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Words for the Wise: Writing for the Web

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In cyberspace, “you are what you write,” says Charles Rubin, author of 30 books about technology including Guerrilla Marketing Online. Whether you’ve created a Web site to promote your organization or to share your enthusiasm for the music of Miles Davis, you should pay close attention to the words you use.”People’s opinion of you online is determined to a large extent by your command of the written word,” Rubin says.But don’t think you can simply apply the lessons you learned in English class. “Writing for the Web is different,” says Ed Trayes, a professor of communications at Temple University who spearheaded the school’s electronic information-gathering coursework. “People go to the Web because they want to get information efficiently.”To meet this need, think in terms of individual screens. “Ninety percent of people reading a Web page don’t scroll down,” says Jack Powers, director of the International Informatics Institute, a think tank in New York City on interactive media. “You need to grab the reader’s attention and make your main points in the first screen.”People on the Web have short attention spans. If you don’t hook them quickly, they’ll be off to any of the millions of other sites just a few clicks away. “Because people typically don’t make an investment to view a Web site, unlike with magazines or newspapers, they have less incentive to keep reading,” says Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, an information technology consulting firm in Atherton, California.Along with conciseness, the Web also demands comprehensiveness. This is only an apparent contradiction. Web surfers may be in a hurry, but if they like what they see, they’ll want as much of it as they can get. The Web makes in-depth elaboration possible by having fewer space restrictions than any other medium.After you present the big picture, unfold the rest of your story through links to interior pages. Make it clear up front how many links are involved so readers know what they’re getting into.But don’t straightjacket readers into following only one path. If you don’t let them take control, they’ll do so anyway by clicking to another site. Providing a search engine is another way to let readers control their own surfing experience.Links are fundamental to the Web, but subdividing pages too much and forcing readers to tunnel down through too many links will only frustrate them. With each page, provide a link back to the top.For most people, reading on the Web is more difficult than reading from the printed page. Studies have shown that reading speeds are around 25% slower on a monitor than on paper. That’s why, says Marcia Yudkin, author of Six Steps to Free Publicity and eight other books about writing and marketing, “you have to coddle the reader on the Web.”Keep words, sentences, and paragraphs short. Use meaningful, not clever, subheads to break up and summarize text. Many readers will just scan your pages, reading only the subheads. Use lists whenever possible. Make the width of columns shorter than the width of the screen. Cut excess verbiage.The Web is a personal communications medium, and people expect distinctive voices. Infuse as much of your organizational or individual personality into your text as possible. Be conversational, though not chatty, using words such as “you,””we,””us,” and “our.”On the other hand, keep in mind that the Web is also an international medium. Half of all surfers today are non-native English speakers. So avoid regional slang expressions.
One of worst mistakes you can make is repurposing stuffy bureaucratic-sounding text from printed sources, says Powers. Similarly, says Nielsen, avoid “marketese”-exaggerated, self-congratulatory puffery. “Web users are skeptical. The more you exaggerate, the more they’ll blow you off,” Nielsen says.

Words may still be paramount on the Web, but in this multimedia age of ours, you need to think visually as well as verbally to make your content compelling. When appropriate, use drawings, photographs, animation, audio, or video. Your site will be more convincing if these multimedia enhancements relate to your words instead of being gratuitous glitz.Build in a way for readers to react to what you write, such as e-mail feedback, discussion boards, and chat rooms. More than anything else, the Web differentiates itself from other media by its interactivity.Finally, keep in mind that the Web is a young medium, like TV was in the 1950s, says Matt Friedman, author of the book Fuzzy Logic: Dispatches from the Information Revolution. “Not all of the rules have been ironed out yet.”Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor August, 1999, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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