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Writing for the Web
by Jakob Nielsen
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Publishing on the Web is a very simple task. Publishing content that works well in the online medium and communicates effectively is quite another matter. In Writing for the Web, author and freelance writer Crawford Kilian shares his insights about producing just the right type and amount of content for your target sites.
Kilian acknowledges early on his bias toward print publishing, but his viewpoint offers a particularly relevant discussion for other writers moving traditional content to the Web. Throughout the book, he emphasizes his three principles of Web text: orientation, information, and action. These principles wisely expand the reader's view from content and grammar to the special interactivity and technical-viewing aspects of reading online.
The book is quite brief at only 140 pages, but contains some useful traditional style tips, such as using active tense, strong verbs, and precise word choices. Ironically, the book doesn't include any screen shots to illustrate formatting guidelines in action on real Web sites. This lack of visual connection to the presented techniques detracts from the book's effectiveness.
Nothing ruins the first impression of your Web site than poorly designed content or documents haphazardly ported to electronic form. This book isn't an end-all reference to Web-content presentation, but it certainly offers some useful tips for writing effectively for cyberspace. --Stephen W. Plain
Anne Weale, Bookworm on the Internet
I am glad I read this book before putting up my site.
The Richmond News
...offers novice and professional Web authors sound advice on writing and editing Web text for corporate sites and personal pages.
Peter Wilson, Vancouver Sun
...solid, easy-to-follow advice on how to create text that will keep the Web reader interested.
- Write prose as good as your code - Learn how to grab and hold readers attention - Create text for the unique genre of the Web
From the Publisher
As Publicity Manager for Self-Counsel Press, I would like to inform visitors to this site of the follow up title to Crawford Kilian's Writing for the Web, and the original text itself.
Due to the overwhelming popularity of Writing for the Web, Crawford Kilian has completed Writing for the Web: Geeks' Edition, which is available on this site and in major book stores everywhere.
The primary differences between the two titles is a Style Guide for Web writers, an expanded FAQ section, additional editing exercises and the grammar section has been beefed up as well in the Geeks edition.
The original text, Writing for the Web, has been re-issued with a new book cover and a new title: Writing for the Web: Writer's Edition(same ISBN). These two titles are the same book, and I hope this will clear up any confusion arising from the change of covers and titles. Writing for the Web: Writer's Edition and Writing for the Web: Geeks Edition are two different books, and will compliment the other.
Whether you are creating a personal home page, developing your companys Web site, or publishing an e-zine, Writing for the Web: Writers Edition offers sound, practical advice on organization and writing within the framework of three principles: orient readers to your site; inform readers effectively; and prompt readers to take action so you get the results you want.
Exercises show you how to put these principles into practice, and critiques of real Web sites give you practical guidelines.
You will learn how to --
- Break print-based writing habits that dont work with hypertext - Edit your material for an international audience - Develop Web sites for business - Create online résumés and personal pages - Explore the rapidly growing world of online freelance writing
If you want to learn about, say, vampires, you face a pretty tedious process if you plan to research the topic using a multi-volume encyclopedia. First you would go to the volume with all the V entries, and find "Vampires." That entry may suggest you also look at entries in other volumes: Transylvania; Dracula; Stoker, Bram; Lugosi, Bela; films, horror; bats, vampire; films, German: Nosferatu. As you consult each of these entries, youre pulling heavy volumes off the shelf and replacing them, making notes, and generally taking up a lot of time.
Even using a single-volume book to research a topic presents challenges. Such a book may have its own hypertext in the form of footnotes, end notes, appendixes, bibliographies, and an index even marginal scribbles by the last reader. The researcher looking for particular information soon learns to read backward: start with the index and then jump to just the pages dealing with the subject of interest. Even then, the follow-up of tracking down footnoted references and finding titles mentioned in the bibliography can be tedious and frustrating.
Hypertext saves you much of that work. Each hypertext document has electronic links to other hypertext documents, much like doors between rooms in a library. If youre reading a hypertext document about horror films and you find a mention of Bela Lugosi, the actors name can itself be a link to still more information. Instead of making notes, you can simply save the file about Lugosi along with all the other items youve encountered.
And if you dont want to read about Bela Lugosi, but you do want to read about vampire bats or Transylvanian history, you can ignore the link to the Hollywood star and continue your reading.
This freedom of choice has its attractions, but some hypertext pioneers have tried to make it look like a revolution on a Gutenbergian scale. They claim that, freed from the tyranny of the authors structure, readers can now examine any document they like, in any order they choose, and use the information any way they please. (Of course, readers can also read a print document any way they please, but it takes more effort to jump back and forth in a print-on-paper document than in an electronic document.) If each item of information is small enough, maybe just a paragraph or even a sentence, then readers have even more freedom. Instead of being led like children by the authors hand, readers can now make the text their own property, linking its components in their own preferred way.
This freedom of choice has its limits. If we just want to find out about Bram Stoker, we dont want to waste time on Bela Lugosi, even if the author thinks Lugosi is important. But most of the time, as readers, we expect the author to have mapped out our route for us, just as we expect a travel agent to plan details of our trip. We assume the travel agent knows more than we do and can anticipate our needs. Maybe we want some flexibility built into our itinerary, but we dont want to fly from New York to Paris, back to New York, and then to Frankfurt.
Pushed to a logical extreme, the hypertext author might as well hand the reader a set of Scrabble tiles and say: "Here, make your own text." But thats not authorship, any more than 52 Pickup is a card game. Our readers expect some kind of coherence in our hypertext. We can and should provide such coherence, but we should be aware of some specific challenges in doing so.
Hypertext is by definition nonlinear, but remember that "linearity" itself is just a metaphor for a one-at-a-time sequence -- especially a sequence were familiar with. The sequence A-B-C is "linear" only because thats the sequence we have learned. So is 1-2-3, and so is subject-verb-object. Because weve memorized certain patterns, we can expect D to follow C, 3 to follow 2, and verb (usually) to follow subject. When we put information into a numbered sequence, for example, we expect #1 to be more important or more basic than #2, because were used to hearing important or introductory material before we hear details or complicated material that assumes we understand the basics.
In the rest of this book, Ill examine some of the problems -- and opportunities -- that hypertext offers to you as a Website writer.
As you develop content for your Website, you should bear in mind some basic facts about the medium.
Computer-Screen Text Is Hard to Read
You may not realize it but your monitor has awful resolution. Maybe the text looks crisp and sharp compared to that on those old green-on-black monitors of the mid-1980s. But take a look at your text on-screen and then at a laser printout. Once you look back at your screen, the text will be a sight for sore eyes, and youll realize how difficult it is to read lots of text on-screen.
Studies in the 1980s, reported by Web analyst and usability advocate Jakob Nielsen, found that reading from a monitor is 25 percent slower than reading from printed paper.
This seems to result from the poor resolution of computer screens, and in 1998, Nielsen was reporting that expensive experimental monitors with very high resolution can bring reading speeds back up to normal. He predicts high-end users will have such screens by 2003, and all users by 2008....
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