Writing for an online project can be very different from writing a standard five-page literary paper. Visitors to websites expect a different kind of experience than they get when reading a book or magazine. Websites are more visual, for one thing, and can use images and video to convey complex ideas. Readers bring different expectations to online writing than they do to printed articles or books. They expect to identify the salient points of a page quickly. They expect links to deeper information to be easily discovered. In short, the web is a faster, more dynamic medium than print, and writers must take those differences into account when writing for digital projects.
Web publications are also much easier to edit than printed papers, articles, or books. Writers can draft more quickly, with the understanding that they can always edit, revise, and fine-tune their writing even after it’s published on a website. This changes the process of writing. Drafts become more public, as both writer and reader understand that web-based writing is always subject to improvement.
- What do you value when reading online? Have you ever read a book online? How about a long-form article (say, more than ten printed pages)? How do your expectations differ between print and online reading? Jot down two to three principles of good online writing.
Of course, what you write for the web will vary from assignment to assignment. With that said, here are a few general guidelines that should help you write for the web more effectively:
- Readers expect web content to be concise. Concise writing focuses on the most salient details that the writer wishes to convey and omits flowery language or extraneous details. Readers do not expect long paragraphs of text on any given web page. Think of how this electronic textbook is presented. Though denser than much web-based writing, this textbook presents only a few ideas on each page. Writers often enhance the concision of web-based documents by organizing their thoughts into bulleted or numbered lists, which help readers cognitively organize the information they read online.
- Concise writing only works if it’s also precise—writing for the web should be specific and make a clear point. While most teachers don’t like filler in student papers, they are paid to read that filler. Visitors to a website are not required to read it and will quickly surf to another site if they cannot discern the site’s purpose. If you are tracing the journey of the crew in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick using Google Earth, the front page of your website should say (a) precisely what your project does and (b) why it’s interesting. Don’t leave your reader to figure these things out. For example, “This project maps the locations visited by the crew of the Pequod in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. Mapping this voyage helps us appreciate the breadth of the crew’s journey and better understand the realities of whaling in 19th-century America.”
- Readers also expect web content to include hyperlinks where appropriate. Think about this textbook. When we reference another chapter in the book, an outside article, or an electronic literary text, we link directly to it so you can follow up on ideas you find interesting. Much as scholarly readers expect you to cite the sources you quote or paraphrase, readers on the web expect you to link directly to any content that informs your writing. If your writing builds on the ideas of others—whether that’s a scholarly website, a blog, or a Twitter feed—you should include links to those foundational works as often as you can. You should also provide links that will allow your reader to dig deeper into a topic you discuss. While readers on the web expect the writing to be concise and precise, they also expect that they will be able to further explore things they find interesting. In the preceding example, you might link to other resources on the web where readers could learn more about the Pequod, Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or the nineteenth-century whaling industry.
- In English classes, we don’t often talk about whether a work is skimmable. Instead, we value writing that can be read closely, as we learn in Chapter 2. However, readers on the web do want writing to be skimmable. You should highlight key words, phrases, and hyperlinks in your text. You should also use headings to separate different parts of your document. If appropriate, you might also begin each segment of writing with a short, one to two sentence summary of the section. Your goal should be a document that readers can quickly understand, at least in its broad strokes, before delving into a more careful reading.
- Readers on the web also care about a site’s aesthetic appeal. In other words, they care how the site’s fonts, colors, layout, and images contribute to their overall experience of the site’s content. The web is a highly visual medium. When writing for the web, you should consider not only the content of your writing but also its presentation. Is the font easy to read? Do the colors you’ve chosen enhance the reading experience or do they distract from it? Very bright colors, for instance, might force readers to strain their eyes while reading. Pick a font and color scheme that you can read easily for an extended period of time.
- Find a traditional paper you’ve written for a class. How might you restructure that paper if you wanted to present your research online? Try to identify places where headlines, summaries, or lists might help your readers skim your ideas and understand the basic outlines of your argument.