The 10 Commandments Of Internet Writing
1. Print content is structurally and functionally different from online content. Print is formally written and passively read. It's linear, narrative, dated and presents a continuous view. Online content is informally written, chunked out, non-linear, interactive, dynamic and current. One involves reading paper, the other involves reading light.
2. Don't just "repurpose" documents; write Webitorial content. "Repurposing" means when you repackage a document created for print and simply attach it to a Web site in Word .doc, Acrobat .pdf, Excel .xls or other popular formats. While sometimes this is necessary, it's the laziest, most ineffective way to put content on the Internet. Re-think how the content can be rewritten, laid out and designed in context with its specific online environment.
3. Online content is not just about words. When you write for the Internet, think "presentation" and "interaction." Factor in the other content objects that may be part of it. Analyze the environment where the content will be found. If you were writing for a television ad, for example, you wouldn't simply write text without knowing what audio and visuals will be part of it.
4. Words are graphical images, too. People often notice the font style, the color of the text, the size of the text and how the text appears as a visual block before they actually extract its meaning. Layout and design are critical in a visual medium like the Web.
5. Chunk it out, chunk it down. Even if you're writing an actual content object such as a Word document or a PDF, content on the Internet has to be easily scannable. Thanks to the Internet and broadcast media, people have far less patience and tolerance for large blocks of narrative text. When you create new Web text, make sure it's "chunked out" (broken into smaller blocks of text separated by a break) or "chunked down" (shortened). Remember - if no one reads it, what value will it have?
6. Write strong meta-content (headlines, subheads, cutlines, labels, etc). Internet readers have a "search-and-retrieve" mentality - they prefer to scan for the information or keywords or links they need, while bypassing the rest. Good headlines and content labels also help the reader to cognitively understand the organization and navigation of the content.
7. Don't reinvent the wheel - just link to it. How much of your copy could be trimmed down if you simply linked to other Web pages that offered the same information? Here's my 100/25 rule of content originality on the Web: 100% of the content is created by 25% of the people. Readers like to interact on the Web, so give them links as non-linear "rabbit holes" they can follow.
8. Use the traditional newspaper structure of "inverted pyramid" writing. Like newspapers, the Internet should be a fast read, involve a lot of content and catch the reader's attention. Make sure your five W's (who, what, when, where, why, and also how) are close to the top. Details of lesser importance should follow, from general to specific (that's why the pyramid is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom). The idea is this: Even if the reader only reads the headline, they should have a good idea of what the article is about. And if they read only the first few lines, they should have a very good idea of the main points in the article.
9. Make the writing compelling, personal and energetic. Active voice writing is always the best. Use consistent style and conventions. Use "you" when appropriate to personalize the text. Take a stand. Give your writing attitude. People like to read writing that feels truthful, creative, positive and individual. You can use "plain writing" style without sounding plain. And most importantly, keep it tight, unpretentious and free of unnecessary verbiage.
10. Know your Internet community. In print, you have to know your readers, and in broadcast, you have to know your audience. On the Internet, it's also crucial to know your "community" of readers. Are you creating content for a portal? An Internet site? An opt-in email newsletter? What are their interests? Education? Age range? Biases? How will they use the information, and how will the other information in that environment be used? When you write for the Internet, the one is the many.
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About the Author:
Garth A. Buchholz is the Corporate Web Manager for the City of Winnipeg (Winnipeg.ca) and publisher of Contentology (Contentology.com), a global information site for content developers. Garth has also been the Web manager and information designer for Investors Group (Investorsgroup.com). As an early "dot-com" entrepreneur and one of the first Internet journalists in Canada, Garth wrote a weekly newspaper column called Internet Today from 1997-2000.
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