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Kim Wilson
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Writing for the Web: Some Pointers and Resources.
by Nicole Bishop

Reading from the screen is slower than reading from print; there are fewer contextual cues to guide interpretation of content; and readers on the web are impatient - they want to get the facts quick.

A survey of  authoritative  sources on the web yields a few basic
guidelines for developing a writing style that works well in these

  Be succinct
  Provide context
  Write for "scannability"

Below are few pointers to aid writers in developing this style. I have also included a list of annotated links and books at the bottom for those who wish to pursue this topic in more depth.  (If you are already an experienced web-writer, you may like to skip straight to this  "further reading" section.)

1. Be Succinct.


Reading from screen is 25% slower than reading from paper,
according to research by Jacob Nielsen, http://www.useit.com 

"Less is more".
"The issue for the future media, it would seem, is no longer the
production of information, but rather how to help consumers reduce
it". Steve Outing, "Does your Site Contribute to Data Smog",

The web (generally) lends itself better to the presentation of facts
than to 'marketese'.
"... Most web users are smart enough to recognize when your primary intent is to manipulate them rather than inform them.." Amy Gahran, 1998, from Contentious http://www.contentious.com/articles/1-1/cip1-1/cip1-1.html

Some pointers:

Aim for 50% of the word count of the paper equivalent  (recommended by Jakob Nielsen)

Avoid "Marketese" - exaggerated  promotional words and phrases ( the hottest", "terrific value" etc).  These add clutter and make it more
difficult for the reader to find the real content. (They also create
suspicion and undermine authority of a site, according to surveys.)

2. Provide Context.


Context is much less readily apparent on the web  than in print media. The medium itself does not provide the same cues as print.
Users can come to a page from anywhere, and they will not necessarily go to your home page first to get the gen on the purpose and intended audience of your site.

Some pointers:

State, or imply, who your target audience is throughout your text, not just on your 'home page'.

3. Write for "Scannability"


79% of readers scan pages, selecting individual words and phrases,
rather than reading word by word (Research by Jakob Neilsen and
John Morkes)

Some Pointers

Highlight important words and phrases.

Use "inverted pyramid" style. Start with the conclusion, follow with the details so the reader can decide right away whether s/he wants to read the rest

Break text up - use lists and bullet points; split long information into
multiple pages; split material  into coherent topics.

[An aside: The "linear" style of presentation,  traditionally used to
instruct in other media, does not necessarily translate well onto the
medium of the web. For instance, have you ever been subjected to a
"Powerpoint type" linear presentation on the web where the
information you seek is on "p40"?  Is it not frustrating when you just
want to view part of the presentation to have to click through forty
links to get to the section you want?]

Make link headings informative
Describe exactly what the reader can expect when they click on the
link.  Poorly labeled links can frustrate users who must waste time
simply to find out whether the information is relevant to them.

Omit "leading articles", such as "a" and "the" in page titles. This makes them easier to index and to scan

Sources and Further Reading

On the need to be Succinct

Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web),  Jakob Nielsen,

"Fluff and Contenders, Revisited", Amy Gahran,
Gahran analyses 'real' web-sites for the effectiveness of their content
and web-writing.

On Writing for Scannability

Writing Headings and Titles
Jakob Nielsen "Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles and Subject Lines" http://www.useit.com/alertbox/980906.html


Writing for intranets - The "Good Documents" site:
"Most other discussions of how to write on-screen focus on writing for
the World Wide Web [in order to] attract readers. This site is not for 'web-sites' like that.  It is strictly for material people need to write and need to read, the "boring" stuff like analysis, status, tips and techniques, policies and procedures, presentations, etc, that makes up most writing in business"

"Contentious" - Webzine for Professional Web-Writers,
"...Contentious is a monthly web-zine primarily intended for
professional writers and editors who create content for the web and
other online media. "

"For Use" - The Web site for practitioners of usage-centered design,
http://www.foruse.com "A forum for professionals... about software usability, modeling, content and navigation models, user interface architecture, and usability inspections."


"Web-Site Usability: A Designerís Guide", User Interface Engineering "...We conducted more than 50 usability tests on nine different web- sites.  This book describes how well (and poorly) some information- rich sites actually work when people use them to find specific answers..." Includes a sample chapter.
Can be ordered at http://world.std.com/~uieweb/bookdesc.htm

"Writing for the Web", Crawford Kilian
"...Crawford Kilianís book is packed with tips on how to structure
information for a web page - how to format, how to edit for clarity and
brevity - how to use navigation cues and hold reader interest..."
--Amazon Reviewer. Can be ordered from Amazon books.

"Web Word Wizardry", Rachel McAlpine
Copywriting for the web, writing for the search engines.
"...Get more traffic, customers, and profit through words alone. Small businesses and home based businesses can make their web sites findable, readable, credible and profitable- just by changing and rearranging the words..."

Nicole Bishop is the publisher of "Writerfind News", an ezine for professional writers and publishers which focuses on the internet. 
Subscribe at http://www.writerfind.com/subscribenews.htm









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