Communicating information and ideas: a philosophy of writing
Many kinds of writing can be adapted for the web, but it's important to know what you're trying to communicate.
Jakob Nielson, the generally acclaimed guru of web usability, sums up the conventional wisdom about writing for the web this way:
Web users generally prefer writing that is concise, easy to scan, and objective (rather than promotional) in style.1
Nielson is a former engineer for Sun Microsystems, the author of several books on web usability, and inventor of simple and effective ways of evaluating website usability. He knows what he’s talking about.
Concise, scannable, and objective describe clear and effective writing in any medium. Take newspapers, for example. The USA Today is as popular as it is because its designers make it easy for a reader to get quick, concise bullets of information. The writing is simple and straightforward. Its sans-serif headlines, open layout, and clear graphics make it easy to scan. In fact, people who teach publication design often hold up USA Today as a model for their students.
But consider this: lots of people read the New York Times, too. And the Times violates plenty of standard design rules: crowded text, serif headlines, long sentences, multipage articles. So why do people read it? Because the content is good.
The fact is that different types of content require different types of writing, different voice, organization, and style. If you are trying to convey straightforward information, the USA Today method is best: keep it short and keep it simple. But if you want to communicate complex ideas, you need to take more time and space. You need the New York Times, or something like it.
What’s true for newspapers is true for web writing. Suppose, for example, that you want to post an assignment on your classroom website, so that students can refer to it at home and parents can read it and help their kids. You’re not writing Hamlet here — this is not the time for a philosophical exploration of the meaning of human existence. You’re telling your students what you want and when you want it. You want them to get specific information, quickly and easily, in a form they can use immediately. A bulleted list of what you expect will work well here. Concise, scannable, objective.
Now suppose, by contrast, that you are posting your philosophy of teaching on your website for administrators, parents, and the community to read. If your philosophy of teaching is worth posting on the web, it’s a little more complicated than an essay assignment. You’re communicating ideas rather than information, and it’s going to take longer. Your writing should still be concise (if not necessarily brief), and if you organize it well and lay it out nicely it can still be scannable, although it takes more work than with basic information. But you can’t reduce it to a bulleted list.
Jakob Nielson, and others who write about writing for the web — and many, many people who listen to their advice — sometimes go too far in the pursuit of usability. Nielson actually recommends rewriting all content for the web, arguing that articles written for print (e.g. for magazines) should never be published as-is on the web.
I say this is absurd. First, the cost in time and money of rewriting all content for the web would be prohibitive; financing it would require breaching bold new frontiers in popup advertising. Second, a large part — I dare say most — of the web’s value is its ability to make content available quickly to a vast audience; the full text of articles should be available for those who want it. Do we really want to restrict access to in-depth content to people who can afford to pay for magazines and books?
Third and most important, the research studies on which Nielson’s conclusions are based focus on users’ ability to find, retrieve, and use specific pieces of information. They measure short-term recall of facts rather than long-term understanding of concepts. For example, users in a study might be instructed to go to a city’s visitor bureau website and find out whether a particular restaurant requires reservations, what time it begins seating for dinner, and the price range of the menu. Or they might be asked to find a particular software driver for a piece of equipment on an electronics manufacturer’s website. For those kinds of tasks and that kind of content, Nielson’s recommendations about simplicity and brevity are right on. (Not to mention objectivity: if you’re looking for the driver you need to upload the photos you took with your brand-new digital camera on Christmas morning, the last thing you want is a sales pitch about “business solutions.”)
But not all users are performing those kinds of information-mining tasks, and many content providers have more interesting things to say. Too much emphasis on concision and scannability threatens to turn the web into (or keep it?) a vast edition of USA Today, good for getting quick bites of information, but useless for developing serious analysis or context. There is a time for scanning headlines, but there is also a time for thoughtful analysis.
The bottom line is that different types of communication require different types of writing and design. I believe that the web, like print, can be an effective tool for many types of verbal communication if we’re thoughtful about the way we communicate. While bulleted lists, graphics, and colored keywords make for effective communication of facts and sound bites, if you want to communicate ideas, you’re going to have to write more serious in-depth prose, and give people a reason to read it.2 Information is meant to be used, and so usable is a good standard to apply to its delivery. But ideas have to be read, and so they need to be readable — regardless of the medium. In my opinion, the biggest problem with most content on the web is that it’s just poorly written.
For educators, this presents a challenge. The medium of the web does, indeed, make it more difficult to communicate complex ideas effectively. Yet we find ourselves increasingly invited, or perhaps compelled, to use the web for just that purpose. Education is more than just finding and memorizing bits of information to be spit back out on tests. It is, or certainly should be, about critical thinking and thoughtful analysis. So if we want to use the web for meaningful education, we need to find a way to publish content on the web that is thoughtful and complex — and usable. It’s a challenge, but it’s one that educators must, and can, find a way to meet.