortable chair instead of leaning into my computer monitor makes me sleepy — I read with one eye closed until I finally succumb to the power of sleep. In other words there seems to be inherent drawbacks to either medium. But in either case, quality subject matter and a well-presented active voice can absorb me — for a bit, anyway. I need my quality reading material bottled for rapid delivery nowadays.

It is there that real success lies. In brevity, but without a lack of quality. “The condensed version.” Give me something to scan that’ll still give me what I’m looking for. Screw the rhetoric, I want content and I want it now. Even though this article may belie my belief due to its verbosity (my personal bad writing habit), I do think this is the answer. I could have conveyed this message in two paragraphs — and I probably should have — but I still think successful web publishing is achieved in keeping it concentrated.

“Writing for the web is said to be different from writing for print.” This is a true statement. Not so much due to eye strain, but more to do with the expectations of users of the medium and the limitations of time. To rise above the fray and be read you have to deliver — and fast.

“Writing for the web is said to be no different from writing for print.” Also true. Just because writing for the web needs to be in concentrated form and matter-of-fact, there is also importance in using the same grammatical rules, voice, standards, and correctness that a print writer should employ. Writing for print has been around a very long time and the standards and protocols haven’t changed much. These long established methods still hold true, even on the web.

As a reader, I suggest the middle ground is home to the answer. As a writer, success is to be had in quality, thought-provoking writing… but jacked up on speed. What’s your take on the subject? How do you like your material delivered and what’s your top priority? Are you as seemingly busy as I am? Do you remember what free time is?

11 Responses to: “How to Write Content for the Web”

  1. Joe Dolson responds:
    Posted: January 23rd, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    I definitely seem to remember having more time before my web life got started. However, I still make a point to keep reading books when I can. I only worry about this “keeping up” concept as long as I feel like it…then I’ll switch out and do something else.

    I think there’s a delicate balance to writing good content for the web which is best supported by effective linking. My feeling is that it’s important to provide a solid and concise document for the web, but provide access to additional sources which are also relevant. Each individual article, optimally, is a finite and consumable information resource, so pieces of information can most easily be discretely organized.

    That doesn’t apply to every context, I think - but certainly for web development articles it can be a very effective writing and reference system.

  2. John Faulds responds:
    Posted: January 23rd, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    Seems like I’m not the only one that has these sort of reading habits. ;) (The cure is to go on holiday - I read 10 books in 2 weeks in Thailand once!)

    Another thing about writing for the web is that I think the copy needs to be broken up a lot more whether it be with images/graphics or subheadings.

  3. Tommy Olsson responds:
    Posted: January 24th, 2007 at 3:04 am

    I’d like to suggest that there are two types of writing for the web, and that both are different from writing for print. :)

    One type of writing for the web — the most common — is the terse, fact-filled blurb intended for those who are in a hurry and need to find some basic how-to information fast. In this type of writing rhetoric has no place and eloquence is banned. It doesn’t provide background or details; it is the “just-in-time” paradigm: what I want to know — now — and nothing more.

    The other type is the more comprehensive article that provides background and additional information. It doesn’t just tell you how to achieve something, it also explains why things are the way they are. In these articles, the use of language is more important. The flow of the narrative, the rhetoric and eloquence are essential for making the reading experience a pleasure rather than a chore. Contrary to popular belief, this type of writing is not quite dead on the web. In my experience, people who really want to learn things appreciate these articles because they lead to understanding, rather than learning by rote.

    Both types of writing have their place. Both need to take into account the possibilities and limitations of the web, compared to traditional writing for print media. The quick and superficial type may be the most common (and the most sought) but there is still a demand for more educational pieces for those who are willing to spend an hour to really understand something, rather than thirty seconds to learn just enough to get the job done.

  4. Blair Millen responds:
    Posted: January 24th, 2007 at 3:41 am

    Great write-up Mike and thanks for taking the time to put pen to paper… er, sorry pixels to screen. As I read through what you’d written I found myself nodding in agreement all the way through. I think you made a pertinent point with this line:

    I need my quality reading material bottled for rapid delivery nowadays

    And don’t we all? This encapsulates the whole ‘writing content for the web’ theory in my mind: it has to be in small and easy-to-read manageable chunks that either lures you in to reading more or lets you know immediately that it’s not worth devoting any more of your precious time to. A perfect example of this is the way Gez Lemon presents his content by providing a summary at the start of page that lets you know exactly what you’re going to get.

  5. Tommy Olsson responds:
    Posted: January 24th, 2007 at 10:23 am

    I’m constantly worried about being to verbose, too, but people assure me it’s not a problem. As long as you don’t waffle, verbosity isn’t necessarily a problem. If the text is to compact and filled with facts, it’s hard to read. The W3C specifications should be proof enough. Adding a bit of narrative allows the brain short periods of rest between the pieces of fact, and speed up the reading process.

    As I said, though, even if you go for the more verbose type of web writing, it’s still very different than writing for print. You need whitespace, headings and things that draw attention to important parts (boldfacing, bullet lists, indention, colours, …). We tend to scan more when reading online than when we read something that’s printed on paper.

  6. Adam responds:
    Posted: January 24th, 2007 at 10:44 am

    I get plenty of reading done. Hell I find that it consumes MOST of my time. I relish the few moments I have where my nose is NOT buried in a book.

    Then again, I am a law student, and those books are 10 lb blocks full of more verbosity than Mike could ever hope to achieve.

  7. JackP responds:
    Posted: January 25th, 2007 at 7:55 am

    @Mike: you avoid the law? Does this mean we’re going to see “Wanted: DeDd” posters with your face on them? As for reading, try spending six and a half hours on a train. I read three novels yesterday… (around 1100 pages worth). Yes, I do read quickly. No, it’s not scanning. I normally read around that per week.

    @Tommy: you only talk about factual writing for the web - that is articles and so on. Don’t forget there’s online diaries, conversations, fiction and whole other categories of stuff out there too. I think the web cries out for a better hierachy of information than print, because you can benefit more from this, with searches and so on, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same to me.

    And yes, I have been accused of being verbose in my time. Frequently.

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