From Writing to Writing for the Web

Writing, as it is, requires a very specific set of skills from the person involved in said activity. This set of skills, though, needs to be adjusted if said skills are to be applied to the creation of online content. The main reasons for the need of such transition are due to the following:

  • Reader’s attention spanUsers tend to have a lot less patience when reading from a screen than they do when reading printed material.
  • Variable flow of reading – The order in which a user reads something on a screen may vary in a lot more ways than it does on printed material.
  • User’s search for answers – Users normally visit websites with the hope of answering a very specific question, hence the content should be created and arranged in preparation for those scenarios.
  • Different options and capabilities – When creating content for the web, there are interaction options not available for hardcopy publications, like embedded linking and clickable graphs and diagrams.

It is because of these key factors that normal writing skills and web content writing skills can be both very different and similar depending on the aspect one focuses on.

Differences

Taking into account the way these sets of skills are different from one another, contradictory statements on the matter can be established.

Volume VS Just the essential

As mentioned before, the online reader has a more limited attention span. This is due to the tendency users have of scanning web content to find the specific piece of information they are looking for, not really reading everything that is presented for them.

This task, however, can be fairly complicated if there are large amounts of text they have to scan through. When writing for normal hardcopy publications, there’s a high propensity of using decorative phrases and more complex vocabulary to augment the size of paragraphs and complete articles. It helps very little, though, to actually enhance web content.

Sticking to the essentials, with no decorative language and using clear action verbs, will give web content that very important property it requires: scannability.

This is why companies absolutely can NOT use their already published material to quickly start a website. No matter how successful it was when it was first published, chances are it won’t have the same response once it’s launched online.

Foot note references VS In-line linking

Sources in a printed article are normally embedded as foot notes, as to not interfere with the reading flow. The format may differ (e.g. using a number as reference to an ordered list of sources, printed at the end of the article), but the idea of leaving the source references at the end (either of the page or the article) remains.

The premise changes, though, when working with web content. There is no need to leave the source references or related articles for the very end, and at the same time there is also no need for disrupting the natural flow of words throughout the content.

Using embedded linking to both related articles and sources can help the writer imprint a greater sense of interaction to the content. This is accomplished by the insertion of hyperlinks as enhancements to phrases that refer to the related external content. (e.g. from the phrase “As explained in another author’s article”, the fragment “another author’s article” can be used to link to the source, also eliminating the need of additional phrase usage such as “click here”).

Big paragraphs VS Bulleted lists

As mentioned before, printed material tends to be written with the use of elegant vocabulary and complementary phrases to improve each sentence included in a paragraph. Due to this increase of words, paragraphs eventually become larger.

A larger paragraph not only has the disadvantage of looking both boring and tedious, but it also tends to handle more than one idea throughout its content. This last characteristic makes it even harder to read through, completely eliminating the element of scannability.

Bulleted lists aren’t the only solution, of course, but they should be used as much as possible. Their main advantage is their way of displaying ideas in a more friendly and easy-to-read manner. When writing with the aid of paragraphs, these should be kept short and straight-to-the-point, handling only one idea per paragraph.

Another good way of breaking large amounts of text into lesser ones is the use of subtitles, which can enshrine the various ideas originally contained in less-friendly conglomerations of content and entice the user a bit farther to continue with their lecture.

Introduction first VS Conclusion first

Common hardcopy publications follow the standard writing structure, which indicates the writer should begin by giving an introduction to the topic that will be treated throughout the whole article. This statement, though as obvious as it may seem, is not as valid when creating online content.

The conclusion needs to be at the beginning of an online article for a very simple reason: achieving user engagement. The matter of accomplishing user engagement from the very beginning is a key factor for content strategy success, since it will determine whether the user reads the whole content or not. If the first part of the article is not engaging or attractive enough, the content will be skipped through.

Given that the conclusion is the most relevant part of an article, one should follow the inverted pyramid structure. By this scheme, the article should be ‘introduced’ with a couple of conclusive statements before actually getting into details.

Similarities

Even though there are many characteristics that differentiate writing skills applied to hardcopy publications from the ones applied to web content creation, there are still key aspects that remain unchanged, and that should be considered regardless of what’s being written.

Sentence structure

Grammar is a very important aspect of any written material. Writing content for the web does NOT give anyone the right to disregard grammar rules.

The use of complete sentences is highly recommended, leaving phrases for more informal content approaches like the construction of bulleted lists. The need to make things simple doesn’t have to interfere with the correct use of grammar.

Main idea support

Notwithstanding the order followed (whether or not the inverted pyramid structure is applied), there should be one main idea supported throughout the presentation of the whole content. This main idea should be clearly established from the very beginning (with an enticing title that will help attract readers’ attention).

After selecting the main topic, the rest of the subtitles and paragraphs should be directed to support it through straight-forward arguments and collected research data. The quantity of these subtitles and paragraphs varies according to the type of content, as explained before, but their purpose doesn’t quiver. The need for coherency is persistent.

Quality control

The need for a good sense for quality control inspection goes beyond the type of content and the means of publication.

Everything intended for publication must be read more than once, ideally by more than one person, and revised before its final release. Spelling and vocabulary mistakes can become significant factors to determine whether the content being published will be regarded as trustworthy or not.

To Sum Up

Every writer has the potential to become an online writer if their natural abilities are focused in the correct way. With contextual considerations, their skills can be adapted and applied, thus contributing to the creation of effective web content. For more technical considerations, reading Ginny Redish’s Letting Go of the Words can prove more than useful for any aspiring web writer.