The unexploited craft of Web writing
By David Walker (Google profile)
Consider for a moment the Web's most under-explored craft - Web writing. It seems incredible that so few people have taken the time to examine how the medium of today's Web might be affecting the written word, and how the written word might best adapt to the new medium. Yet in all the many books on Web design, writing for the Web usually rates only a cursory mention.
Literary theorists have long predicted that hypertext would dramatically alter writing. But their predictions have born little resemblance to the Web that has actually grown up in the past decade. Back in the early days of the Web, around 1994, pioneer hypertext theorists were predicting that the arrival of hypertext would change the very substance of writing. George Landow foretold the rise of hypertext fiction, in which storytelling would lose its "linearity", stories might have dozens of possible outcomes and the readers would play a more active part in their own experience. Instead, the Web hypertext flood since then has shown just how doggedly readers insist on the domination of the author and the linear story.
So now, without non-linear hypertext or even that much multimedia content, what exactly do we have? Certainly, we have a lot of words. But they're a different type of words, being absorbed in a very different fashion than printed material is absorbed. These words are still telling stories. But rather than changing the form of information, the Web has instead changed the scale of information. That change was not well-predicted, and has not been well addressed.
Our three-year flood of Web texts has brought us more than 100 million Web pages. They could be any length, yet most of them run no longer than the average newspaper story. The longer ones are often chopped up into pieces (sometimes to ensure we see more ads). We take in much more textual information, but we take it in much smaller pieces.
How small have our texts become? Some of the Web's most valuable information comes in slices no more than a paragraph long, in the precious illumination of a well-written review of a well-selected site described on the pages of a good Web catalogue such as Britannica.com or the Google directory. In today's flood of Web information, we seek concision more than ever before. And as knowledge splinters into ten thousand tiny specialisations, we seek glossaries, overviews, "help screens", the ability to fit the small facts into a wider picture.
As readers, we search for concision not just because we can have so much but because we struggle to get much at all. The difficulties of screen reading often force readers to print items out rather than absorb them as pixels. And the dynamic environment of the Web encourages visitors to forget what they saw just minutes earlier, making the fight for attention becomes even tougher. As Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen has pointed out, Web page visitors don't read: they scan, searching for nuggets of useful, credible knowledge amid the info-torrent. The Web writer must cater to that behaviour. To quote Nielsen at length:
Web pages have to employ scannable text, using
- highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
- meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
- bulleted lists
- one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
- the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion.
- half the word count (or less) than conventional writing
Perhaps most difficult of all, the Web writer faces the task of linking together pieces of prose, each on different screens, and turning them into a coherent whole. As Nielsen neatly puts it, "writing is a user interface". Though the Web's all-powerful technologists would rather not say so, writing is in fact the most powerful interface the medium has. It is also the most misunderstood element of the giant Web hypertext system we have now created.
So we go on placing more and more value on forms of writing that have traditionally been seen as the preserve of newspaper sub-editors and advertising copywriters. Yet while we value it more and more, we're reluctant to discuss it even as a craft, let alone an art.