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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Keep scanners in mind when designing Web text

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

 

 

How do you think of the typical online reader?

Do you imagine someone who is seated comfortably in a favorite reading chair – or perhaps stretched out in the backyard hammock with a cold glass of lemonade in hand – who has set aside the afternoon to hang on your every word. Or do you think of someone who may or may not give you a moment before moving on?

According to a study conducted by John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen (www.useit.com/papers/webwriting), 79 percent of online readers don’t read. They scan.

Nielsen, author of Designing Web Usability, offers four plausible reasons:

1. “Reading from computer screens is tiring for the eyes and about 25 percent slower than reading from paper.”

2. “The Web is a user-driven medium” that encourages users “to move on and click on things.”

3. Users, who have learned that most pages are not worth their time, rely on “information foraging.”

4. “Modern life is hectic.”

In other words, writing for online readers is like aiming at a moving target.

To complicate matters, you are using a medium that is at once slow and fast. Compared with flipping through a paper document, scrolling down a screen is awkward. And yet a Web page has no set boundaries, and moving through hyperlinked text is almost instantaneous.

Here’s how to compensate for the slowness of moving through online text while taking advantage of the speed of electronic navigation:

Create scannable text. As Nielsen advises, highlight keywords (both with color fonts and hypertext links); use meaningful – not clever – subheadings; present your points in bulleted lists; limit your paragraphs to one idea; use the inverted pyramid approach to present your conclusion first; and use half the words (or less) than conventional writing.

Use outbound hypertext links judiciously. Don’t send your reader away too soon. According to the Web Style Guide (http://info.med.yale.edu/caim/manual/contents.html), too many links can frustrate Web users, especially if the links are not maintained.

Don’t overdo your graphics. Resist the temptation to make your site glitzy rather than substantive. Irrelevant graphics and pointless animation are counterproductive.

According to John Vinton, Chair of the Management Division at Walden University, graphic design should be used to “enhance your message” rather than to “demonstrate the Web author’s virtuosity.”

Don’t neglect your text. According to Dale Dougherty, publisher of Web Review, “Graphics may get attention, but good writing rewards it” (http://webreview.com). Take the same care with your language as you would in submitting any article for publication.

Avoid errors in grammar, punctuation, usage, and spelling. Because “it is unclear who is behind information on the Web and whether a page can be trusted,” Nielsen argues, credibility is especially important for Web users. Don’t blow yours by posting unprofessional copy.

Write in a style that is conversational, straightforward, direct, lively, and emphatic. As Constance Hale urges in Wired Style, “Be bold. Be fast. Get to the point right away.”

According to Helen Mitternight in “Winning the Hearts – or at Least the Eyes – of the Online Audience,” (Communication World, Special Issue, March 1998), “The online style is like writing on caffeine – there is no time for long leisurely discourse.”

Don’t simply copy and post printed material. In Writing for the Web, Crawford Kilian warns against ignoring the inherent differences between printed and online media.

 

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