pondering the point (.0) of web writing.

I’m presenting yet another workshop on Writing for the Web next month, but starting to wonder if I’m using outdated information.

When I served as chief content editor for our campus-wide redesign in 2003-04, prevailing literature suggested using phrased hypertext linking in clear, concise sentences driving a listener to action. I think that’s all still important but, in a Web 2.0 world, it seems like the amount of content in actual sentence form on the ‘Net is shrinking.

Currently, our Web site incorporates three plans for linking within the body of any page:

A sample oswego.edu page.

Fig. 1: A sample oswego.edu page.

Left/red circle: Sibling or structural links = related within directory structure

Center/green circle: Contextual links = phrases sending reader to information that sparks their interest

Right/blue circle: Related links = other pages that may interest the reader

As a creator and reader, I mostly employ/look for contextual links, but then that’s the tendency of someone who’s wanted to be a writer since I was four years old. Some others prefer navigating by structural or related links. Yet others just go straight to the search box and type in their term. All are valid ways of finding information.

But when I look at something like Facebook, arguably the top social-media presence going, the main links are structural or related. And short. Its navigation is certainly intuitive — anyone knows what links that say view photos or send message or view friends mean — but it provides a challenge, if not a full-blown conundrum, for those trying to teach others to write Web copy.

I certainly don’t think colleges should ditch Web writing in complete and grammatically correct sentences. Our primary pages should contain what we would call marketing copy (much as those words make some academics bristle) to make the pitch … but are readers becoming more accustomed to just searching for links or Twitteristic 140-character communication?

But then I took a step back and remembered that Web 2.0 is about conversations. Those conversations tend to take place in sentences, not just through posting links or photos (though links and photos can start/continue conversations). And good Web copy, like good advertising copy, should be in a conversational tone. The rise of Web 2.0 doesn’t demolish Web 1.0 … in some ways, it actually helps us understand traditional Web sites better.

12 Comments

Filed under Web, writing

12 responses to “pondering the point (.0) of web writing.

  1. Tim – very thoughtful thinking on this topic. “Writing on the Web” was such a hot topic about 7-9 years ago, and has seemed to fizzle in recent years, but yet it’s more important than ever. I think text messaging and Twitter are changing the landscape and expectations. I think it’s important to revisit the conversational tone and really look at the advertising-speak. It sure would be interesting to fire up a focus group with a bunch of 16-18 year olds and compare copy and such on various highered Web sites.

  2. I think that “writing for the web” now depends mainly on your target audience (as every work always does), your target audience’s expectations, as well as how you want to present yourself/your site. There no longer is a one-size-fits-all solution of “write like you would for print, only change a few things.”
    If you want to present yourself as a scholarly journal or trade paper, you may want to only have structural links and large pieces of body copy, maybe with some key ideas that are based upon previous writings linking directly to those writings, possibly only linking in parentheticals or related links (like many early news-based sites and current journal and magazine sites). If you want to simply share information that relies on other information that you also wish to share, you may want to use a main tree with solely content-based links on sub pages to learn more about different pieces (e.g. http://catb.org/jargon/html/index.html ). If you want to present yourself as a hip and upbeat group, you may want to have a page with a few main links on the top or the side in a structural flow with any content beyond the basics buried under context, with the main content being minimal to simply spread the word, or minimal content with many off-site links in context (e.g. http://www.wnyo.org/ ). If your main goal is to simply share detailed information about widely known practices or ideas, a simple lookup engine with a single input box (similar to a search) may best present yourself (e.g. http://www.ietf.org/rfc.html ). Basically, I think that the evolution of “the web” is partially a devolution in the traditional sense – moving from one major method to a larger and larger variety of different methods, each serving (hopefully) their own purpose.

    In any event, if you want to further read into a wide variety of web theories, Tim Berners Lee’s writings are a good place to start (also, searching for sites that *constructively* complain about flash use will get a lot of in-depth analyses of different UI designs).

