Writing for the Web

By David Walbert

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

“Keep it short” is probably the most common piece of advice for web writing. Too often, though, it seems to come from a belief that most people who use the web simply have short attention spans. While that may be true, I am not comfortable with simply catering to short attention spans: some things need to be explained in depth, and I don’t believe that it’s good practice to underestimate your audience. The World Wide Web can be a powerful tool for communicating not only information but ideas, and ideas worth writing about don’t come in sound bites.

Nevertheless, the medium of the web does place certain restrictions on you, whether you’re writing instructions for a piece of software or a restaurant review or even a short story. It is, for a number of reasons, more difficult to read long selections on the web than it is in print. If you want to keep your audience, keep your articles, your pages, and your paragraphs short — but not so short that you sacrifice the ideas you’re trying to communicate.

The challenge of reading online

When you read a long piece of writing in print, you have the option of stopping in the middle and picking up later where you left off. This is far more difficult on the web. Even if you “bookmark” a page, that page may contain several print pages’ worth of content, and it may be difficult to find your place again. And a browser bookmark is not as effective a reminder of unfinished business as an open magazine on a coffee table. Chances are, if someone “puts down” an article on the web in the middle of reading it, he or she won’t be back to finish.

Remember also that to read something on the web requires sitting at a computer, and the longer the article, the longer you have to sit there. If you have a cable modem and a wireless Internet connection, you can sit wherever you want, but even a laptop or a digital book reader is not as portable as a magazine or book. There is only so long you can ask people to sit in one place and stare at a computer screen to read your article, particularly if they have jobs that require them to do that most of the day already.

So if you are writing something specifically for the web, keep it short. How short? Unfortunately, there are no clear guidelines. But always keep your audience in mind. (Remember those questions you asked yourself before you started writing?) If they’re busy, easily distracted, or dialing up from home, keep it as short as you can. Watch for wordiness, a common habit of infrequent writers. Have a friend read over your writing to help you cut it down; ask her what she could live without. Consider whether you really need that extra discussion of the KWL research method — maybe you can move it to another page and link to it. (Organizing with web readers in mind will help, and that’s the topic of a later article.)

If you want or need to post something longer to the web, make it easy for people to print it out and read it offline. Post it as a single long web page with as little froufrou as possible — a “printable version,” in other words — or save it as a PDF file. If you do this, and especially if you go the PDF route, it’s helpful to post a one-paragraph summary so people can know what they’re getting into before they open or download the file.

Shorter pages

There are two schools of thought on breaking up long articles into pages. Some people say that because most web readers like to scan pages, you should post the entire article on a single page, no matter how long it is. Others feel that too much scrolling can be confusing and you can’t scan a 2,000-word page anyway, and so you should break up long articles at logical places.

If you are writing primarily or exclusively for the web, you can avoid the issue entirely by structuring your piece as a series of digestible chunks, then posting each chunk (call it a chapter, if you like) on a separate page with a table of contents on each page, or with clear links back to the table of contents.

I like to think of this as the buffet approach. In a giant buffet the food is usually broken up into several tables — for the sake of argument, let’s say three. You have your salad bar at the first table, the main-course stuff with the guy carving the roast beef at the second table, and dessert at the third. The courses of the buffet are like the sections or chapters of your article, each on its own table or page: if you put all the food on one table, you’d have chaos. You wouldn’t be able to find anything. With separate tables, most people will progress through them in the usual way, from salad to main course to dessert, but people who want their dessert first can do as they please, just as people will be able to go quickly to the part of your article they’re most interested in. I could go on: you can scan the dessert table before you get in line so you’ll know how much room to save at dinner. But you’ll have to fill in your own analogy here.

Again, though, keep your audience in mind. Parents and students checking your classroom website from home on a dicey dial-up connection or at public Internet terminals at the library are less likely to look at multiple pages that have to load individually, with a delay of several seconds each time. A single long page of text only has to load into the browser once.

Shorter paragraphs

It is harder to read long paragraphs on the web (or on a computer screen generally) than on paper. It may simply be harder on the eyes to read a computer screen than to read text. Another possibility is that the serifs on text, the little lines at the tops and bottoms of the letters, help to keep your eyes scanning along the lines; but on a computer screen, serif fonts (like Times New Roman, for example) don’t look as good or work as well. I am not sure why this is, but it is easier to read sans-serif fonts (that is, fonts that don’t have those little lines) like Arial or Verdana on the web. Without the serifs to help the eye along, though, it can be hard to keep your place in a long paragraph — especially if the columns of text are wide. Georgia (the font used here) is an exception, a serif font designes specifically for use on a computer screen. (I have provided an explanation of serif and sans-serif fonts on a separate page.)

As a rule, then, keep your paragraphs short on the web. Most of us were taught in school (and many of you may teach your students!) that a paragraph should have at least five sentences, but if you’re writing for the web, throw that out. A better model is newspaper writing, where really important sentences can stand as paragraphs on their own, and it’s a rare paragraph that has more than three or four sentences.

(but not too short)

There are, obviously, limits on how much you can or should condense a piece of writing for the web. You don’t want to condense away important points, and you don’t want to dumb down your writing so much that you bore (or offend) your audience. You may find that what you’re writing requires more space than you’d anticipated, and that’s ok. I have many times sat down to write a 200-word letter to the editor and found that what I had to say simply couldn’t be said well in 200 words, or tried to write a 2,000-word essay and found that I didn’t have that much to say after all. It happens. One good thing about writing for the web is that, unlike paper and ink, web space doesn’t cost you by the word. So don’t take a chain saw to your work just because it’s going on the web.

You will ultimately have to use your own judgement. Consider how interested your audience is likely to be in your topic and how much experience they have with it. How long can you go on without boring them? How much background information do you really need? If you’re writing for students, who need to read all of what you write but (let’s face it) will likely drift off after awhile, rely on organization rather than shortness to make your writing readable.

Often your writing will have multiple audiences. In that case, try to stick to the essentials, then provide more detail in a separate version for people who want it. Posting a one- or two-paragraph summary of a longer essay is often an effective strategy and meets the needs of several audiences without requiring you to rewrite completely. Similarly, if you think that some readers won’t understand certain ideas or terms to which you refer, provide a glossary or in-depth explanation on a separate page, and link it clearly from the main text.

When in doubt, try to get feedback from prospective readers. Post your writing on the web, then ask them to read it for you, naturally — if they get bored or if they lose their Internet connection, they’re allowed to quit. Ask them if they felt the piece was too long. If you have honest friends, they’ll tell you.

If you still have more to say than you think people will read in one sitting, look for ways to more effectively organize it on the web. In the next article, “Organizing for the web,” we’ll look at how to make writing readable on the web without sacrificing complexity, thoroughness, or depth.