Writing for the Web


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A short course on how to improve your writing for web pages.

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  • Research into how people use the Web repeatedly shows that words used on a website are crucial to its success. It seems obvious when you think about it. Yet we are so preoccupied with the colour, the design, the links and the layout that the question ‘What is the site going to say?’ is often the last thing we consider.
    Tracking software can pinpoint the place and the time at which a site loses its users, the failures can often be attributed to poorly organised information or unclear writing.
    The web is a demanding medium for writers. You have a few seconds in which to get the user’s interest and you can lose it very quickly. You have to organised your material quite different from the way you would for a printed publication, and your product is never finished.
  • Today I’m going to help you understand the medium you are writing for and meet those demands.
    I will take you through the process of writing for the web step by step, giving you techniques for tackling individual tasks, useful examples of what works and what doesn’t and a reminder of the basic rules of written English.
    Firstly I will look at the characteristics of the web as a medium. Looking at the way the website works and what it means for writers.
    Secondly, we will address our audience
    Finally we will spend some time considering the rules for writing for the web
  • Look at a book, and then look at the home page of the website on this screen.
    With the book, the whole thing is there in your hand.
    One glance at the cover, and the size and shape of it tells you what kind of book it is.
    You can thumb through more than 150 pages in less than a minute to see whether it is what you want. If you look for something in particular, it will probably take you a couple of minutes to find and read the words you want.
    Compare that with the website on screen.
    When you look at the home page, you have no idea how many pages there are and only a vague idea of what sort of site it is.
    Once you start looking you can usually see only one page at a time.
    You can’t scan through it, or see the whole page.
    With a website, you depend on the site itself to tell you where you are and how to find your way around.
    So the organisation of the site and the words it uses to explain itself are crucial.
    A website is potentially infinite and can grow and change all the time.
  • A website does not work in straight lines.
    You can dip in and out of a book, or read it in a different order, but it is written with a beginning a middle and an end. Pages are numbered in sequence and there is an index at the back.
    A website has a sort of beginning in the form of a homepage, but there is not guarantee that that’s the page you will see first.
    When you arrive at a page it has no page numbers, you rely on the site itself to tell you where you are.
    So the Web is a demanding medium to write for.
  • You usually go to the web for a purpose. It’s not like flicking through a magazine at Borders. Particularly when you are at a government website.
    You want information, to buy something, to ask advice, to exchange views or make contact with someone.
    You are sitting at a desk using a keyboard
    You are active and purposeful.
    If one site does not give you something, theoretically you have the choice of several hundred million others.
    When you write for a website, you are competing with millions for the attention of the user.
  • A user can demand something at any time of day or night.
    A website has no time of broadcast, time of going to print or day or publication.
    For the user, it exists the moment they want it. Because websites can be changed or updated at any time, users tend to expect that it will be.
    This is another reason why people are impatient when they surf the web and they want the information NOW.
  • Once they are in a site, they can choose where to go.
    They don’t necessarily start at the home page. They don’t necessarily choose the first link that is offered. They may follow several links or none at all.
    The possibilities are huge because, unlike a radio program or a book, a website is non-linear, and does not have a beginning, a middle and an end.
    This means that on each page the identity of the site must be clear, and the user should be made aware of how the page relates to the rest of the site.
  • A good case in point is writing a summary for a page. This is essentially a snapshot of the page. It might pop up in the search engine on google.
    It is not a teaser. So it needs to be direct, to the point. No marketing speak. You tell the user what to expect.
    Link text should
    Make sense when read out of context
    Inform the user about document formats and sizes
    Warn users when a new or pop-up window will open
  • Now we deal with the first question you should ask yourself before you write anything: Who is it for?
  • To write effectively you need to understand your readers – who they are, why they come to the site and what’s important to them.
  • So, who’s online in Australia?
    A study released this month by Nielsen indicates that Australians are using online more and more...up to 17.6 hours per week.
    Internet is the preferred source of information, has best access to opinion and is the most trusted source of information.
  • And more and more Australians are using the internet to deal with government.
    Thinking about the contacts you’ve had with government agencies over past 12 months, what proportion of these took place over the internet?
  • If you are in your 20s-40s: three times more likely to deal with government online than all other ways
  • As a government department, we cater for all different types of users.
  • So who’s the user?
    Joe Smith from the office who wants to find out about court procedures?
    Sarah Left who wants information about a Working with Children check>
    Or the group of grannies looking for information about public safety?
    There are many different users of DOJ website.
    Most of them are local, most of them are Australian.
  • So we’ve figured out our audience, let’s take a look at how to reach them...
    Aside from Deborah’s dating advice, she makes 2 really good points here
    Write with the reader in mind
    Use benefit statements
    While we are not a corporation selling a solution to a problem, government are most definitely solving people’s problems.
    And there is no reason why government shouldn’t consider themselves a corporation anyway.
    So firstly 1. what problems are we solving for visitors to the DOJ website?
