Episode 6: Taking on the Web

Most of you will not finish this post. Of the ones who do, many will simply skim through the paragraphs and note key words and phrases. What sets the Internet apart as a means of communication is that most of it is disposable—even more than magazines and newspapers. The web is, after all, a nearly overwhelming blend of visual style, images, media, and text. And there’s too much for any one person to devour.

Despite these challenges, the Internet also allows for creative expression that no other venue can. With printed text, there’s little room for dynamic elements (not to mention, no chance to make changes after publication). With TV, text is at a minimum, and as of right now, there’s no interactivity (save only those of you with Wiis). But the Internet allows for the visual flair and the copy.

So, what elements matter to Internet readers?

Drive-by reading: If you are familiar with analytics software, you know that time on any Internet page is low. Internet readers want to know the big five w’s immediately (who, what, when, where, and why) and also why it matters. The best Internet writing captures all of that in the first two or three sentences. You can certainly develop the idea more thoroughly later, but if you haven’t made your point in the first few sentences, the reader will be gone.

Let’s look at an example:

One man is in the hospital and two others are in jail after trying to climb the world’s largest ball of twine. The men were reportedly responding to a frat-house dare. [The idea, of course, is to make the reader want to know what happened and what the dare was.]

Give me pop: Visual elements are key. If you don’t read the rest of this section, get that point. Internet readers want easy-to-digest morsels to take with them, including headers, paragraph breaks, lists, tables, and images. Obviously that can be overdone (if everything is a list, for example), but if a reader sees a large block of text on the screen, you can be sure they will skim it or skip it. The reading pattern tends to be this: 1) read the title and the intro, 2) skim the rest of the article, and 3) zoom in on any parts that are interesting or read the whole thing if it matters to the reader.

Make me go: If the readers are interested, you should give them places to go. Handle links with care, but certainly use them to add value to your writing. Obviously, there are certain company style guides that will tell you appropriate usage, and the type of writing matters as well. But in-text links on long articles can be distracting and can cause readers to leave before they’re finished. Your safest bet is to provide links at the end in a list format or on the sides.

Skimpy: Even though many readers will simply scan over your writing, there are some who will not. And a writer’s ethical responsibility is to provide the best content possible throughout for the ones who will slog through it all. Of course, that’s not to say that throwing in a little “lorem ipsum” in the middle of an article somewhere wouldn’t make for an interesting excercise to see who notices.


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