Hey, Online Writers: It’s Time to Focus on the Writing

By: Steve Outing

Go to a bookstore and look in its Internet/Web section. You’ll find yards and yards of shelves filled with books about HTML, CGI, Java, Web site design, how to use the Internet for research, Web software, e-commerce, e-mail, etc. But look for a book about how to write for the Web among this collection. You couldn’t find much, right?

That’s because at this early stage in the development of the Internet, most of us are still focused more on the technology than the content. We’re still at the stage that television was in in its early days, when it was not nearly mainstream and was used mostly by early adopters — a.k.a., “technogeeks” — who were more interested in the mechanics than the quality of the early programming.

This is slowly beginning to change, and a new wave of Internet users and publishers is ready to leave CGI and Java to today’s technogeeks and just focus on the content. Crawford Kilian is one of those leading the charge. He’s been teaching writing (and recently, online writing) at Capilano College in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, since 1968, is the author of 19 books, and is starting to write No. 20 — to be called “Writing for the Web” (due out in early 1999).

Kilian’s contention is that the way consumers interact with the Internet medium demands that we write in such a way to make it easiest for them. He’s a fan of Jakob Nielsen, Sun Microsystems’ Web usability guru, who points out that when people read on a computer screen, they read 25% slower than on paper, because of the poor state of today’s screen technology. “If we read 25% slower on screen, then perhaps we owe our readers 25% less text,” says Kilian.

In the early phases of working on “Writing for the Web,” Kilian has come up with six general principles about writing for the online medium:

Web writing requires orientation, information and action. That is, provide background information and navigation aids; provide the information itself; and provide a way for a reader to respond.

Web writing should be understandable at first glance.

Web writing should be the least you can possibly present to effectively deal with the subject. Excess information is a disservice to the Web reader.

Web writing displays a positive attitude to problems. Even if dealing with a negative topic like some injustice, offer the reader something constructive to do to deal with the injustice (taking advantage of the interactive nature of the online medium).

Web writing presents facts and ideas in terms of the reader’s advantage. A smart Web writer uses “I” and “we” seldom, and “you” and “your” very much.

Web writing displays correctness, clarity and consideration — correct organization, format, names, addresses, spelling, and grammar; appropriate language, proper tone, concision, coherence, and consideration of the reader’s needs.

Good advice

Overall, Kilian suggests that on the Web, it’s important to offer the reader the fewest obstacles as possible. It’s difficult enough to read on today’s computer screens, so don’t compound the problem. That’s why being concise is so important. Get the information to the Web reader as economically as possible, and be clear. Web users don’t tend to scroll, so consider presenting your writing in ways that avoid it.

One way to be kind to your readers is to know them, and write appropriately for them. Is your audience primarily American or Canadian? You’ll want to adjust your language usage and spelling accordingly. Is your audience sophisticated about the topic you are writing about and will understand jargon? If not, then avoid it.

Remember that the Web is an interactive medium, so don’t come across as authoritarian — the “I’m the expert and you’re the reader” mentality. It doesn’t work well online, where writer arrogance can be met with instant reader feedback. (In this medium, writers often discover quickly that some of their readers know more than they do.) Kilian says it’s important to present the right “register” in your Web writing; try to come across as egalitarian.

Changing rules

Kilian is mindful that the Web is a big place, and that no hard and fast rules can ever suffice. It’s also a quickly changing medium, a moving target that makes it difficult to define rules and guidelines. In a few years, when we have portable devices that allow us to read digital media while in the bathtub, new publishing guidelines will be necessary. When higher bandwidth is commonplace, yet new “rules” will be devised.

Those six guidelines are not for everyone, and Kilian urges Web writers to view his book as they would a cookbook. Some people learned to cook from watching their parents in the kitchen while growing up; they may never open a cookbook. But for the rest of us, it’s good to have some help to ensure that the end product is edible.

Recently, Kilian posted his six guidelines to the Online-Writing Internet discussion list, and got an interesting reaction. Many writers were defensive about the whole idea of presenting rules for the Web, and felt that Kilian’s suggested guidelines were simply rehashed rules for print writing. Shouldn’t we be thinking about writing for the Web in a whole new way for an entirely new medium?

Certainly, much of the original online writing on the Web today is modeled after print writing; most online writers today come out of the print world, after all. But Kilian says that most people have been learning how to publish and write on the Web by watching others. Web publishers throw something on the Web, and if it’s good others model their own work after it. There exists in the Web writing and publishing culture a “pre-verbal” set of attitudes about what works, what’s “cool,” and what’s not, he says.

Now, along comes a new wave of “content gurus” who suggest that there are better ways to write online than emulating what’s been done by the early adopters. Up come the defenses and “some people get angry and nervous” when we suggest that there are some technical components to good writing for the Web environment, says Kilian.

Rules? Who needs ’em?

Take the rules that anyone else presents with a grain of salt. Kilian says that some Web writers who are out there making their own rules can oftentimes teach us something new.

The important part of Kilian’s message is that we who work in the Web medium need to focus more on the content of writing for the Web. In these still early days of the medium, many writers remain transfixed (and distracted) by the technology. Those who truly care about how words are crafted have been slow to participate online in a publishing role, though they are starting to show themselves.

As an indication of how focused we remain on the technology of this brave new medium, consider the response of the editorial reviewers who looked over Kilian’s proposal for “Writing for the Web” (which has been accepted by International Self-Counsel Press). The author says that they were concerned that the book as outlined by Kilian wouldn’t have enough information about HTML and was a bit too focused on writing. As if there aren’t enough yards of bookstore shelving devoted to that topic.

Contact: Crawford Kilian, ckilian@hubcap.mlnet.com

Chelsea’s boyfriend: Whatisname

It’s “big” news for some in the media: Stanford student and presidential daughter Chelsea Clinton has a boyfriend. And his name is … I’m not going to tell you.

Last week, numerous media organizations told the world the young man’s name, but not online news service Nando.net, which took the high road and refused to violate the privacy of the First Daughter and her new boyfriend — even though much of the rest of the press marched lockstep and blabbed the news. The boyfriend’s name came to light when the San Jose Mercury News discovered his name and called him up to confirm that he was The One. The news spread quickly through the news media. In stories about Chelsea, Nando.net’s editors removed his name.

In an editorial posted on the Nando.net site, executive editor Seth Effron wrote: “While many other news outlets have decided otherwise, Nando feels it is, in current circumstances, an inappropriate invasion of both the young man’s privacy, his family’s privacy and Chelsea Clinton’s privacy as a college student. … Reporting on Chelsea Clinton’s private life is a treacherous path that, once taken, offers only wrong turns and bad choices for news organizations who take it. For now, Nando.net sees no reason to follow that badly charted course.”

Bravo to Nando.net, for showing that a new-media news organization can blaze a path of ethical journalism when its old-media cousins can’t seem to find the way.

Contact: Seth Effron, seffron@nando.net

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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