    2. How can we draw into the content, and make it relevant to them?
  • Studies show that users are mostly coming to the site to access information about
    Departments services
    particular policy or legislation
    Many sites often start by saying “Here we are, This is our mission statement, here’s a photograph of our building”. Who cares? The first question a user asks of a website is ‘What will it do for me?’ and your task as a Web writer is to answer that question and every other question you think the user will ask.
    Rather than just writing key messages that you or your manager wants you to say, when you are given content to write – what the end result is – what is the end-user hoping to get out of this?
    Now that you know why they are coming, it’s important you speak to them in a language they understand.
  • You want to write in a way that as many people as possible will understand. It should not need to be read more than once.
    Poor writing may mean in the end, the user gives up and goes elsewhere.
  • You should not need to be an insider to understand a government report. It is in our interest to communicate successfully with the public, as they need to understand the documents if they are to make informed decisions. Government are especially fond of acronyms, it’s important that you write under the assumption the user knows nothing about the issue at hand.
  • While you don’t want to use inside lingo like government talk , it’s important to still have a measureof good business writing online, and not tip the other end of the scales and be too familiar.
    Good business writing means writing in the standard register.
    Registers are styles of language we adopt in particular situations. These can be plotted on a scale from formal to informal.
    Formal register is used for legal documents, academic research results, official inquiries – it is the hallmark of distance between participants, and the writer addresses the reader from a lofty height.
    Standard register is a neutral style of communication, and makes no assumptions about the readers knowledge and informs them fully.
    Informal register, is basically like talking to a friend. This writing style implies closeness between reader and writer, assumes familiarity and common knowledge so things don’t need to be explained in full.
  • If you look at a government example of all the different types of style register, it should be obvious that using standard register combines easy, everyday language without going to far overboard into informal.
    You should aim for this balance in all your content writing.
  • Now that you’ve considered both the web and your audience – the first rule of web writing is be concise.
    Every word on a website must justify itself. The space on a screen is limited, you have very little time to get your message across and the user is impatient. Your aim should be say what you have to say in as few words as possible.
    Check that every word is working
  • Using the active voice is a great tip for being concise, you can say the same thing in fewer words.
    Again, we must stress that fewer words for the web this is particularly important, where space is at a premium.
    The active voice is also less ambiguous than the passive.
    Writing in the active voice means constructing sentences where the subject “acts”:
    I threw the ball.
    You are making too much noise.
    Ben will eat popcorn and watch a movie tomorrow evening.
    In each of these sentences, the subject (I, You and Ben) performs the action of the verb (threw, making, will watch). The sentences are punchy, direct and make it clear who’s doing what.
  • Writing in the passive voice means constructing sentences where the subject is “passive” – acted upon, rather than agents of action.
    Sentences often become confusing or simply dull.
    The ball was thrown by me.
    Too much noise is being made by you.
    Tomorrow evening, popcorn will be eaten and a movie will be watched by Ben.
  • It only takes users 4 seconds to assess whether your page is what they are looking for.
    Don’t believe me?
    Let’s take a look at this video which explains how users read websites.
    Users are not going to be reading your content word for word, so make sure it is scannable
  • So it’s clear that users scan pages on a website rather than reading every word.
    How can we take advantage of this?
    Eye-tracking research suggests they scan a page in an F patttern: they read from the left across some of the text near the top, then down the left, reading across perhaps one more line and then scanning down the left hand side.
  • You have an area less than half the size of the screen to write in
    Your text should be no more than half the width of screen – use headings and bullet points to make your content scannable
    The prime position is left of centre near the top – most important information goes here – which leads us on to the style of writing
  • The Inverted Pyramid reverses the workflow of the traditional academic method, by putting the essential information first, which it follows with further detail. The quick overview helps the reader get the point and purpose of a page instantly, letting the user make a quick judgement whether to read on for a bit more detail.
    Journalists have long adhered to the inverse approach: start the article by telling the reader the conclusion ("After long debate, the Assembly voted to increase state taxes by 10 percent"), follow by the most important supporting information, and end by giving the background. This style is known as the inverted pyramid for the simple reason that it turns the traditional pyramid style around. Inverted-pyramid writing is useful for newspapers because readers can stop at any time and will still get the most important parts of the article.
    On the Web, the inverted pyramid becomes even more important since we know from several user studies that users don't scroll,(*) so they will very frequently be left to read only the top part of an article. Very interested readers will scroll, and these few motivated souls will reach the foundation of the pyramid and get the full story in all its gory detail.
  • So what happens when you can’t make your text short and sweet?
    We know that larger blocks of text making reading on screens difficult.
  • You can see we break up the text to make it easier to take in.
    And still the inverted pyramid method of writing is put into practice.
    This idea means 50% less words used than you would do in print
    Also note other methods of breaking up longer text:
    Bold text and italics to break up the information.
    Use subheadings and bullets to separate text and ideas.
    Bullet points: The bullet is a powerful visual device but not necessarily the right choice for every kind of information.
