Is the Web a negative influence on writing?
ONLINE COLUMN: Web Savvy
Published: December 15, 2009
No one can dispute the enormous impact of Web technology on the writing profession. Leaders of various writing organizations have decried developments such as Google's book deal, bringing thousands of works online in a searchable format. Others bemoan declining freelance fees, because writing for Web sites often pays less than writing for print publications. And most everyone is aware of the impact of free online content on print publications, especially newspapers. But those of us who tap a keyboard daily confront another issue—the impact of the Web on structure, style and revision. Kay B. Day
Do a search on the topic 'optimize your Web site content' and you will receive more than a million results. With a few strokes, tips on keywords, headers and article length will sally forth. If you've ever blogged for pay, you're already familiar with trying to keep content fairly short (but at least 300 words) and making sure headers relate to the topic rather than to your favorite Muse. You already know the importance of repeating key words—just enough, not too often—so the search engines will scoop up your content and deliver it to the word-thirsty world. And remember to include only one idea per paragraph so your attention span-deficient reader doesn't lose interest.
Many of us have also come to admit the quality of the actual writing matters little to search engines because, simply put, there's no way for a search engine to know whether you're a genius or a couple thousand words short in your literary dictionary. Search engines have traditionally looked for quality backlinks and optimized code. Recent announcements suggest Google is re-tooling their famously secretive algorithm described by Tom Foremski at ZD Net in a reader friendly manner: "PageRank counts the links to a web page and computes its relevance by assessing the importance of the linking site. If a page gets links from a high-ranked site that already has lots of links to it from reputable sites then that assigns a high rank to that page in Google results."
Problem is Web sites don't link to one another like they used to in the days when blogs were young and took themselves far less seriously. And I can tell you based on personal experience, there's a lot more to getting to the top of the search results than that. It's my opinion advertising plays a major role in search returns.
The impact of technology affects every genre. Whether you're an indie blogger or you're writing for a well-branded Web site, you must adhere to some standards. Those standards are very different from the days when print dominated the landscape. Although length requirements and style guides have always figured in content, the rules are more rigid now if you want to build a platform.
If you're a poet, the same applies, just in a different manner. You want your work published in magazines and on websites that draw sizable traffic, and that usually means you are going to need to deal with either university publications or high-profile lit zines and sites. An eclectic literary site may publish your work, but how many people actually read it is another matter entirely. And you're giving something up because once that poem is published, you forfeit the right to enter some contests or submit it to a magazine or site that wants only unpublished material.
Another writer nemesis is immediacy—not the good kind you find in attention-grabbing writing, but the kind that allows you to pop something on the Web the minute you write it. In a recent interview with poet C. E. Chaffin, he brought up the temptations that come with ease of publishing. I've learned the hard way, as an editor of an indie site, to proof and re-proof work I post. Most of the time I end up printing the published piece because it's easier to spot errors. This also means never permitting an automatic spell check, because invariably, the spell check will recommend erroneous commas, flag intentional sentence fragments and butcher individual names. What spell check can do to a poem cannot be described in a civil manner. There's irony in the fact the check is useful for extra spaces between words and other overlooked grammar gaffes, however.
My enthusiasm for Web writing remains strong, but I've come to admit to myself there are tradeoffs. Some are negative, some are positive. I once wrote that for everything we choose to pursue, something must be bartered. When it comes to the Web, there's no denying we barter a great deal but we also gain immeasurably. Fees may have declined, but opportunities to publish have multiplied. Reach has multiplied as well. Readers in India, Australia, Saudi Arabia and many other countries read my words and they can respond to what I write as soon as they've read it. That, despite all the tradeoffs, is a truth that reinforces a truth spanning centuries—a testament to the power of the written word. That is one absolute that remains unchanged.
|Kay B. Day|
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.