Don't Forget To Write

Graphics May Get Attention but Good Writing Rewards It

by Dale Dougherty
Publisher, Web Review

H ow important are the words on a Web page? Designers call it copy. Others call it text when in a good mood and data when not.

Good writing doesn't often get the attention it deserves on the Web. Graphics, animations, and audio/video -- all these grab the headlines. Text just isn't cool.

So, I wondered if the teams participating in the recent "Cool Site in a Day" design competition would pay much attention to the words on the pages they were creating. I was confident these all-star design teams would create good-looking page layouts and elegant graphics, but how would they handle text? (Designers are known to use Latin as placeholder text when doing layouts.)

Each team was supplied with printed materials from the non-profit organization, Literacy Volunteers of America. They had to sift through the materials and determine what to use and how to present it on the Web. Leslie Harpold of Fearless Media, a member of the East team, said the information they started with "needed serious re-working before it was suitable for the Web."

"It had to be re-written in a voice that was more personal, direct, and conversational than most things in print," she added.

"Our biggest job was to reduce the amount of information down to what was most essential, " said Aliza Sherman, the East team captain. "We tried to identify the key phrases that the organization used." She remarked that if the organization had created the Web site itself the site might have contained a lot more information. Her team's goal was to create a cohesive look and feel, integrating images and text.

The West team also paid close attention to writing and editing text for each page. "Yes, it's very important," said team captain Derek Powazek. Michael Sippey was the team member who spent most of the day writing for the site. "He's our word person," said Derek.

Each team had one or two people who were dedicated to writing and re-writing the content.

Both teams used words to get the message out about illiteracy and the need for volunteers. They relied on telling the personal stories of students who were being helped by the literacy programs. "Stories allow people to connect with each other," said Derek. "We wanted to allow users to tell their own stories to each other as well."

I asked one of the judges if he actually read the text when he reviewed the site. "Oh, yes," he said. "If a site works, I'm going to read what they have to say." He felt the quality of the text was a major criteria in evaluating the two "cool" sites.

Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes recently expressed concern that his business -- TV news -- was losing itself in the glitz and glamour, remarking that technology often leads journalists away from telling a story well. "If you don't know how to communicate with words, you're in the wrong business," he said. "And I feel there are too many wrong people out there in my business."

The job of a writer is not to produce words, but to communicate with words. The writer helps to solve communication problems.

The Web continues to be primarily a text-based medium but writers have good reason to be defensive about producing words on the Web. Writers are aware that reading is not necessarily something that people yet feel comfortable doing online. The online reader sits with hand on mouse while scanning text on a monitor that's at an uncomfortable distance away. Don't take too long to make your point, the reader says, or I'll move on.

More and more people are learning to adapt to reading online. I am personally interested in how the Web is changing the very nature of how people read, how they acquire information, how they move through it at different rates of speed, jumping from one source to another instantly. I have wondered if there aren't a set of techniques, equivalent to speed reading, that a person might learn to be a more effective reader online. (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Online Readers).

If we knew more about how people read online, we'd know more how to write for them.