Righting 4 the Web
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
Bad writing—presentation actually—for the web would have been
equally bad in any prior medium.
I was delighted recently to participate in Temple
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
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
stream of unformatted words ever valid? If you eliminate 75 of
100 words, won't there come a time when someone says "OK,
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:
- 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
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,
to find what I want.
My quest—I really like this term
from World of Warcraft despite not persisting as
with one and only one criteria... the
appearance I was looking for. I don't care about
any of 100 other
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
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!
- 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
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.
- 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.
Neilsen addresses this topic with the phrase "the web
is goal oriented"
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
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
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
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,
- 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:
- You could indent a paragraph.
- You could use bold or italics.
- 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
we have elaborate rules for semicolons or other punctuation
because bullets aren't part of Gutenberg's page layout services.
Now that every writer in the world has every manner of page
technique available—tables, lists, graphics, frames,
hyperlinks, subpages—these rules require rethinking.
They are for ultimate prose, not for navigation in the quest.
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.
- 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
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.