ISSUE 601: Zisman- May 1 2001
The high-tech office
May 1, 2001
Writing for the Web requires special skills
Last week, we looked at a trio of books that
aim to help you make
your Web site (or your company's) more effective. All three spent most
of their time focusing on the site's look and feel.
This seems to be part of a larger trend. Any
bookstore with a computer
section will include books on how to write HTML code or how to design
and visually effective Web pages.
But what about the words? Studies suggest that
people are generally
less effective readers on screen than on paper. This means that ways of
writing that have worked in the past won't get the same results when
to the Web.
Crawford Killian is a well-known science
fiction novelist and
instructor at North Vancouver's Capilano College. He has
written Writing for the Web, published by North
Press, now available in an expanded "Geeks' Edition" (ISBN
Writing for the Web, according to Killian,
doesn't mean learning the
HTML code that resides deep inside all Web pages. In fact, his book
the Geeks' Edition) doesn't include a single bit of code. Instead, it's
all about making writing more effective, given the constraints of
online and on screen.
The ideas are simple, but too rarely used. For
example, aspiring Web
writers should "chunk" their text, breaking it into short segments,
exceeding 100 words, so that every word in a chunk will appear on the
Killian notes that longer articles are often
archived online, such as
previously published BIV content, but they aren't really meant
be read online. Similar to a well-focused business letter, he suggests
that a Web site should be structured around three principles:
orientation (telling a viewer what the
site is all about and helping
the viewer get around the site);
information (just the facts, ma'am);
and action (making the sale, perhaps).
All three can be made clearer by breaking the
text up into chunks, by
using bulleted lists instead of traditional paragraphs, and with catchy
blurbs linked to longer text.
In addition, rules long-taught by writing
teachers still apply. Use
active voice ("I wrote this Web page") instead of bureaucratic-sounding
passive voice ("This Web page was written by me"). Whenever possible
a shorter word or phrase rather than a longer, fancier one. Avoid
Killian is not afraid to prescribe rules for
dealing with abbreviations,
capitalization, avoiding bias and writing English that will be readable
by international readers. (It is the World Wide Web, after
And he includes eight pages worth of terms to
avoid; phrases which,
he suggests, "are either cliches, trying to become cliches, or plain
English. They may sound fresh and unusual the first time you hear them,
but (to use a cliche) they get old fast."
A chapter on corporate Web writing looks at the
special challenges of
trying to write effectively in a large enterprise, where writing is
reviewed by multiple layers of nonwriters.
Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen has
suggested that not only
are most corporate Web sites failures, but they actively damage their
reputations. Killian looks at how to make it easier for visitors to
Web sites to find what they're looking for.
Smaller businesses will find helpful his section
on marketing more effectively,
while jobseekers, hoping to market themselves, may benefit from the
on online resumes.
One of the first suggestions of all writing
teachers is show, don't
Killian follows this advice, including case
studies: side-by-side comparisons
of Web writing before and after applying his suggestions. As well, many
chapters end with exercises for the reader's practise.