Signs of life for Web writing
By David Walker (Google profile)
In March 2000, Canadian writer and teacher Crawford Kilian delivered Writing for the Web (around $A18 plus shipping from Amazon). This thin and flatly-written 157-page volume will disappoint anyone hoping for a Web writing manifesto. Kilian brings no new research and an unimpressive bunch of case studies. But by making the case once again for caring about Web text, Kilian's book serves a useful purpose.
Pick up the Kilian nuggets
Many pages of the book are taken up with advice applicable to writing for any medium: understand your reader's viewpoint, use the "active voice", avoid relying on your spell checker. Devotees of that classic writers' how-to manual, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, will find a startling amount of familiar material. So will devotees of Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen and his Useit.com. A substantial slice of Kilian's book could well have been gathered off a handful of well-known Web sites.
But Kilian also makes a series of points that have been missed or underemphasised in discussions of Web writing to date:
- The Web demands your writing deliver "joltage". A former chief executive of the Fairfax newspaper group liked to compare the newspaper-reading experience to a warm bath. Web reading, by comparison, is a 30-second shower - get in, get the job done, wake you up, don't hang around. As Kilian puts it: "Computers condition us for high joltage. A 'jolt' is an emotional reward that follows a prescribed action ... We feel deprived if we don't get some sort of jolt at regular intervals, so we go where we hope to find more stimulation which, on the Web, means web sites."
- Beware old-style marketers who see the Web as another opportunity to pump a message at a commercial audience. In most media, the marketer hunts the customer down and delivers a broadcast or printed spiel that can be hard to avoid. On the Web, the customer comes looking for the transaction, with a million other sites a single mouse-click away. Research shows Web users are uncommonly likely to bolt at the sight of an old-style marketing pitch. A very few good Web marketers, on the other hand, already understand that the message of a commercial Web site must rely on a more subtle link with a brand's values.
- The Web suits "response" writing which prompts the user to carry out an activity. In the offline commercial world an entire marketing discipline - direct response copywriting - has evolved to offer users spcific benefits if they carry out particular actions. Indeed, the long-established rules of direct response advertising copywriting often look remarkably like Web writers need to import these direct response lessons, in just the same way that Web interface designers need to understand how to convince users to click on the appropriate screen buttons. "The Web is a culture of impatience," writes Kilian. "Effective appeals offer quick and painlesss ways to respond".
Killian could and should have given his readers more insights on issues like these, rather than recycling better-known guidelines. His book does not deserve recommendation. But it's nice to see Web writing getting some of the attention it deserves.