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Writing for the Web, Part II

By Jack Powers

Published: May 15, 1996

This article is adapted from Powers' seminar on Writing for Interactive Media.

In Part I, I described some of the differences between writing for traditional print formats and writing for World Wide Web pages. You can't just "re-purpose" printed pages onto an interactive computer screen. The web's lack of structure and intense competition for attention require authors to telegraph their narrative intentions and to trust the readers to navigate through stories in their own ways.

An ace salesman once told me his trick for crafting his sales pitch: at the end of every sentence, he imagined his prospect saying, "So what?" Too many home pages fail the "So what?" test: nobody cares about their subjects or cares to invest the effort to wade through the obtuse way they present their points of view. In the Information Age, the dearest commodity is the attention of an audience, and good web writing compels that attention in the first few lines.


On the web, before you can compel your reader's attention you have to deal with his robot first. Robotic search programs like Lycos and Alta Vista constantly scan new pages on the web and build public directories of searchable key words. Personal search robots and algorithmic information agents do the same thing for companies and individuals. As the web expands from 2 billion pages today to 200 billion pages in the near future, readers will come to rely on their cybernetic librarians to cut through the clutter and serve up only the most interesting files. If your pages don't contain the keywords that the robots are looking for, the reader will never even see them.


Once it's gotten past the robots, a web page should fully utilize the unique features of computer-delivered text. New media has six key advantages over old media—customization, timeliness, comprehensiveness, searchability, economy and transaction—and successful interactive authors exploit these advantages in their copy.

Customization lets the reader change the way the story is presented, from simple effects like viewing only heads and subheads to navigational tricks like hyperlinking to algorithmic editorial features that change the text of the story depending on the reader's preferences. Algorithmic advertising in some web magazines is already changing the ads based on the reader's previous clicks, and new "HTML-on-the-fly" database packages offers similar routines that can warp the narrative to the reader's perspective.

Timeliness is one of the principal features of on-line systems, and there's no excuse anymore for publishing text that is not completely up-to-date. The editorial effect of very timely information is very compelling: with live cameras that pump seconds-old photos over the net, with continually updated stories on newspaper and magazine pages, with instantaneous weather, finance and sports data, the Internet pulsates with living content. Some web designers claim that a good site must have new copy every day; a few demand try to incorporate updates every few hours.

Comprehensiveness means that there are fewer space restrictions on-line than on press. In the web versions of magazines like Science and The Atlantic Monthly, stories and illustrations that couldn't fit into the printed pages find their way to the reader on-line. Multimedia formats like sound, animation and video are also included to round out the type and art. And on-line archives of newspapers, magazines and reference works give readers access to mountains of raw data that completes the story.

Mountains of raw data, of course, are only helpful if the interactive author includes techniques for searchability, one of the most powerful editorial features of the web. Link a comprehensive body of information to a strong search engine and the reader can take full control over the text. The reader can retrieve nuggets of data by asking, for example, "Tell me when Napoleon died." Much more importantly, the comprehensive searchable text can be used as an inference engine to look at the data in different ways: "Who was born the day Napoleon died? Who else died that day in history? What was the weather like in France? Who was President of the United States? " and so on. A good interactive text builds in the search fields and query features that will help a reader study the information from many different perspectives.

Economy is more a business advantage than an editorial feature, but the growing interest in buying information on a "pay-per-view" basis is putting pressure on editors to package data in more salable bites. Readers no longer want to subscribe to the $2,000 per year technical journal, they'd rather pay $200 just for the May issue or maybe just $50 for the main feature articles or—if they could get away with it—pay $3.50 for the first paragraph of the abstract.

Transaction, the ability of the interactive text to ask questions of the reader, is by far the most important innovation of new media. Transaction makes it possible for readers to participate in the creation of the page. Web-based magazines regularly invite readers to comment on the articles they've just read in a bulletin board format, and it's not uncommon to see a 1,200 word magazine story followed by 2,400 words of reader discussion. After reading the copy in a web catalog, the reader can push a button and order the product instantly. And the latest web plug-ins let writers add video game elements to their narratives.

Just as screenwriting is different from magazine reporting, writing and editing for the web has its own limitations and its own unique opportunities. We're just beginning to understand the full power of this new communications medium, but it's a lot more than shoveling "re-purposed" print pages onto the net.\\

See Writing for the Web, Part I



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