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Writing for the Web
Journalism, not preaching
Writing for the Web requires the style and gifts of the journalist, not the preacher. The Press has had more than 200 years to learn how to communicate effectively in print. Learn from them. Read books on journalistic writing. Observe the way newspapers and magazines tell stories. They know the rules for clear communication and keeping a reader’s interest. “These skills pertain equally to the Web. We need to grab attention fast!” says journalistic writing expert Marshall Cook.
If you are a preacher or an evangelist, sorry – you have some unlearning to do. Your gifts do not transfer directly to the Web!
Be a squirrelRead widely, especially secular newspapers and magazines. Useful material can come from the most unlikely places. Cut out and file away stories, illustrations and ideas – they will be useful as a basis for future articles. Facts, figures, quotes from famous (or infamous) people, testimonies, anything and everything. Keep a note-book to jot down useful information quotes and illustrations that you hear, or ideas that come to mind. It will be useful. Of course, you cannot use material word for word without permission. But remember, "Using one source is plagiarism, using two is research." Be aware of copyright issues for both printed material, photos, and (if you use them) music clips.
Although websites must be easy to navigate, no-one will stay on a site that is badly written. It has been said of the Web that “Content is king.” So let’s put the King in the content, and learn to write with as effective and readable style as we can. To become effective online communicators, we must also learn to be information architects.
There are many online resources to help us learn better writing. Consider writing classes too – these are often offered as evening studies in local education colleges. Maybe God will even call you into full-time journalism or script-writing – there is a big need for Christians in these areas.
Easy on the eyesIt is harder – and 25% slower – to read print from a computer monitor than on paper. If people cannot easily read a page, they will lose interest and leave. Help them by:
- short sentences, with active verbs rather than passive.
- short paragraphs – much shorter than would be used in print.
- lots of 'white space' around the text, with breaks between paragraphs, created by paragraph tags and/or CSS.
- use 'san-serif' fonts which are 20% faster to read on a computer monitor. Verdana is recommended, as it was designed for computer screens. Click here to convert this page to less-readable serif font, then try Arial. Then restore to Verdana, a font which was designed for computer screens. This site uses Verdana, and also specifies an increased line-spacing for added readability.
- using blocks of text that are less than a full screen in width. Ideally, aim for no more than 65 characters per line by using wide margins. Longer lines slow reading considerably.
- enticing, sometimes intriguing headings, which are not ‘preachy’.
- use frequent subheadings to break up text and draw the reader on.
- graphics which add interest to any page. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Learning moreThe Web is a different medium to print and requires a modified writing approach. Also take into account that the modern ‘Web 2.0’ is very much a two-way relationship-building medium, rather than one-way ‘broadcasting’. Read:
- Good Documents for valuable insights.
- Journalistic Writing – training guides from the BBC. Although some applies to writing for radio, there is the same need for clarity and brevity as on the Web.
- Writing for the Web – vital range of links from usability guru Jakob Neilsen.
- Writing with feeling - short valuable tips from Writer's Helper
- Books on web writing – see our reviews of useful books
Taking care of the strangerRealize that many visitors to an English-language site are second-language speakers from other countries. The resources from the Plain English Campaign are worth printing out for reference.
- Avoid idiom and slang from your country which others will not understand.
- Explain references to places and situations which only those in your country know.
- Aim for a simpler writing style. Avoid complicated words and sentence structure. This helps even first language speakers to read quickly. “We are not here to impress, but to express.” Use tools such as TextAlyser, or MS Word’s Readability Scores, to help simplify your writing.
- Assume zero Christian knowledge.
- Be aware that increasing numbers of people who are online come from oral communication cultures. Christians, being ‘people of the book’, tend to be very ‘bookish’, and expect to receive abstract information through the written word. Yet many (even in the West) read very few books and receive most of their information through radio and TV. Furthermore, the new digital communication culture we now live in is far more story-based. We need to think beyond a college-education ‘bookish’ frame of reference if we are to reach them.
- Many writers place a photo of a real or imaginary target reader on their desks. This helps to keep their writing focused. Jay’s thoughts represent an ‘everyperson’ that we can target in our writing.
- Our writing should be believable, and enable people to care about what we write, as Philip Larkin wrote when explaining his criteria for judging the 1977 Booker Prize.
Revise and edit, then revise some moreNever put a first draft of writing online. Revise and edit many times. It is usually possible to cut word-length by 25% or more, and increase clarity at the same time. Brevity is essential.
Ask other writers to critique your pages, and be humble enough to accept their advice. This is even more important if you are writing in a language which is not your primary birth language.
Also be aware that it is very easy to use language in all innocence, which may have unintended alternate jocular or double meanings. Ask younger street-wise people to check your writing for this.
Kill the typosOf course you should use spell-check! But this won’t find grammatical errors such as it’s (only ever means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ never ‘belonging to it’), and who’s ( which only ever stands for ‘who is’, never ‘belonging to [that person]’). Apostrophe with ‘s’ never means more than one of anything; it only ever means ‘belonging to’ or indicates a missing letter e.g. who’s. It is tempting to add an apostrophe to plurals of words that end in a vowel, become somehow they do not look ‘quite right’. But they are correct, so avoid banana’s, potato’s, video’s, apple’s to mean ‘more than one’). This applies to numbers and abbreviations too – 60s and CDs is correct, 60’s and CD’s (though commonly used) are not really OK. The only very rare times an apostrophe should be used for a plural is when the meaning would otherwise be totally confusing or meaningless, e.g. do’s and don’ts, yesses and no’s.
It is also very easy to confuse there with their or they’re; and theirs with there’s. (One possible trick is to delete these common words from your spell-check dictionary. Then they will always display as errors, so you can assess correct usage.)
It is also very easy to spell words wrong; see this list of common misspellings.
We can also easily use one word when we intend another, such as loose meaning ‘lose’, or affect/effect, assure/ensure/insure, farther/further, principal/principle, and other mistakes. These errors are one way to rob a web-page of credibility. Common Errors and Confusing Words are useful references.
HyphensHyphens are often under-used. They can link words together in a logical way. This is important where there are several adjectives which belong together. For instance:
The ticket is first class but The first-class ticketWithout the hyphen – and especially if the line breaks after the first adjective – meaning is temporarily lost. (And on the Web, unlike print, the point at which a line breaks to the next line is variable.) How would you punctuate the following, seen (without hyphens) on the side of a coach recently: high speed low cost coach travel?
That fact is well known but The well-known fact
For the same reason, it is probably better to hyphenate ‘no-one’.
By enclosing it in
<nobr> tags, you can ensure that a hyphenated word never breaks, in most browsers.
Consistent house-styleIt is also important to use a consistent style of punctuation. Use our house-style/grammar guide to help you. It also carries many other resource links, dictionaries and thesauri.
Online trainingThere are many online training courses for writing. Use Google to find what is available. Check also for evening classes in your area. We also list other web ministry training courses.
The Judy Vorfield columnJudy Vorfield’s syndicated column on effective writing is updated every few weeks. You can subscribe to her column by email to get her latest tips, displayed below:
related pages within the Writing well menu links
recommended books on writing, including free downloads
valuable online videos about web ministry