writing for the web

Some months back, I wrote an essay on the differences between designing for the web and designing for print. While that essay was primarily looking at the visual aspects of design, now I’d like to look at the differences between writing for the web and writing for print media.

Writing for print is almost always constrained by the mechanics of the project. The text has to fit in a designated space. If you’re creating a trifold brochure, for example, you need to make sure that the text can fit (at a reasonable type size) comfortably on two sides of a sheet of paper with enough room left over for the graphical elements. If you’re writing a book, you can generally only add pages in multiples of four, eight, or twelve. Most of the time, you want to say more than can easily fit into the designated space, so the medium requires that you write concisely; using abbreviations, eliminating modifiers that aren’t absolutely necessary, etc.

The web has no practical space constraints. Your pages can be as long as they need to be. Your site can have as many pages as it takes to say what you want to say. Text is efficiently stored and transmitted in the digital world. A novel’s worth of text uses the bandwidth of just a few seconds of video. The web is highly tolerant of verbosity, in fact, more verbiage is often helpful in improving rankings for competitive searches; the site with a larger volume of content looks like a more substantial resource to the search engines.

Let’s briefly look at an example of converting a print document to the web. One of my web clients is Digging Dog Nursery. They produce an annual catalog of the plants they sell. They list several hundred selections in their catalog, and they’re forced to use a series of conventions for concision. Here’s a sample of the print catalog:

print writing sample

Compare that print sample with this web page for Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’. The Digging Dog folks have established quite a few conventions for their catalog which are fine for the print world, but would be yucky on the web. Let’s look at a couple in this example:

Abreviated keywords.

Look at the line “M. didyma ‘Jacob Cline’ ” The M abbreviation for Monarda is perfectly fine in the print world. It’s a long established convention when working with scientific names to abbreviate the genus once you’ve established that you’re referring repeatedly to the same genus. Through the course of a long catalog, this convention save a lot of space. But online… why abbreviate your keywords? It’s easier for your human readers to have the full name, and the web page will rank higher for searches using the keyword “Monarda” when that word is used in full several times.

Necessary context

What does ” 4–5′ x 15″; late June-August ” mean? If you were reading the whole printed catalog, you’d be able to figure it out. It’s the height and width of the plant, and its bloom season. The catalog’s author uses the same format throughout the catalog. If you did a Google search and happened on to a web page with that string of information, you’d probably be perplexed. Which bring us to an important lesson: visitors to your website do not start at the beginning and read straight through to the end. They’re far more likely to start in the middle somewhere, skim the page a bit, find the critical piece of info they’re looking for, and… go to some other site, or buy your widget, or something.

In the print world, you can define a term in chapter one, and use it again in chapter five without re-defining the term. Since your readers have read chapter one, they know where to find the definition if they’ve forgotten the details. In the web world, chapter five needs to be able to stand on its own. Maybe the re-definition is incorporated into chapter five’s text, maybe it’s a simplified or re-worded definition. Perhaps your site should have a sidebar with definitions.


Stuctural Clarity

Since your readers are likely to start reading your work somewhere in the middle, they’ll need clues to figure out where the snip they’re reading fits into its larger context. Generally, that means you’ll need to structure your document so that it lends itself to a logical system of headlines and subheads, with other structural elements like lists and cross-referencing links.

Pretty much anyone who has written a term paper knows how to write an outline. For web writing, outlines are super-duper important. They not only keep your writing focussed on the immediate topic and the overall flow, but they also determine the pages of your site, the headlines, subheads, and lists. Follow a well thought-out outline, and coding your site becomes easy, search engine optimization becomes easy, and your readers will be able to find the information they’re looking for easily.

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One Response to writing for the web

  1. mdvaden says:

    Once in a while, people email me about a word that may be spelled incorrectly on one of my web pages (and I’d rather recieve that message than not).

    A few are surprised when I reply that some words are intentionally spelled wrong.

    Usually, I try to include at least one occurance of a word spelled incorrectly.

    For example, “poisonoak” and “poison oak” on a page for “Poison-oak”.

    What you shared about people entering a webpage and leaving sounds just about right. At least half the time, that’s how I search. Occassionally I’ll read an entire article. But most times, I search for keywords, use the highlighter tool, and scroll down to what I want to find. Then I may look at a few photos. But I frequently skip off to another related webpage to verify what I found at a second source.


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