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20

Aug

Taking it bird by bird: Writing content for the web

Intergen’s Web Redevelopment Project Part 4

I’ve been meaning to weigh in with an Intergen web redevelopment update for a couple of weeks now. The project itself is coming along nicely – today’s status report tells me we’re approximately 60% through development, with interface and production design 95% done. So that’s not the reason for me dragging the blog chain.

My real excuse is the topic of this blog tripping me up. Ironic really, that I should get writer’s block while attempting to write a blog about writing, specifically about writing web content.

The topic of web content is huge. The other day I read somewhere (no doubt online) that in one day, the average information worker will digest more written information online in one day than an average person would have in their entire lifetime 150 years or so ago.

Some of us may lament dwindling literacy, the watering down of the English language or the relatively recent decline of print media. But it’s probably true that – for Gen Y and the information workers amongst us, at least – we’re reading more now than we ever have. We’re just reading differently. And, if I may make an assumption, we’re doing the bulk of this reading online as we go about our days, sometimes without even really realising that we are doing it. Moral arguments on this subject notwithstanding, it’s a phenomenon, and the fact remains that there’s an awful lot of web content being generated every second of every day. Thirteen million articles on Wikipedia, for example. And we’re not even talking user-generated content here. One and a half million content updates on Facebook daily, and an estimated 200 million active blogs.

But do we know how to write effective web content, really?

Here’s the thing. In the scheme of communications technologies, the internet is still a new kid on the block. By my calculation, the lay person has probably only had decent access to it for about 13 or 14 years, if that.

In the early days, we dumped content into web pages much as we would onto actual pages. And thus we created a worldwide spate of seldom-visited information graveyards. But we patted ourselves on the back anyway, pleased we’d brought our businesses onto the newfangled WWW that everyone was talking about.

Then we got a bit more sophisticated, prettied things up a bit and created brochure sites. We were coming to terms with the fact that the homepage was the most valuable ‘real estate’ a company could own. Instead of reception re-fits and breaking the bank with full-page advertisements in the Yellow Pages, we turned all our marketing and design attention to our websites. We out-clevered ourselves with Flash and designed pages that were the online equivalent of neon lights that screamed ‘look at me!’ but were often utterly unusable and unfriendly once you got through all that fancy wrapping. It didn’t matter so much if visitors weren’t getting a pleasant online experience, and taking something useful away with them; what mattered most was that we were getting the eyeballs. It was all about us.

How we’ve grown in that short space of time! There’s still untold amounts of dross and filler out there, but we’re learning. We learned that it’s not about us. We learned that we can’t just get up on our marketing high horses and spout stuff. We learned that we need to cut to the chase, to show rather than tell, to engage rather than proselytise. That it’s about conversations and usability and people actually getting what they are looking for (and hopefully more).

Like so many on-the-job things we discover for ourselves in the real world, we were never taught how to write for the web. The ‘plain English’ revolution went quite a way in helping untangle some of the jumbled content out there. I must say that the whole ‘write it as you’d say it’ thing did take me a bit of getting used to after leaving university. And having gone back to it recently (albeit at a distance), and having just completed my first essay in quite some time, the differences between the two approaches were painfully (irreconcilably) clear.

On the internet you don’t have 3,000 words to get your point across. And if you haven’t framed things right, you probably don’t even have three seconds. Preamble and nice background stuff is not going to win you points; it’s going to lose you visitors. You don’t introduce a vague notion and get to the point a paragraph or two later. You top-load and front-load and signpost like crazy. You don’t ask: What do I want to get across? You ask: What are people coming here for and how do I help them get it?

I’m not going to share web writing tips here, but I am going to share some resources I’ve found incredibly useful throughout the Intergen web redevelopment content writing process. So many of us, in some capacity, contribute web content in our professional lives, even if we’re not officially tasked with web writing. And yet so few of us have actually been given any instruction on how to do this effectively.

I can’t recommend anything by Rachel McAlpine highly enough. I keep a copy of her book Write Me a Web Page, Elsie! within arm’s reach, and refer back to it often. It’s immensely readable and totally practical. Or you can check out Rachel’s website, www.contented.com for tips, articles and online courses. She is a gem.

While you’re online, you should also have a quick look around www.useit.com and www.usability.gov.

One of my all-time favourite books about writing (writing in general, I mean) is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. Intended more for the old school writer than the web writer (not always mutually exclusive, of course), there’s one piece of advice she gives that I often think of when I’m writing anything. Lamott recalls her father’s advice to her brother at the age of 10 when overwhelmed by a school project on birds. He told him to “take it bird by bird” and she advises writers to do the same. (Laurie’s previous post on Neuro Linguistic Programming also tackles the bird by bird concept.) A website – especially a large one – can seem a bit intimidating when you’re approaching it from a content perspective. Once your site structure is in place, all you can do is take it bird by bird.

And now I had better get back to the Intergen website project…

Posted by: Katy Sweetman, Marketing Director, Empired Group | 20 August 2009

Tags: Web Content, website redevelopment


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