    Make sure the information you put in a bulleted list is really important
  • Must remember that if you want to highlight some aspects of your content, you must use the DOJ Style Guide
  • Writing for the Web

    1. 1. Online Writing Skills 18 March 2010 Department of Justice
    2. 2. Who am I? Digital Strategist, Strategic Communications Branch All things social media
    3. 3. I’m also...a world traveller
    4. 4. ...a snowboarder
    5. 5. B.Com Graduate
    6. 6. Writing for online It’s the that matterwords
    7. 7. Today • PART 1: What’s so special about the web • PART 2: Our audience • PART 3: Thinking about writing
    8. 8. What’s so special about the Web?
    9. 9. A website does not work in straight lines.
    10. 10. Users are active! When you write for a website, you are competing with millions for the attention of the user.
    11. 11. Anytime, anywhere Users expect the information to be updated
    12. 12. Make your identity clear
    13. 13. Lessons so far 1. A website does not work in straight lines 2. People go to the Web for a purpose 3. There are millions of sites competing for users attention Lesson: Every part of your site must explain itself and its relationship to the whole Lesson: Think of what the user is hoping to get from your site rather than what you want to say. Lesson: tell the user what you are offering straight away and be clear about it
    14. 14. Part 2 Our audience
    15. 15. Part 2 • Know your audience •Speak to them in their language •Understand what they want
    16. 16. So who’s online in Australia? •Average Australian internet user spends 17.6 hours per week online •Internet is the preferred source of information, has best access to opinion and is the most trusted source of information. •Heaviest users of the internet: 16 to 29 years (22 hours per week) •30 to 49-year-olds (18.2 hours per week) •Over 50s (15.5 hours online per week)
    17. 17. More and more Australians are using the internet to deal with government 43 59 77 53 61 74 55 55 70 43 54 64 28 40 49 10 15 19 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+ 2004-2005 2006 2007 Australians' Use of and Satisfaction with e-Government Services - 2007 - Department of Finance and Deregulation
    18. 18. 3 x more likely to deal with government online than all other ways
    19. 19. Cater for all different types of user
    20. 20. So who’s the user?
    21. 21. Writing with the reader in mind Speak their language & solve their problem
    22. 22. Why are they coming to DOJ?
    23. 23. Speak to them in their language FAIL
    24. 24. DOJ JEC SCAM WoVG
    25. 25. Use standard register Formal Informal OMG LOL
    26. 26. Formal: In discussions yesterday, the Federal Cabinet focused on the formulation of amendments to workers’ compensation legislation Standard: Cabinet ministers yesterday discussed how to word changes to the laws on workers compensation. Informal: Yesterday, Canberra pollies worked on the new comp.
    27. 27. (more) lessons so far 4. More and more Australians are using online to connect with government 5. Speak to them in their language when communicating online Lesson: Use everyday language and get rid of jargon Lesson: You need to know your audience 6. ...But good business writing still applies Lesson: Write in the standard register
    28. 28. Part 3 : Thinking about writing • Concise • Scannable • Pyramid Writing
    29. 29. Be concise! TIPS •Cut unnecessary words •Use a shorter word over a longer one •Cut unnecessary phrases •Use the active voice •Try writing it on your iPhone!
    30. 30. Use active voice I threw the ball. You are making too much noise. Ben will eat popcorn and watch a movie tomorrow evening
    31. 31. vs. Passive voice I threw the ball. You are making too much noise. Ben will eat popcorn and watch a movie tomorrow evening The ball was thrown by me. Too much noise is being made by you. Tomorrow evening, popcorn will be eaten and a movie will be watched by Ben.
    32. 32. Use active voice • Sentences are usually shorter. • More direct communication style. • Bring actions to life. • Less ambiguous than the passive voice
    33. 33. It only takes users 4 seconds to assess whether your page is what they are looking for
    34. 34. Scannability Users don’t read your content word for word
    35. 35. Using the f-pattern • Use headings and bullet points to make your content scannable • Most important information goes at the TOP of the page
    36. 36. Help! I’m writing a really long text
    38. 38. Emphasis • bold • italics • underlining • coloured text • block capitals Use carefully. Only use for legislation or publication titles. Don’t use – people will think it’s a link. Don’t use online – it can difficult to read. DON’T USE – IT’S LIKE SHOUTING!
    39. 39. The DOJ Writing Style guide Found on J-Net at: DOJ Style guide Use it!
    40. 40. Final lessons learnt Lesson: Use the active voice Lesson: Take advantage of the F-pattern and break up your content Lesson: structure inverted pyramid writing 8. Users scan pages rather than reading every word 7. Because information is limited to the screen, be concise 9. Most important information should go at the top
    41. 41. Summary steps Ask yourself... 1. What is the purpose of this page? 2. Who is it for? 3. How will you break it up into easily scannable text? Remember to use meaningful headings, bulleted lists and links.
    42. 42. Thank you And remember… Your website is only as good as its content