  3. insidetimshead

    RACHEL: I remember during the previous redesign, Drew and the mStoner people tried to convene high schoolers for usability testing, which proved about as difficult as putting socks on a rooster. If I had kids in the 16-18-year-old range, I’d advise them to rent themselves out to colleges eager for opinion … the demand could pay for their tuition. I wonder if anyone in your Ning would be willing to be part of a focus group?

    ERIC: I would dare say one of the most-viewed Web sites that is all content/low design would be collegehockeystats.net. For one simple reason: Delivery of a desired product, i.e. providing hockey scores and box scores faster than anywhere else. One argument that content can, indeed, be king. Anyway, your comment was well-researched, thoughtful and thorough … you get an A!

  4. Brad

    Distinguish “writing for the Web” from “scribbling on the Web.” Facebook and Twitter are the Web equivalents of the notpad / erasable whiteboard we put on our dorm room doors for friends to leave messages.

    If you want to look at a site that is arguably as widely used as Facebook and demonstrates how to write for the Web, how about Wikipedia?

  5. insidetimshead

    Ah, BRAD: But there’s the gulf between understanding and perception. I have an hour or two knowing some people will have Web perceptions colored by Facebook … meaning I have to explain why that isn’t how everyone should communicate on the Web. Especially institutions. Wikipedia is, or should be, a good example of how to communicate on the Web (and is even a 2.0 example) but it has credibility issues. Web 2.0 just makes explaining the traditional Web more challenging. Not impossible or anything.

  6. I think that most web-writing can’t be compared to Facebook. The beauty of the technology behind Facebook is that links are almost always relevant and customized: Lexie has a new profile picture. Tim commented on Lynn’s note. People I know are doing things that I’m interested in.

    But writing copy for a website that is inherently less personalized (a college website, for instance) is going to be different, because it is a different beast. Obviously, there are still opportunities to appeal to students: Men’s hockey team edges visitors in overtime. View your transcript. Register for classes. But the vast majority of content on a site like that is only going to appeal to a certain segment of the population at certain times. And that’s because you have several audiences: prospective students, current students, faculty and staff, media, parents, etc.

    I guess my point is: if a site cannot be customized or tailored to its audience on the same level that Facebook can (and I supposed Oswego’s site could be, but it would require users to log in—not to mention a heckuva lot of tech infrastructre), then maybe it’s not possible (or even desired) to try to mimic the Facebook model. There could be separate microsites for each audience segment, but even then I’m not sure it would solve the problem.

    I don’t really know. Just sort of typing as I think.

  7. Colin

    Whenever I see the pages at oswego.edu like this, of which there’s many, I LOL.

    And Brad’s comment above that Wikipedia is somehow “writing for the web,” double LOL!

  8. insidetimshead

    MDIC: Actually, there are ways a site could be passively customized, such as with cookies or Facebook Connect. ESPN.com is an example that customizes through cookies; you can set the preference of types of news you want to receive (i.e. favorite teams, thus you learn when the Yankees sign the whole Tampa Bay Rays roster). Personalization is likely a huge movement in the Web in terms of usability, and dynamic content could further influence how we would write.

  9. I think Brad made a good analogy by isolating “scribbling” from Web writing. They are definitely unique to their domain.
    But, we do make an impression on our friends, colleagues and contemporaries with the way we present ourselves in online communities, microblogs, etc.
    It’s a point worth exploring as we establish Web 2.0 as a professional tool. When is it acceptable to use all smallcaps, for instance. I often do and I’ve seen others from all types of professions (journalists, advancement, profs, etc.) do the same. But, what kind of message does that send?
    Tim, I was also wondering what books on Web writing you might suggest. I’m sure you’ve read a couple.

  10. insidetimshead

    SHANE: My guide to Web writing, and probably still the best work, was Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. The title suggests that good Web content is so intuitive that users don’t have to think much to get where they need to go. Easier in theory than practice, but a nice ideal. And this whole discussion has inspired another blog post on the topic, coming soon.

  11. Pingback: web writing ii: this time it’s purposeful. « InsideTimsHead

  12. Pingback: follow the reader. « InsideTimsHead

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