- Your Own Words: Got Style?
- Your Own Words: Coding Your Content: The Web Reader as Browser, Part 1
- Your Own Words: Coding Your Content: The Web Reader as Browser, Part 2
- Your Own Words: Content Planning: Two Simple Document Design Strategies that Work
- Your Own Words: Education, Composition, Alteration, Hibernation: How to Improve Your Content before Publication
In Part I of this article, I made some pretty bold comparisons between the workings of web browser software and those of human readers. I’ve offered some examples of direct translations of English grammar rules to those of HTML. I promised to give you a few more examples and I’m going to make good on that promise now. I’ll even give you a few strategies to use in your writing to add punch, create interest, and keep your readers hooked.
Recap: The human brain, like a web browser, processes coded language on the screen and (hopefully) creates some close approximation of the author’s original intent – be it to amuse, inform, or shock. Without the intelligence of brains and browsers, all language (HTML, English, or otherwise) is just marks on a screen.
Your job is to turn your ideas into lean English code, and do it in just such a way so your reader/browser renders your ideas as you planned. Armed with this knowledge, let’s turn to some specific strategies for better writing:
One powerful method for helping visitors navigate your web pages is the <a> tag. This tag creates bookmarks or “Anchors” on your page that users may return to by clicking a link elsewhere. Anchors alert readers where on the page a specific topic, graphic, or other information resides. Use anchors in your writing by employing strong transitions between paragraphs.
A well-written transition–either at the beginning or end or a paragraph – tells your reader to prepare to shift gears. Words like “Another,” “Also,” and “Consequently,” not only mark the shift but denote the relationship between paragraphs as well. Phrases like “In addition…”, “On the other hand…”, and “By the way…” serve the same purposes and (when used conservatively) can help you maintain a more conversational style.
What do we think of long pages of unbroken text? Yuck!
Including an image on your web page makes it more visually attractive and helps solidify concepts in your readers’ minds. The right imagery in your writing can serve the same function, whether you write brochureware or a hypertext novel.
The brain works visually. In your descriptions — of your company’s product or of your summer vacation or of a mountainous scoop of rocky road ice cream on a flaky sugarcone — let your reader look away from the monitor, close her eyes, and build a mental picture of just what it is you’re describing.
Does your site use frames? When used correctly, frames are helpful when you need to keep context information visible for your readers.
They’re a great place to keep your site’s navigation buttons and a company logo. Wherever your visitors travel on-site, that information stays available. Nobody gets lost.
To add spice to a block of text — or even to your entire site — try enclosing it between frames of reference.
Do you write instructions or FAQs for your company’s products? Invent a user and put him through the paces.
Write online fiction? Try an extended flashback or write the entire story in the form of a letter. Such devices, when done well, can create a comfortable environment for your reader and keep him glued to his mouse.
Static web pages are history!
Equivalent flavoring for your writing includes the use of second person (referring to your reader as “You” simulates conversation). Employing real-world examples of your ideas can hit the right nerve with a reader who may be experiencing that very thing in his own life.
Humor (tasteful humor) adds sparkle to otherwise dry prose.
And a rhetorical question here and there can make your reader stop and think. So why not use one?
The Eye of the Beholder
As a reader of this fine publication, you already know better than to launch your page without viewing it in multiple versions of multiple browsers first.
Depending on the code you use, your page could render far differently between Internet Explorer and Netscape. And what about AOL? What about a wireless device? What about different versions of the same browser? The possibilities are limitless.
The same holds true for your text.
You cannot guess the age, gender, ethnicity, or orientation of your visitors. And unless you can test your pages on a representative of each of these groups (or combinations of groups!), you’d better make sure your language is clear of ambiguity, questionable humor, or turns of phrase that may offend or confuse a potential reader.
Use common sense as your guide and maintain a professional, respectful tone at all times.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little extended metaphorical journey into language as much as I have. Language is code, remember. And platform is culture. I hope you’re able to apply some of this advice to your pages and that your reader/browsers stay hooked!
This article is a re-post of a column I wrote for the Netmaking newsletter in 2004. While the technology and uses of the web have changed significantly since then, much in the way of content development–the actual processes by which writers create for the web–has not. This column is being re-posted here for archival purposes, and in the hopes that it may be of some use to fellow writers out there. My Norwegian friends at Netmaking [English] are still going strong and doing great work with the eZ publish platform. I encourage you to check them out.