At what point does a print writer become a writer for the Web? I suppose it's when the writer publishes words on a Web site, but if we agree to use that definition most of us are Web writers. Is it really that easy?
Follow this white rabbit, Alice, and let me untangle a part of the Web for you. There are just as many resources about writing for the Web hidden on the Internet as there are writing "experts" circling the globe with slide show presentations trying to convince you their online writing tools are the best for $200/hr. What do they all have in common? They know the basics, and this is what you'll find here. Keep in mind the Internet is only a few years old, and there are not that many experts in this field.
Scenario #1 - Brief: Not just an undergarment
You've been asked to write for an online publication about a topic in which you excel or have an interest. The flow of the article is golden. You have your opening phrase and headline. Your groundbreaking conclusion is going to make readers love you, but you're staring at 2,000 words wondering if it's too much.
The answer is yes. Cut, cut, cut. Writing for the Web means you must be succinct and write no more than 50% of the text you would have used in a hardcopy publication. Your editor should provide you with a word limit, but if not, use your noodle (the one attached to your shoulders that is). If the article looks lengthy, it probably is too long. Take for example my opening sentence. The no-no version read, "Writing for print publications is nothing new, but writing for the Web is less familiar. We all struggle to keep up with the times, but when do we know we are there? When do we become Web writers?" I cut that sentence down from 38 words to 13. Brevity is as key as knowing your audience. Reading on a computer is drastically slower, about 25-30%. If your audience is like most, you'll also be hard pressed to have them scroll down the page looking for your conclusions. Look for high resolution monitors to make reading online easier in the coming years. Until then, keep it simple, sister.
Scenario #2 - Scannability Jedi
You are Luke Skywalker. Your friend and teacher, Yoda, has asked you to write an essay on the values of being a Jedi Knight in a land far, far away. This information will be published on the Web (work with me here) and you've mastered the tactic of brevity. You have a 900-word limit, and an android. What do you do?
If you can't get the android to write it for you, turn him off and prepare yourself to write with scannability in mind. The idea of scannability for the Web takes into account few people enjoy reading articles on their computer screen. I personally don't mind if the author is brief, but it might be a while before I'm snuggling up to my laptop to read the online version of Gone With The Wind. Usability studies have been performed on Web users that determined readers skim more than they read. To aid the skimmers, use meaningful headlines and subheadings to break up long strains of text (just look at my fine headers for each new scenario). One school of thought is to not use "cute" headers. If you can convey the subject of a paragraph with humor, do it. You can also include highlighted words and hypertext to emphasize words or phrases. The use of the pull-quote is still at your discretion. Be sure to use them sparingly and follow all the normal rules for pull-quoting your way to a Pulitzer.
Scenario #3 - Ritalin is no Cure for Hypertext
Now that brevity and scannability have become your closest friends, and now you are faced with the insatiable need to include textual links (hypertext). You've placed them into the article, but realized just before you hit "send" on the E-mail to your editor, you realize your entire 2000-word masterpiece is blue and underlined. You don't have an android, so what are you going to do?
Go to Monster.Com and look for a new job, or if your editor is forgiving, you need to get on a hypertext diet. One small hypertext for lunch and a sensible dinner should suffice. What you should have done is realized you can decrease your text by not sacrificing your depth of content. Try splitting information into multiple sections connected by hypertext. If you're providing footnotes, link it. If you're telling readers they can find more information at SomeResource.Com then hyperlink the words. But be careful, this is a Catch-22 (added in memory of the late Joseph Heller). If you include hypertext you run the risk of linking people off your page with no guarantee they will return. There is technology available to prevent this, but it does have some consequence to readers. For example, hypertext can trigger a browser to open a new window to a new URL, leaving the jump-off page intact and visible. The downside is the readers URL history gets interrupted (I personally find this acceptable in the war to keep a users attention).
You should see now the transition of a print author to a Web writer is as easy as opening an Internet connection. In contrast, the point at which a print author becomes a SKILLED Web writer is marked by individual practice, attention to detail and self-education. This article by no means possesses everything you need to know about writing for the Web. If you have additional interest on this topic, send IntrepidMedia an E-mail for a second article.
I bet you're dying to see how peeking under Yoda's sack-robe can help you balance your use of graphics and text, aren't you?