Writing for the Web – same as it ever was?

By Courtney

18 August 2010


I’m currently writing new copy for the Boost website, which will be relaunching soonish with an updated look and a lot of new information. This has got me thinking about what’s changed about writing for the web in the 5 years that I’ve been doing this, and what’s stayed the same.

[NB: This post follows on nicely from last week’s advice on launching with great content]

Let’s start with what’s stayed that same. You still can’t go wrong with the long/short rules:

  • long page titles
  • long headings
  • long link text
  • short paragraphs
  • short sentences.

Other rules that have become good practice include:

  • the disciplined use of numbered and bulleted lists to break up long pieces of text
  • following the inverted pyramid style
  • delivering one idea per paragraph
  • strategic use of keywords in page titles, summaries and headings (without turning into a SEO-crazed keyword monster)
  • using the F-shape to stack the most important phrases in headings and the beginnings of paragraphs
  • writing tightly, avoiding padding and the passive voice.

Some things I think we’ve become a bit more relaxed about. We now trust people to scroll, and fret less about page length and getting content “above the fold” – a concept in itself becoming less and less relevant as the devices people use to view websites proliferate. (I have to include here my favourite text on scrolling.)

I’ve always had a bit of a bee-in-the-bonnet about link text. Thankfully, the days of ‘Click here’ seem to have passed, and people are writing link text that indicates where you’re going to be taken when you click. Generally, I prefer to be told/shown (and tell/show people) whether the link they’re about to click will keep them within the site they’re currently on, send them off to another site, or (pet peeve) trigger a PDF to start downloading.

Much as I love the Guardian‘s website, I’m often caught out by the behaviour of their links, which sometimes take you to another article, sometimes take you to an external site, and sometimes trigger a canned search. In the example below, ‘Internet Explorer’ triggers a search, ‘high-profile vulnerabilities’ is a link to another Guardian article, and ‘Responding’ and ‘an online petition’ go to two different external sites.

Screenshot of text including hyperlinks in an article on the Guardian website
Links in a Guardian article: internal page, canned search, external sites

You can help people with the way you write your link text – see the WC3 guidelines on link text. Or perhaps you’ll read Nicholas Carr’s latest book The Shallows, where he argues that “the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources”, and be inspired to corral the hyperlinks that are normally sprinkled through your text at the end of the page, as Laura Miller did on Salon.

Then again. I often feel like a hypocrite when laying down the law for link text in a blog post. Blog posts, obviously, thrive on links, and often when putting a post together you use your link text in a slightly crafty way: linking to something incongruous to make a little joke, piling up a sentence full of evidence for your argument by pointing to different pages with each word. Blog posts are – along with other forms of conversational writing driven by social media tools – part of the changes to classical/corporate web writing that I’ll come to at the end of this article.

Another rule that’s stood the test of time: avoid jargon and use of acronyms (the TLA is a recurring cause of WTF on the Internet). Don’t use a fancy word if a simple one will do. That said, I’m a fan of the New York Times‘ look-up feature: if you double click on a word, a small question mark appears, and then when you click on the question mark, a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary appears in a pop-up box. Sure, it’s a bit of an insider’s trick, but it’s simple and unobtrusive. Plus, they report back on the words that stump people the most.

New York Times article with the look-up box open

I think the moral of this blog post is that good practice has generally stayed the same when you’re writing for a website, particularly a corporate or government site. But with the introduction of social media, things have changed.

Blogging, tweeting, Facebooking: these new channels demanded new ways of talking with readers, rather than telling them stuff.  And they introduced new challenges for people who write for the web. As Wellington web writing guru Rachel McAlpine observed in a recent blog post:

Yes, it’s true: some communication professionals are still unfamiliar with the working principles of content management systems, search engines, and accessibility. Some profess ignorance or horror when you mention Twitter, Facebook, or even blogging. They still haven’t noticed the C in ICT, or the technical in technical communicators. They barely know what the phrase social media refers to.

This is understandable if retirement is close. But tragically, some of these communication nuns are young, really young—in their twenties. Can you believe it?

First came blogging. For the first time, we were told that a personal voice – one that came from an actual identifiable individual – was important. More informal, sometimes opinionated, sometimes playful; the blogs you return to over and over again are the ones where you are intrigued either by the quality of the content or the quality of the writing.

Then came Facebook and Twitter. These demanded something else again. Timeliness became a new consideration: you have minutes to respond to a tweet. Brevity is obviously even more of a concern than it was with classical web writing, but then again, a number of newbies who I’ve shown Twitter to over the past few years have been surprised to see that “it’s not all in text-speak”. A real voice is even more essential than with blogging. When I started writing for the web, I would never have envisaged I’d be publishing things like this as part of my job:

National Library tweet
Talking to people about digital collections on Twitter

As someone who enjoys writing, these new outlets were something of a blessing. Learning to write for the web had had made my style leaner, but it was verging on the anorexic. As Madeleine Schwartz noted in a recent post on the New Yorker books blog, writing about the Yahoo! Style Guide

What room does this leave for actual writing? Stylistic flourishes do not appear to be the book’s main concern. Instead, most advice is directed at generating more page views. All the guidelines have a hypothetical reader in mind—a reader who is constantly in a hurry, would never “jump hurdles” to find a piece of information, and must be roped in at all costs.

Writing for blogs and Twitter let me play again. Sure, the basics still apply. Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and unnecessary verbiage won’t do you any favours. But you can’t learn this kind of writing from style guides, just like you can’t grow a personality from self-help books. The people who write for you on the web – scratch that, the people who speak for you on the web – are now found in your web team, your call centre, your development teams.

What interests me is when the two types of writing get mashed together. When you stream your tweets to your homepage, does one kind of writing make the other seem incongruous? Is your corporate site as fun to read as your Facebook page? Should it be? What do you think?

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