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 attractive 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 moved 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 Van-based Self-Counsel Press, now available in an expanded "Geeks' Edition" (ISBN 1-55180-303-B, $21.95).

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 (even the Geeks' Edition) doesn't include a single bit of code. Instead, it's all about making writing more effective, given the constraints of appearing 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, rarely exceeding 100 words, so that every word in a chunk will appear on the screen without scrolling.

Killian notes that longer articles are often archived online, such as previously published BIV content, but they aren't really meant to 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 use a shorter word or phrase rather than a longer, fancier one. Avoid cliches.

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 all!)

And he includes eight pages worth of terms to avoid; phrases which, he suggests, "are either cliches, trying to become cliches, or plain bad 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 often 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 corporations' reputations. Killian looks at how to make it easier for visitors to corporate 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 section on online resumes.

One of the first suggestions of all writing teachers is show, don't tell.

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.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan