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What are the Best Practices for Web Writing?


With an estimated 20 billion individual webpages and growing, it is easy to see the immediate need for even more electronic flotsam and jetsam floating around the Internet. After all, the Internet isn't going to write itself, despite the early promise of Google's top secret "Ten Thousand Monkeys With Laptops" program. For writers, the vastness and complete lack of self- editorial moxie found on the Internet makes it an ideal canvas for short, informative articles written for a general and often international audience. Inquiring minds really do want to know when the Germans attacked Pearl Harbor, or who really did put the "ram" in the "ram-a-lama ding dong". Go ahead, tell them.

Writing for the Web does call for some morphing of traditional journalistic writing styles. Many Internet users are interested in gleaning the most pertinent facts in the shortest time possible, which means the writer shouldn't hold those facts hostage until the final paragraph. Whenever possible, a web writer should at least provide a few crumbs of actual information in the first paragraph to satisfy the little skimmers.

The following is a crash course on how to create effective content for Internet websites, including pesky and gratuitous reminders of common grammatical errors and syntactical bloviating. Enjoy.

Lists and Tables

  • Using lists and tables are highly recommended when they make the content easier to digest.
  • Overuse of lists/tables can make it difficult to make more complex points.
  • Ensure that your content is best conveyed with a list/table before using them.
  • Rinse.
  • Repeat.

Lists and bullet points are most effective when there is actually a list inherent with the article. A list of ingredients, including amounts and preparation methods, would be very useful at the beginning of a cooking article. A list of parts, tools and supplies necessary to complete a home improvement project would also be useful in a how-to article. If the list of ingredients only consists of a slice of bread, a toaster and electricity, however, it might be easier to incorporate those items into the body of the paragraphs, perhaps with bold or italic lettering for emphasis: Place the bread in the toaster, then locate the fire extinguisher.

Grammatical Person

Consistency in person and voice is an important consideration in Web writing. When in doubt about which voice and person is appropriate for a specific website's content, a writer should examine that website carefully or consult with the website owner or editor. Using the first person "I" voice may come across as too personal or informal on an informative website, while using the less personal third person "he, she, it" voice may not sound intimate enough for a review website. Using the commanding second person "Implied You" voice is generally ideal for how-to articles, but one of these days Implied You may reach his breaking point from all those orders and then where will you be?

The first person voice works best when the writer needs to inject his or her own feelings, experiences or opinions into the piece in order to reach readers: "I personally didn't understand the casting of Don Knotts as James Bond, but I still enjoyed the action sequences and I would definitely recommend the 3-D experience to anyone." or "I thought building a thermonuclear reactor in my basement would be an exciting weekend project, but I was sadly mistaken." The use of first person should only be used when the writer's personal identity and credentials add to the overall scope of the article.

Second person voice, whether employing an implied "you" or actually you, works best with how-to and other demonstrative articles. The author's own voice of experience often lurks behind the imperative sentences: "You should always remember to update your will and complete an organ donor card before you move on to the next step." or "Hold the ladder steady as a more qualified professional takes over." The second person voice is acceptable for certain types of content writing, but it is still considered to be too informal for most informational websites.

Most formal website content is written in the third person, which allows the writer to distance himself or herself from the piece. It is important that a Web writer remain consistent with the third person voice throughout an informative piece, since the reader could easily become confused whenever a stray "You" or "I" wanders into the scene without warning. A writer can still use a direct quote in the first person voice, but the rest of the article should remain consistent. Encyclopedic or academic articles written for informational websites almost always use a third person voice, because the writer's own carefully considered opinions and thoughts on the subject rarely rise to the level of squat.

Formatting

Occasional use of bold, italic or underline are welcome, but overuse is highly unrecommended. Highlighting particular key phrases or words is helpful, but employing this technique too frequently tends to dilute the effectiveness and make the content generally unappealing. WRITING IN ALL CAPITALS IS NEVER APPROPRIATE.

Some content websites do provide a writer's interface or dialog box which takes care of much of the basic HTML formatting automatically, or at least allows the writer to highlight certain words for bolding, italicizing or underlining without resorting to actual coding. Just because a website makes it easier to do something, however, doesn't necessarily mean you should take shameless advantage of the privilege. The best way to judge the need for special formatting is to read the sentence aloud and see how you would say it in public. Do you need to emphasize a word? Would that be redundant, or simply annoying?

Audience

Web readers can come from anywhere in the world. For this reason it is generally a good idea to avoid provincial slang or speech that some viewers might not find familiar or easily translatable. In other words, avoid giving readers the whole ball of wax when the Reader's Digest version would just as easily fill the bill. This can prove to be more of a challenge in web writing than you might suspect, since many of us are little more than writing machines stuffed with idioms, slang, colloquialisms, neologisms, cliches and jargon.

Web writing for a general and/or international audience doesn't mean writing at a simplistic or pedantic level, but it does mean assuming at least part of your potential readership will not fully grok your technical or literary spok. Certain terms or cultural references may have to be explained in context, or rewritten to avoid unnecessary confusion. A Web writer can assume a reader has some basic familiarity with the subject at hand, but should never assume he or she will be the keynote speaker at the next convention.

