Wireless: Good News for Writers Who Write Tight

A few months ago it dawned on me: The wireless Internet has the potential of becoming a lucrative medium for Web writers who excel at what I call “writing tight,” that is, writing concisely and clearly. Why? Because the wireless Internet is more about words than design, more about verbal communication than visual expression.

Many would say it should have been that way all along with the Web, but with very few exceptions it hasn’t been — not even close. Visit just about any Web development company’s site and you won’t find any mention of copywriting.

But with wireless Internet development, I’m predicting the tide will turn and the Web writer’s ship will at last come in.

It was Jakob Nielsen’s December 10, 2000, Alertbox that got me thinking this way. Nielsen was talking about WAP (Wireless Application Protocol, a set of standards allowing mobile phones and other wireless devices to access the Internet).

“Service providers must cultivate a new appreciation for language,” he wrote, “and hire copywriters who can develop a distinct voice in a minimum word count. This will be the real way to distinguish WAP services.”

In an industry in which companies have been shelling out big bucks for Web design but have scrimped on Web writing — or left it out of their budgets altogether — this is great news for Web writers.

The Need for Tighter Writing

To succeed as wireless Internet writers, we must write tighter than ever. Every word must be The Right Word. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Often the right word means a shorter word than the one you want to use. On many WAP phones words can’t have more than 12 characters, otherwise they won’t fit on one line. That leaves out words such as “communication” and “responsibility.” It leaves out even shorter words if you want to get more than one word on a line.

And there’s little room for cleverness or mystery.

Here’s a list of headlines from a week or so ago on the PQA (Palm query application) version of the ABC News site, followed in parentheses by what the subject turned out to be:

“Roadmap to Recovery” (Chrysler)
“Big Surge” (tsunami potential)
“Yeah Yeah Yeah” (the evolution of the Liverpudlian accent)
“Going With the Flow” (mutual funds)

Why would users wait for an article to download at 9.6 kilobits per second when they have no idea what it’s about, especially when they’re looking for news on a specific subject?

Cultivating a Tighter Writing Style

Even if you’re already writing tight, you can cultivate an even tighter writing style. One way, I just discovered, is by writing on a PDA (personal digital assistant, or handheld computer) without a physical keyboard. When I first got my Palm VIIx about six weeks ago, I began using it to write memos to myself and send emails while riding on the bus. I discovered something very interesting: Because every word was painstaking to enter, I became stingier with my words. Much stingier.

So I decided to write the first draft of this article on my Palm VIIx. What an experience that has been! I wrote entirely differently. Instead of writing long, then cutting text in subsequent revisions, I wrote short from the beginning. Two battery changes later, I was a tighter writer.

I highly recommend writing on a PDA. You have the choice of graffiti writing — drawing letters on the screen for the computer to convert into type — or tapping an onscreen keyboard with a stylus. Graffiti writing is very much like printing, except that you can’t get sloppy or slip into cursive, otherwise the computer won’t correctly interpret your letters. Tapping the onscreen keyboard with a stylus is a little like typing with one finger. In fact, if you don’t have a PDA, try typing your next piece with one finger. You’ll begin to get the idea.

Email me. I’d like to hear about it.

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