Hey, Shakespeare! Nobody Cares; Web Writing Tips

    October 1, 2007
    WebProNews Staff

Writing for the Web is tricky business because there is no audience more diverse. Writers, especially purist writers (I’m pointing at myself both accusatorily and guiltily), are stubborn, especially ones honed in a print world where the appropriate audience finds you or rejects in distant silence, and writers (secretly) want you to bask in their brilliance.

So why is nobody basking already?

Well, if you made it through my needlessly wordy intro, congratulations, you have more patience than the majority of web readers. The library requires patience; the Web demands speed.

Aye, there’s the rub.

It’s the same for marketers. Like writers, marketers sell ideas with words, but all too often their would-be patrons miss the message for fear of wallowing in a bed of fluff. It’s soft and cushy, but not necessarily productive.

Back in 1997, usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s answer to "How Users Read on the Web" was simply:

"They don’t."

Then why bother writing for it? Well, it’s not so much user don’t read, it’s that they don’t want to, and I’m breaking every rule of web writing as we speak just to illustrate a point that should have been in the first paragraph:

Keep it simple; keep it short; keep it direct.

Nielsen updates this morning, ten years to the day of the revelation that Web readers don’t read, with some advice on introductory text on Web pages, or what he calls "blah-blah text." 

When writing that first impression paragraph, writers often focus either too much on dazzling the visitor with prose or providing too much information in an intimidating chunk of text that is likely to be skipped anyway as the user homes in on what they came in search of in the first place.

Those intros, true, serve a specific function in SEO – often what searchers will see in the search results as a description of the contents found on the site. Even then, sorry to disappoint you, they are scanning the words rather quickly.

"Kill the welcome mat and cut to the chase," says Nielsen, curt as always.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some introductory text, or that it shouldn’t be well written, only that it should be pruned until it’s neatly shaped and says only what it needs to say to be clear – at a glance – what is to follow. If it’s 45 words of fluff, cut it to 25 words of meat.

Include only, says Nielsen:

·    What? (What will users find on this page — i.e., what’s its function?)
·    Why? (Why should they care — i.e., what’s in it for them?)

And as for me, I’ll go back to my love of words and place them where I dare; I write words for those that love them as much as I do.