Numbers

Numbers 1 through 9 should be written out in words. Ten (10) can be written numerically or in words, and numbers eleven and above should be written numerically. Unless necessary, or writing a legal document, writing out a number in words followed by the numerical form should be avoided. Numbers in the thousands and above, like 3000 and 2000000, should use commas to make them more readable.

Different websites may have different ideas on the proper formatting of numbers, however, especially those higher numbers designed specifically for brain-frying purposes. Abbreviations such as M for "Million" or B for "Billion" may be acceptable in certain sentences such as "The US government announced a $700B bailout plan for lending institutions today." The rest of us who do not deal regularly in M's or B's should follow the standard rules of numerical engagement whenever possible. Individual webmasters and online editors should inform writers of any exceptions to the rule.

Parentheses

In general, parentheses (those little cupped lines that capture short phrases) should be avoided. If some bit of content is not important, then leave it out (from the document), or if it is important, then it deserves its own sentence (and doesn't deserve to be relegated to parentheses). There are a few instances in which a parenthetical thought may be effective, but this is generally limited to first person informal writing. A reviewer, for example, may want to make a personal observation which qualifies the opinion: "I have had few problems with the ChopBot3000 myself (I'm a professional chef by trade) but I can see where others might find the control buttons confusing."

Many parenthetical thoughts can be set off by commas instead of parentheses, a radical grammatical concept indeed, but should still be used sparingly in formal Web writing. The cumulative effect of too many parenthetical thoughts is an uneasy feeling that there are two different writers at work — one giving the reader the unvarnished truth (perish the thought) and another who can't resist undermining his integrity through snarky commentary (wait, he's talking about me now). Unless a Web writer has been given permission to write informally, parenthetical thoughts should be minimized or eliminated.

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are to be used to designate content that is attributable to someone else or to highlight a particular word that is used to define something. Quotation "marks" should never be "used" to "distance" yourself from some content, or to "emphasize" "something." These are known as "Green grocer apostrophes," inspired by the cringe-inducing signs written on butcher paper which loudly proclaim "Apples," "Oranges" and "Help! I'm Being Held Hostage By An Apostrophe-Obsessed Green Grocer."

The effect of so many unnecessary apostrophes on the poor, poor readers is one of visual overload. If a particular word's meaning is quite clear in context and is being used in a straightforward manner, there is no need for quotation marks. Only if there is some ironic or incongruous meaning behind a certain word or phrase should the writer even consider using double quotations: "The "wedding" itself could only be described as a disaster meeting chaos in the backseat of a 1974 Tragedymobile." In this particular situation, the use of quotations indicates an ironic use of the word. When used too often, quotations of this kind tend to insert the writer's personal voice into something he or she doesn't really need to comment on from the literary sidelines.

Spelling

Speling erors our anoying and kan make your con tent dificult to understand. Basic errors also implicitly indicate that you do not care two much about you're writing, so why should you're readers? Homynym spelling errors our perhaps the wurst kind because there indicative of very sophoromoric righting.

Let's try this again, shall we? Spelling errors instantly convert quality writing into writing that really, really wants to be good but can't help itself. Perhaps the best form of spelling error prevention is a fresh look from a second pair of eyes, especially if those eyes belong to your old grammar teacher, Sister Mary Redpen. Barring that, using a spellcheck program should help weed out the obvious wheat from the chaff, but do not rely on any spellchecker program for complete accuracy. After all, my own spelt checquer sed this sentence was gouda.

Timelessness

Articles written for the Web need to have a certain timeless quality about them, somewhere between Dick Clark and gravel. This means a writer should avoid using descriptions which immediately date the piece, such as a few months ago, scientists discovered... or by this time next year, we should all be driving our own spaceships to work.... Consider this the Popular Science phenomenon. Topics can be temporal in nature, such as discussing this year's trendiest celebrity meltdowns, but they should still have some relevance a few years into the future.

Timelessness can be an elusive goal when writing about current trends or pop culture subjects, but the alternative for website owners is to spend an inordinate amount of time updating their content or running the risk of looking dated or behind the times. Ideally, a web article written with timelessness in mind should still be useful at least five years after it was originally composed. Consider this the Twinkies phenomenon.


Examples

Examples should be used to highlight or emphasize an idea, and not work as a substitute for an actual definition. This means a Web writer should use the first few sentences of a paragraph to actually define or outline a concept before plugging in a laundry list of examples. For instance, a Web article on different kinds of automobiles shouldn't read like a showroom catalog. One paragraph could mention economy cars which get better gas mileage or are more affordable for first-time buyers. The writer still has the rest of the paragraph to mention Gremlins, Yugos, Pacers and Trabants. Define first, then hit the reader up with meaningful examples.

