Sharpen your Web writing skills and grow your opportunities
Published: August 7, 2007
|One of the first lessons I learned about writing for the Web and publications came from the editor of a print publication. The content I provided would also appear online. He gave me the lesson in an e-mail containing two simple words. "Cut it."|
I'm still working on cutting it.
"A Web page is essentially bottomless," says Steve Morrill, "permitting far more material than could be printed in, say, a magazine format where page length and cost are limiting factors." A widely published author and journalist, Morrill is also director of an online school, Writers College. He edits Web sites for organizations like The American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Morrill says the most obvious stylistic difference is what he calls "three-dimensionality." He says Web writing can be rich with links to other pages or even have added pop-up material. "A Web page need not be simply a typewritten page glued to the back of the viewer's monitor screen."
For sites with a focus on delivering technical or professional information, length is a major factor. "Shorter is better," says Nettie Hartsock, editor of the Must Read Business Books blog for AllBusiness.com. Tone is important. Hartsock says your posts should be more conversational, especially if you're writing a blog. "Find a unique voice. It's even OK to pique the interest of readers." She says writers should remember that on the Web, the first two paragraphs of any work are the ones most scoured--even by Google spiders and bots. "So really make sure you have encapsulated what the whole story will cover in a strong lede paragraph."
Ida Steiner, editor of Auction Bytes, the independent trade publication for online merchants, likes the interactive aspects of writing for the Web. One of the biggest advantages Steiner sees is linking to outside sources. "This gives the reader the option to further explore a topic, or to judge an issue or expert for themselves," says Steiner.
But you can sometimes have too much of a good thing. "Using links to other pages and information is great," says John Kroll, News Impact editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "But watch out for passages that get too dense with links. I think that can affect readers almost as much as an article that's too long. And make your links obvious--I shouldn't have to guess at what kind of information I'll be getting when I click."
Morrill offers an additional reminder about links. "When typing out a Web address or e-mail that happens to end a sentence, I don't put in the usual period at the end of the sentence. People may accidentally include that with the URL or email."
Kroll says one big difference with online writing involves the reader. "Feedback is much easier, whether through comments or email. Read it all with a thick but not impenetrable skin. If you notice comments that show readers misunderstood your point, don't dismiss them. Look over the article to try to figure out where they went wrong, and how you could have rewritten that passage to make it clearer or less open to misinterpretation."
Print journals cover the gamut of human interests, from trade and technical publications to women's glossies to tabloids. A writer must tailor his or her approach to a print publication's market, and the same holds true for the Web. Maggie Votteler has learned to diversify. "I've been trained in writing for psychological journals, and the American Psychological Association Manual is really rather huge and extremely detailed with hundreds of rules about each and every character and space. So I got used to not using contractions and typing out his or her instead of his/her. Votteler, who also writes the Tori Amos blog under the pen name Maggie V. for 451press.com, adapted to switching horses midstream, tossing out "hundreds of other rules" when she wrote a blog or other Web related material for a mass audience.
Aside from increasing your opportunities, honing Web skills brings a creative bonus. Writing for the Web is a new frontier in journalism, not unlike the same frontier Samuel Pepys bridged when he penned his famous diaries from 1659-1669. His personal remarks and observations culminated in a work that is very much like the blogs of today--except, of course, Pepys's work was on paper.
Writers have more opportunity than ever to sell and publish their words. But technology brings challenges alongside those opportunities. Writers who tread the frontier of cyberspace will need to learn and develop in keeping with technology as well as the reader.
Votteler says she enjoys writing works for publications related to psychology. "But I'm also finding that it's helping me to challenge myself again in another way to break those old habits and just write what I think."
Tips on type
Stephen Morrill cautions writers to refrain from going overboard with typefaces. Choices are limited. "Don't get fancy," he says. "The Web supports only nine for cross-platform, universal acceptance in body text."
Times New Roman
Online writing school directed by Steve Morrill, offering approximately 60 courses.
Must Read Business Books at All Business
Online column by Nettie Hartsock. The column is syndicated to the San Francisco Examiner, CBS News Online and several other media outlets.
Independent trade publication for online merchants; edited by Ina Steiner.
The Plain Dealer
Ohio's largest newspaper; News Impact editor John Kroll offered advice for our column.
Tori Amos Fan Blog
A 451press.com blog by Maggie Votteler, writing as Maggie V.
Cyber Journalist: A Dozen Online Writing Tips
Tips from expert Jonathan Dube, publisher of Cyber Journalist.
--August 7, 2007
With an eye on international connections, my next column features an interview with Diana Rohini LaVigne, online editor of India Life and Style and India West. LaVigne will offer tips and insights on editing a global publication.