Minnesotans For Sustainability©

 

Home ] Up ] Feedback Please ] Table of Contents ] Search MFS ] MFS News ]

Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.

 

 

 

 

 


 

Writing for the Web

Jeannine Gailey
February 11, 2002

 

Introduction
Information Design
 
Navigation
  Manageable Chunks
  Concise Headings

Organization
 
Linking and the Inverse Pyramid
  Action-Oriented Content
  Transforming Print Content into Web Content
  Spare and Strong Style
  Numbered Lists, Headings, and Other Reading Cues

Conclusion
Books about Writing for the Web



In this article, we will explore some strategies for improving your online writing skills and making your Web site’s content more appealing. The article includes tips for transitioning print content to the Web.
 

Introduction


Writing for the Web should be easy, right? The ease of publishing content, the acceptance of a more casual tone, and the ease with which you can continually revise your content may lure you into a false confidence. In Designing Web Usability, Jakob Nielsen reports that 79 percent of readers on the Web scan rather than fully read a page. When they do read the screen, they read about 25 percent slower on screen than they do printed material. His research also suggests that Web readers are, in fact, more intolerant of errors than readers of print sources. Web readers also have a shorter attention span, and they like to skip around a page looking for relevant bits of information.

All this means that you need to write content that is easy to scan and present it in a way that will be easy on the readers’ eyes. There is no “right” way to write for the Web, but there are some general guidelines to follow.

One caveat before we start: In this space, there is no way to tackle everything involved in writing for the Web. For example, graphic design will not be covered, and navigation is covered only briefly. We focus here on the text itself.

 

Information Design


Before you begin writing, think about what —and to whom— you want to communicate. The key skills in writing for the Web are:

§                        Being able to understand how content affects navigation

§                        Knowing how to properly organize content into manageable chunks

§                        Writing concise headings that are informative and easily scanned


Navigation


You are in charge of how users will get around, and the number-one rule of navigation is “don’t confuse your reader.” Be clear and consistent with navigational links and menu options. Remember, online readers like to skip around, so use a hyperlinked table of contents if your content addresses more than a few main topics and subtopics.


Manageable Chunks

Chunking refers to the process of dividing each topic into cohesive units of information. A good chunk is usually fewer than 150 words and can be viewed on the screen without having to scroll, even for users with low-resolution monitors (800 x 600 and lower). Each chunk should have a clear, readable header and should link to other chunks. Don’t just use the ubiquitous Next button. Readers should be given a choice of which chunk to move to next, and those links should be contextually intuitive. For instance, after reading about “Choosing Gardening Tools,” readers might appreciate links to “Planning Your Garden Layout,” “Maintaining your Tools,” and “How to Start Planting.”


Concise Headings

Users scroll only if they think it is worth the effort, and they are intolerant of extraneous information. How can you make key information easy to find and use? Keep your headings short but as descriptive as possible. For instance, the heading “Creating Scannable Content” is fine, whereas “Make Sure You Are Creating Content that Readers Can Easily Scan in 10 Steps” is too lengthy and confusing. Also, you may need a multiple heading structure. Try to use no more than three heading types; more than that can be hard for the reader to decipher.
 

Organization



Linking and the Inverse Pyramid

What is the inverse pyramid? It is an old journalism term for a way of writing that probably opposes what you learned in school. You probably learned to write an introductory sentence to lure readers into your piece and then deliberately lay out more and more information as you read further down. The inverse pyramid approach flips that concept: Write a first sentence that “tells it all” in very general terms. Then each subsequent sentence in the paragraph delves deeper into detail. The idea is to provide as much information as possible in the first minute of reading time. This can be accomplished by highlighting the major concepts in a piece and then allowing the reader to access the more detailed content by linking to it or displaying it in another window.


Action-Oriented Content

What do you want your reader to do after visiting your site? This is a question that you need to answer because you are responsible for leading your reader through the content on your site. Action-oriented headings clearly indicate to readers what they will be doing.

Remember, it is your job to make the content and the navigation work together so that your readers always knows what they are doing and what is coming next.


Transforming Print Content into Web Content

Have you ever had a manager ask if you could make some content just a little more “webbish?” Sometimes the things that you write for print just don’t transition well to an online format. Here are some suggestions to help ease the transition of content.


Spare and Strong Style

Follow the basic rules of good journalism. Edit mercilessly. Get rid of extra articles. Use active verb tenses and short, declarative sentences. Keep everything as brief as possible; long stretches of transitional content don’t belong on the Web.


Numbered Lists, Headings, and Other Reading Cues

Most long documents on the Web are still set up like print documents —long, dense blocks of text that require the reader to scroll and read every sentence sequentially. You can help your readers find what they’re looking for quickly and easily by following these guidelines:

§                        Break up text into sections with headers.

§                        Remember, a confusing headline is worse than none at all!

§                        Whenever possible, use numbered lists or bulleted lists when writing instructions or   describing groups of items.

§                        Instead of requiring readers to scroll through pages of text, provide links between different topic chunks.
 

Conclusion


Good online content will make your site easier to use and will improve its effectiveness. Bad content can tarnish your company’s image and annoy your customers.


Books about Writing for the Web

Nielsen, Jakob, 2000. Designing Web Usability: New Riders Publishing, (especially Chapter 3, “Content Design”).
Ross-Larson, Bruce 2002.  Writing for the Information Age.  W.W. Norton.
Garrand, Timothy Paul, 2000. Writing for Multimedia and the Web, 2nd Edition: Focal Press.
Kilian, Crawford, 1999. Writing for the Web. Self-Counsel Press.


Jeannine Gailey is a technology writer and owner of her own small writing and consulting business. She has worked in technical documentation for eight years and managed Web-based projects at IBM, AT&T, Capital One, and Microsoft.

_____
Courtesy of Jeannine Gailey
See original at < http://www.microsoft.com/frontpage/community/columns/sbcolumn04.htm >.

Home ] Up ]

Please send mail to webmaster@mnforsustain.org with questions or comments about this web site. Minnesotans For Sustainability (MFS) is not affiliated with any government body, private, or corporate entity. Copyright © 2002 Minnesotans For Sustainability