Why writing for the Web is not writing for printing

Introduction

Writing for paper printing has been developed and improved throughout centuries while Web writing is rather a new field. Adapting rules from the traditional writing to the Web should be done with care.

The basic Web writing rule is to respond to the readers’ needs and expectations and help them understand the text, which is online and comes on a screen and not on paper. Experts say that if writers apply this rule their text message reaches the readers.

A metaphor on Web writing, computer graphic authored by former student

A metaphor on Web writing, computer graphic authored by former student

I wrote my first piece of text for the Web 20 years ago. By that time I was unaware of the Web writing methodology. Later on I learned that the methodology is based on the inverted pyramid principle. This is a key metaphor, which comes from the press release methodology. It means placing the most important or captivating point of the text on top of the page to catch the reader’s attention.

Good Web writing indeed appeals to readers. As on screen reading is a common activity nowadays, Web writers should focus their work on making the reading a pleasure and not a reason of dissatisfaction. A solution would be to simplify and concentrate ideas in a brief text, without loosing the core text meaning.

A writer works on his text having in mind a primary and often a secondary audience. On the Web an intended or non-intended audience may “interact with it in novel ways that have no precedents in paper document design” (Lynch and Horton, 2002, p.11).

Everybody agrees that producing, publishing and maintaining text on the Web is cheaper than on paper. The Web text can be accessed immediately and takes advantage of search engines. A Web text may also affect users’ language acquisitions. Therefore linguists and educationalists insist on publishing Web text, which is a model of language accuracy and expression.

Writing

Experts recommend Web writers to follow four phases while working on a Web text: preparation, drafting, revising and editing, and publishing.

1. Preparation

Identifying the purpose of a piece of text and its audience are key steps in defining the content. Writers may use a mind map or a diagram as a mental image of what is expected or appropriate in a given situation (Burnett, 2001, p.49). They also may bear in mind Schriver’s comment that professionals may never consider the reader as a comprehender who engages with the document moment by moment (1997, p.197).

If the audience of a Web text is already identified it is worth testing it by involving a group of readers and asking them to contribute with their feedback. Such a phase could be scheduled between drafting and revising the content.

2. Drafting

Some writers start by drafting the text typing it in a word processor, while some others write on paper and then transfer it to a computer. Waiting for ideas, both a blank screen and a blank sheet of paper may produce a sort of inhibition for many writers while some others may start writing quite easily.

Experts in the field argue that plain language means good writing, if six basic rules are followed:

  • never use a metaphor or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
  • never use a long word where a short one will do
  • if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
  • never use the passive where you can use the active
  • never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word, if you can think of an everyday language equivalent.

Paragraphing the text for the Web does not follow the same rules as for printing. It is recommended to split the text in smaller units with adequate headings and subheadings to allow the reader get a quick idea about the content by moving easily within the text. Good headings and subheadings must be short, straight and catchy to captivate reader attention. Keeping sentences simple also helps Web readers to focus on their main purpose of finding the information they need.

3. Revising and editing

Revising a text means checking the logical sequences of the text and looking for possible improvements. Editing is more complex and requires polishing and making the text more concise. This is a difficult activity even for experienced writers, but a suitable solution for such moments might be changing the roles: the writers can imagine being in the readers’ shoes. From this perspective, some improvements might be easily done. Another solution to see with other “eyes” the text is to read it after a few days.

Editing also means rephrasing unclear sentences or paragraphs and then proofreading the final text. This could be done either on a computer screen or on a paper.

Sharples (1999, p.57) explains the difference between using a screen and paper when writing:

What neither the typewriter nor the pen provides is the means for the text to be easily revised. The writer fixes an impression on the page. Paper is flexible (literally and metaphorically) but the marks on paper are hard to move or delete. By contrast the computer word processor allows words to be shifted or revised at will. However, with a word processor, the writer’s view of the text is restricted to a small window on a large document, making it difficult to gain a good ‘sense of the text’.

While revising and editing, a writer should consider that on screen reading is more difficult than reading from paper and the Web readers may get bored facing a longer and complicated text.

Writing in plain language should be a good choice, since it has been proved by research that writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a cooperative, motivated person a good chance of understanding the documents at first reading, and the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood (Cutts, 1996, p.3).

Texts for international audiences should incorporate a wider but not a localised perspective. Diversity throughout the world means the more the information is internationalised, the less a reader has to localise.

4.Publishing

According to experts on the Web the most suitable font faces are the sans serif family (Arial, Verdana) while for paper printing is the opposite font face family, the serif.

Conclusions

A writer for the Web always bears in mind that on screen reading requires special effort from the reader’s eyes and brain. That happens because the screen replaces the paper, the traditional reading support. This drawback appears to be softened by the latest reading devices, which bring closer both paper and screens. When online, most of the people do not read, they scan the text, by looking for specific keywords to find the information they need.

References

Burnett R.E. (2003) Technical Communication, Harcourt Publishers
Coe M. (1996) Human Factors for Technical Communication, Wiley
Cutts M. (1995) Plain English Guide, Oxford University Press
Lynch J. and Horton S. (1999) Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites, Yale University Press
Sharples M. (1999) How we write: writing as creative design, Routledge

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