Writing for the Internet: Same Message, New Style

Note: The following is based on a speech presented at “Shaping Public Opinion: The Power of Digital Communication,” the Association for Women in Communications Professional Development Conference, Westchester, New York, May 18, 2001.

Although I’ve practiced public relations for some 20 years, I am not a trained journalist, a professional editor, a copywriter, or an English professor. But I have struggled with journalistic forms for years and felt some measure of competence until about five years ago, when something strange and new sat down beside me.

The World Wide Web — or, as it still is for most people, the “World Wide Wait” — had arrived. And I am here to challenge you to consider the ramifications, the opportunities, and the obstacles this new medium provides.

It’s a new media world, and it appears that as professional communicators we are “the few, the proud, the connected” in a world that still largely operates on 56K dial-ups.

You might ask yourself, “Where’s the PowerPoint presentation?” Well, it’s too early in the day to dim the lights or curl up with a good Web page and a snifter of cognac (wish that worked), so I decided to rely on words alone — text — to convey my message.

A New World

We must remember that the Web is not a book. It has no pages in the traditional sense. Surfing the Internet is really more like falling down the rabbit hole and finding oneself, like Alice in Wonderland, in a strange new world where things are rarely as they seem.

We shouldn’t think that text on the Web is just “repurposed” print material squirted through an HTML word processor. That won’t work, because the Web is a pageless paradise, an unstructured morass of ideas, information, and opinion.

In a printed piece, we see the shape of a story. We can flip a few pages ahead to see how much of a commitment we must make to the piece. We can scan brochure copy to see whether it’s dense text or light paragraphs. We can weigh a book in our hands to know how long the writer takes to make a point.

But browsing a Web site doesn’t provide the same orientation. We may be looking at the whole story in 20 lines. Or it may be just the beginning of an HTML trek running 100K or more. We can scroll top to bottom before we ever start reading, and there’s no guarantee that the writer won’t jump to another page with a hyperlink in the last paragraph.

That’s why we print out so many Web pages. We need to get a glimpse of the structure from the printed page. Whoever said the Web would save paper was wrong. The Web is a new medium without limits. It’s up to the writer to provide the structure that helps readers find their way.

The Didactic Web

Good Web writing is somewhat didactic. You have to telegraph the outline of the narrative in the first few sentences or diagram it in a set of hyperlinked heads and subheads at the top of the page. Following paragraphs should be short and packed with information. They should be written in the active voice and waste no bytes on rambling subordinate clauses. Readers shouldn’t have to hunt for the subject and predicate (or else it’s “click”). The Web is quite a challenge, and writers should not be the weakest link.

But there is good news, too, for writers. Editorial content — the written word — is still the chief method of communicating on the World Wide Web. And the demand for quality content is growing exponentially.

The Physical Parameters

Before we continue our discussion of writing for the Web, it is important to understand the physical parameters of the medium. Resolution and eye tracking are two key issues. Text on the Web is published in low resolution. Think about reading the next issue of your favorite magazine on your television in 72 dpi (dots per inch) in 10-point Times New Roman font.

Fun, right? Not! Especially for boomers. It’s uncomfortable and strenuous. It plain hurts the eyes. In fact, the Web and the PC monitor, even those new flat-screen, hi-res monitors, are basically windows, not pages. The Web is not a book, magazine, or newspaper. It is, more accurately, an illustrated screen, a window to another world, with text. To avoid discomfort, we must keep browsers/visitors stimulated with movement, keep them flitting from short blocks of large, high-impact sans-serif text that gets right to the point.

The most effective Web material keeps readers constantly engaged with interactivity through a series of structured, interlacing hyperlinks and bookmarks. This approach allows people to “cyber-plunge” into the material wherever they see fit.

But we must always offer substantive information once they arrive at the destination. The trick is to direct and guide the interest of readers/browsers toward the objective of informing them with our worthy prose — whether catalog copy or federal regulations.

Part 2 to follow next month…

Related reading