Writing for the Web by Robert Whyte

by Joe Gillespie — Sep 1, 2001

There are as many different types of web writing as there are genres of web sites. They range from corporate and small-business sites through family and community webs to personal pages and creative experiments.

All these have one common requirement – coming to terms with a new and evolving medium.

A web writer has to be good at understanding communication in general and, in particular, how web communication differs from books, radio, TV, brochures, billboards or singing in the pub.

The tips, tricks and bad puns I offer here might not make you a better writer (who knows?) but, if you heed them, they will make you better at writing for the web.

The map is not the territory [or] reality never goes out of date

Do you need to know a lot about the web? Yes. A web writer needs to know what the web is, how it works and where it's going. Unless you are fluent in web, you will not be able to convince your client that you will be able to write for the medium effectively.

As a web writer your client relies on your knowledge and advice to make a range of decisions about a range of issues including:

  • competitors and allies, best and worst practice (what else is out there).
  • appropriate protocols and technologies (e.g. html, quicktime, flash).
  • target audiences and bandwidth thresholds.
  • is it worth being there at all? (web futurology).
  • how to give your pages their best chance with search engines.
  • how to promote your site on and offline.

And in any case, if you don't know where you are, you'll get lost. We all have inherited from our animal ancestors an innate need to know where we are going and the exact location of any nearby sabre-tooth tigers, and it's the same in cyberspace as it is in the real world. In here, they're cyber-tooths.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice HTML.

All you need to be a web writer is a text editor and an FTP client – true or false? True, in a way.

The web is the most accessible publishing medium of all time. An eight year old can publish a web page in less than half an hour. Anyone with an internet connection probably already has a web page as a freebie with their dialup account.

As it is with making videos, or staging plays, or publishing newsletters – theoretically anyone can do it.And they do. Terribly.

So what's so hard?

As it turns out, web design IS rocket science

Once upon a time the web was text. There was no graphic design and very little interface design. Plain old HTML was just fine for the publication of documents like "A Market-Oriented Programming Environment and its Application to Distributed Multicommodity Flow Problems".

Designers soon began twisting, contorting and in all sorts of ways bothering HTML to take advantage of page designs that had developed over thousands of years in the realm of print, which HTML had mostly thrown out the window for the sake of simplicity and cross-platformability.

This means that writers have to learn to tell stories all over again, using the power of graphic design and visual images to catch the eye and lead the reader from one point to another on a myriad of possible journeys.

Images and design are necessary but words are people too

Images are pretty, but words are still the lowest common denominator of the web. Ask yourself this. What are the most successful pages on the internet? The answer is search engines. Daylight comes second.

Search engines work by cataloging the written content of your web pages and that means words, words, words. (The only things search engines know about your images is what's in their alt tags.)Without the words, they'll never find you.

We are happy, but we are not content

Make sure your words are relevant and useful. Even if you have a lot of words, if your words aren't the ones people are looking for, they still won't find you. The web is the celebration of the known. You don't stumble onto the unknown the way you can browsing in a bookshop.

So if your content is obscure, you will need to attract people with some genuinely related content that they ARE looking for. This will lead them to the products of your client.

What the world needs now is another site about Britney Spears [not]

Tell your own story, not someone else's. What is different, special and interesting about your client and the products they want to sell on the internet? If you are duplicating content that can be found elsewhere, then your only realistic strategy is to be the best. To be the last site standing. And that is simply not likely. Natural selection means that there will be competition for the niche you occupy and survival of the fittest means that one day something will evolve that is better than you are. Believe it or not.

The secrets of success aren't very secret

What are the secrets of success? We might not know all 11 herbs and spices, but we can be sure of at least three. Salt, pepper, and commonsense.

The ultimate secret to web strategy is simply gaining a clear and detailed understanding of your audience and providing content that will result in some measurable action.

Here are the key questions.

  • What do you (or your client) want to say and who do you want to say it to?
  • When people visit your web site, what do you want to happen?
  • What content can you put online that will attract your audience and achieve your goals?

Simple, isn't it. Now you try.

Resources

Web Style Guide - Patrick Lynch and Sara Horton - still the best book on the complete process

A wonderful treatise on the good old "table of contents"

One writer's method - Robert Whyte's site on writing for the web

Robert Whyte is a senior designer at ToadShow with experience in web, print and multimedia. He is a published author who began his career as a writer and editor in 1974 while at James Cook University in Townsville. His first novel was published in 1985 (11 years in the writing) and he promises another one soon.

Rob was awarded one of the first of the Australian Literature Board's Young Writer's Fellowships, enabling him to write full-time for a year in 1976.

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