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Righting 4 the Web

November 10, 2007

If the routine advice about writing for the web—reduce by 50% etc.—is valid, what were all those words doing in the first place?

Synopsis: The well-intended and generally sensible advice about web writing, implies that all prior writing had immense waste and useless formatting. What is the disconnect? My answer is that no rules have changed. Bad writing—presentation actually—for the web would have been equally bad in any prior medium.

I was delighted recently to participate in Temple University's celebration of World Usability Day 2007 and heard an exellent presentation on writing for the web. These rules are fairly well established now and world usability would be well served if everyone learned them, but they always make me ask what the implications are. Call me a contrarian or maybe just a grumpy old writer, but every time I hear them I wonder... if you can cut 50-75% of the words out of an article before publishing it on the web, what were those wasted words doing in the first place? Who ever read all that supposedly wasteful fluff? And if you need more headings, bullets, and scannable highlights for the web, in what context was an endless stream of unformatted words ever valid? If you eliminate 75 of 100 words, won't there come a time when someone says "OK, I found the right topic... now where are the 75 words of details that I came for?"

This is a much trickier topic than meets the reader's eye. It combines a few phenomena:

  1. With the web, the balance of power has shifted to consumers of information (readers) and the shift has been dramatic.

    Let's consider a marketing brochure or one-page flyer for a product. I'll use the example of the tile I just bought for my kitchen. In the olden days, I would have to travel or phone to collect brochures on the potential products. Now mind you, I want one specific tile motif—and as with everything I shop for it's an entirely obscure item—called 'satillo' clay tile... but I didn't learn that magic term until late in the game. I found a few websites that each offer their own form of pain, browsing to find what I want.

    My quest—I really like this term from World of Warcraft despite not persisting as a player—started with one and only one criteria... the appearance I was looking for. I don't care about any of 100 other criteria that might clutter a brochure or web page... just the look, to find the product I want... because I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT IT WAS CALLED. In the paper world the image of the motif would pop out at me merely by the difference between text and images. No amount of poor organization would make the paper design ineffective. But what if my starting criterion were size (8x8, 12x12, octagon, rectangle)? With 50 brochures in my hands, their respective layout strengths would imact my quest; some would hide the tile sizes better than others. But I'd probably look through all 50 to continue my quest. My power is limited to the papers in my hand.

    But on the web, if they hide the tile size from me, another web page and the allure of better information is one click away. The fact that it might be as poorly designed or even worse is immaterial; we are eternally hopeful. Unlike the brick-and-mortar world where each brochure has a cost of perhaps gasoline and travel or phone time, the webrochure costs nearly zero. Whether you call it balance of power or supply-and-demand, the consumer no longer has to spend as much time and money on the worst brochure publisher as on the best. With the advent of the web, we only have to "buy" good brochures!

  2. There were always bad brochures.

    But it didn't matter because you needed the information. Let's say that for your least helpful brochure you traveled 1/2 hour and spent $10 in gas. Once you got it, the fact that it took 30 seconds to find the available tile sizes on a poorly organized chart was immaterial. Let's say you found a place that would send you a stack of 50 brochures... miraculously one from EVERY available manufacturer. Again, the publisher is unlikely to suffer because of their low-functioning documentation... you will find all of the desired tile sizes in all of the brochures with tiles that you like.

    But now, bad brochures are passed over instantly. My point is that we are not talking about writing for the web, we are talking about the mistakes that were present even before the web. Poor organization and graphics mattered on paper even before the web and the principles are only different in a few respects where the web adds features that were not available on paper.

  3. Quests vs. Prose

    Your quest for some answer is addressed by navigation. Presumably there's some content or function at the end of the quest.

    Jakob Neilsen addresses this topic with the phrase "the web is goal oriented" or something like that. Well, that's not bad, but isn't it a "goal" to read a novel? Everything is goal oriented even if the goal is just long-term pleasure of enjoying a story. If your quest is to find a long web page with a story, then finding a page of margin-to-margin, unformatted prose is a successful mission. I use the "nuclear bomb" argument: if you want to build a nuclear bomb, you will be quite happy reading a document with Unibomber manifesto formatting... 25,000 words in 6-pt print. And that's great "writing for the web." But the entire discussion about W4tW presumes that the ultimate information never matters... only the quest... the navigation to find that information. WRONG. We can all agree that readers scan, but they wouldn't be scanning if they weren't expecting to find some pot of gold (goal-ed, Jakob?) at the end of the rainbow. Perhaps the content goal is indistinguishable from navigation because it is in the navigation itself... or so brief that it is indistinguishable. Or it could be an online book.

    A common plaint of W4tW is to start with a conclusion. This was always a valid style whenever writing anything related to a quest... perhaps anything but a story, where the value is entirely in the suspense, journey, anticipation, and deliverance.

  4. The Rules of Writing vs Page Layout

    There are many "style rules" for writing that are in conflict with web trends, and it's interesting to study the relationship to figure out what's going on and why. In the beginning there were very few formatting devices at your disposal for the printed word:

    1. You could indent a paragraph.
    2. You could use bold or italics.
    3. You could adjust the type size.

Many of the style rules that you read about are because of this limited set of tools... from 1500 years ago! For instance, we have elaborate rules for semicolons or other punctuation for lists because bullets aren't part of Gutenberg's page layout services. Now that every writer in the world has every manner of page layout technique available—tables, lists, graphics, frames, hyperlinks, subpages—these rules require rethinking. They are for ultimate prose, not for navigation in the quest. When the numeral "7" is easier to spot in a list than "seven," use the numeral even though traditional writing style says to spell out numbers under 10 or 12.

Yes, on the web, because much less time needs to be wasted reading the wrong information, we spend proportionately more time navigating. So good use of lists, tables, summaries, and headings is paramount. I've maintained for years that most techwriting should be bullets; the need for paragraphs of more than 3 sentences is increasingly rare.

  1. Marketing Crap vs. Authentic Information

    If anyone thought that anyone ever read the meaningless drivel at the beginning of brochures, they were wrong. Let's all stop saying that W4tW means removing 75% of your content; what it really means is publishing only authentic information. We only accepted those vapid paragraphs because they were on pieces of paper that were handed to—"pushed to"—us. We never read them. Now the web gives us a chance to not read them online. If you are a non-writer—a person who's been asked by your company to produce a web page because your company thinks that the web means everyone is now responsible for publishing their work world—you must understand that you should only publish words that someone can take action upon.

    A few years ago, someone published a gadgets catalog called the DAK catalog. It had wall-to-wall prose, an oddity for catalogs, flying in the face of ad copywriting rules. It was very successful because it provided valuable information about its products.

Writing is for reading. Now go do it wright, for any medium.

"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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