Writing for the web

In my previous incarnation as a study skills teacher (2012-2014), I used to do a lesson or two on digital literacy, which meant getting the students to think about how they use the web as a source of information. A typical task would be to read Howard Rheingold’s Crap Detection 101, Tara Brabazon on the Google Effect (paywall), and then do some research activity requiring a critical reading of information on the web. One activity that worked fairly well was to get students to read this article from the Independent, then cross-check as much of the data mentioned as possible.

This was all very well, but clearly neglected the idea that literacy is reading and writing. For all my focus on digital literacy, the work was always more about reading the web rather than writing for it. Admittedly, writing was a core part of the study skills course, but the style there was always writing-for-teacher: present a thesis and support it with argument and evidence.

In most respects, writing for the web is a lot like writing-for-teacher. You want it to be clear and concise, with good spelling, grammar and punctuation. However, there are some important differences.

1. People reading on the web are impatient

Probably even more than teachers marking your essay. Putting most blog posts and journalism aside, readers on the web are frequently on a hunt for a specific piece of information. If that information is hidden in a large block of text, it’s likely that they will skim read the text. With a bit of effort, they’ll find what they want. If not, their itchy trigger finger will click them away to greener pastures.

Two solutions to this:

(a) Cut informative writing right down to the bare minimum;

(b) Use subheadings and bold text to help people skim read more easily.

2. Links

Using in-line links is good sometimes, but you need to be aware of how they catch the reader’s eye. Take a look at the first paragraph of this blog post, and the three items that catch your eye are probably the three links. This can be a little distracting, though the effect varies depending on how the links are styled.

Writing good links is art form and typically not something you learn in school or at university. If you want to learn more about this, I’d recommend:

But really, the most important skill you need when writing links is empathy. The link text needs to be as informative and as unambiguous as possible. My two rules for good links are that they’re clearly clickable (i.e. underlined and/or a different colour), and predictable. No surprises please. If clicking that link is going to start downloading something, I want to know before I click it. Otherwise: I become irritated. And then I have to delete that thing from my downloads folder at some point.

3. People don’t read the pages of a website in a fixed order

Context is important for understanding a piece of writing, but on the web, it can be hard to help a reader establish this context. They might start on your home page and work their way down to the page you’re writing, in which case you can hold their hand a bit… or they might reach the page after searching for something on Google, in which case they can feel dropped in at the deep end.

To deal with this, you need to help users who have arrived via search to establish what context they’re in. This is usually done by:

  • A site header that tells the reader which site they’re on
  • A breadcrumb trail of links that tells them where they are in the site hierarchy
  • (Sometimes) the author’s name and a link to more information about who they are
  • Date of posting

Of course, these are all fairly common practice, and the web’s a better place for it. The contextual problem which won’t go away is jargon.

Jargon is the language of insiders; that is, it makes sense within its context. It’s got a bad reputation, but sometimes jargon is good, because it helps insiders to accurately name specific things. Maybe a less pejorative name for it is “technical language”.

On the web, you’re usually writing for outsiders, so the standard advice is to avoid jargon. The trouble is, by avoiding jargon, you lose its accuracy, and you also risk misrepresenting what things are actually called. To give an example from the University of Edinburgh:

The University contains three Colleges, which are made up of Schools. Schools are divided into Subject Areas. You can do a four-year Degree Programme which consists of Courses, each worth a certain number of credits.

None of these concepts are strange, and none of the words are strange either. The thing you have to learn is which words refer to which concepts. When I started working at Edinburgh, I talked a bit about “Modules” because that was what people called them in my last job. People understood me, but when I started using this word in a communication to students, someone had to whisper in my ear, “You mean Courses”. I hit delete seven times and never uttered the word Modules again.

One of my current bugbears (which I’ve been tweeting about recently) is that institutions and companies often make you speak their language, when really, they should be speaking your language. As good as this sounds, it’s not much help when it comes to whether you talk about courses or modules on a university website. The decision’s already been made.

My advice: Plain English whenever possible, and a glossary for any jargon. And a bit of time for students on how to write for the web.

If you want to learn more about writing for the web, the UK Government Digital Service provide some good guidance here.

Image credit

The Writing Master by Thomas Eakin

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