Acronyms

Let's face it, we live in a world filled with acronyms. The FBI and CIA routinely report these acronyms to the ASPCA and ASCAP, although the FCC wouldn't mind telling ABC, CBS and NBC what PETA and NASCAR really think about the NFL and the ATF. Okay, this is making the brain hurt. The use of acronyms in Web writing is almost completely unavoidable, so by all means don't avoid it. Remember, however, to use the full name of the organization or phrase as a first reference, then include the acronym parenthetically.

For example, a Web article could include a sentence about the unchecked powers of the Transportation Safety Administration, or TSA. From this point on, the writer can safely refer to the organization by its acronym TSA. It is essential to define the acronym upon first reference, or else readers may start assigning their own meanings to the letters and hilarity may ensue. It does not hurt to pepper an acronym-heavy article with the full name for clarity's sake, especially if the acronyms all start sounding alike. The DOE (Department of Energy) and the DOEd (Department of Education) rarely cross paths in real life, but they could easily become merged together if acronyms are allowed to run wild.

Technical Terms

Sometimes there is no better word for a contraption or doo-hickey than whatchamacallit. It is acceptable in Web writing to use technical terms whenever the situation calls for such precision. An article written for a physics-oriented website is going to include words such as tachyons or quarks, and there's precious little we common folk can do about it. If an article written for a more general audience contains a number of technical terms, however, the writer may want to include a brief definition immediately following the first use of the term or provide some sort of glossary in list form.

Word Choice

There is no reason to show off with overly loquatious words. Sesquipedialians are often trenchant, pedantic and superfluous. However, they are great dancers and enjoy woodworking. Writing for the Web does not mean dumbing down an informative article to a third grade reading level, but it does mean keeping that demographic of eight year olds in mind. The Internet contains millions of pieces of information just waiting to be tripped over, but readers shouldn't have to look up the meaning of a complicated Web article on...well...the Internet.

Proper word choice has more to do with matching the article to the ideal readership than overwriting or underwriting. When composing an article specifically for the medical community, for example, it would be perfectly acceptable to use the proper medical name for an illness or procedure. When composing the same article for a general audience, however, acute coryza with severe rhinitis can simply become a bad cold with a runny nose. When choosing words, write to the level of a person who would routinely visit that type of website.

Tense

The tense of an article, whether in active or passive voice, can make or break it with readers. Web writing is most effective in the active voice, although many beginning writers resort to passive writing in order to sound more authoritative or academic. Would you rather throw a fastball straight down the pipe or get beaned by one which has been thrown? Passive writing is Bean City, so effective Web writers learn how to keep at least 80% of their article's content in the active voice.

Active voice writing means keeping the subject of a sentence as the person or idea or thing which drives the sentences forward. Every once in a while a boxer may be stripped of his title in a passive sense, but an active sentence would suggest the World Boxing Association stripped the heavyweight of his title for violating the rules. Readers can tolerate a certain amount of passive writing in an article, but they generally respond better to an article which stays focused and in an active voice.

Sentence Length

Web users typically appreciate short, clear, and concise sentences that address their queries or questions without going on and on with run-on sentences that go on for too long and cover unrelated or extraneous information. Long sentences tend to be hard to follow, and can also border on boring, which is likely to send the reader away from the site by clicking on their browser's back button, visiting one of their bookmarks, or ending their Internet session altogether. Write effectively but concisely.

One way to determine if a sentence has surpassed its natural snapping point is to breathe while reading it to yourself. At some point in the history of that sentence, you're going to want to breathe out again, or at least swoon and and land face-first on the keyboardddddddddddd. A good sentence for web writing purposes should only last as long as the reader can breathe. Even if it is a brilliantly constructed sentence, full of raw vitality and brimming with the confidence of a master craftsman at the height of his creative powers, there comes a time when the reader will begin to hate your self-indulgent, overwriting guts.

Paragraph Length

Internet webpages are a feast for the eyes as well as the mind, and if that feast looks especially bloated or thick, many readers will turn away for more digestible fare. Paragraphs in web writing should rarely be longer than 4-5 sentences long, and should be limited to one main idea or element whenever possible. Paragraphs of one or two sentences aren't really paragraphs — they are more like punchy little thoughts or bullet points. Avoid those, unless you can format them into actual bullet points or individual steps in a how-to article or other step-by-step instructional guide.

The problem with lengthy paragraphs, those containing at least 7-8 sentences, is the nature of reading most Internet content from a standard computer monitor. Thick paragraphs are the work of the Devil, if by "Devil" you mean the nefarious reading glass industry. It can be very difficult for many Web users to read a stack of words on top of another stack of words without some spacing to relieve the pressure. If a single thought or element cannot be completed in a 4-5 sentence paragraph, it may be time to break out a transitional phrase such as Additionally,, Furthermore,, Also,, or the old stand-by, But that ain't all, folks..

Article Length

Much like sentence and paragraph length, overall article length shouldn't go on and on and on (like this one). Unless the content is entirely engaging (like this one) you'll lose your reader's attention after a short time.

Written by Michael Pollick