Jon Pratty – Writing for the Web – the Basics

Writing basics / Technical issues / Copyright and the Web museum / Workflow and sign-off / Style guides and the Web

Over the last ten years I’ve taught web writing workshops all over the UK and US in museums, galleries, archives, cultural organisations and conferences. To put these notes together, I’ve distilled some of those workshops and summarised the main points.

Don’t forget the web’s a read/write medium: if you’ve got points to raise or clarification about something I’ve written, please do comment. I’ll credit the remark to you and add it to the text.

In the beginning

Writing for the web’s simple – right? We can all do it, can’t we? It’s just a case of cutting and pasting from our newsletter into the blog, isn’t it? And Google’s so powerful now that it’ll find my object description, using it’s magic Google-juice, won’t it?

Well, not quite.  A) Writing for the web isn’t that complex – it’s learnable if you can just remember your readers and their needs. B) We can mostly all learn do it – but at the moment some writers with specific access needs might find things more difficult with some of the bigger blog or content systems. C) Laying print copy onto web pages turns readers and search engines off.  D) Google ain’t so powerful;  it can always do with some clues (like tags) to help your stuff get found.

But actually the basics of writing text online are indeed pretty straightforward. Accuracy and quality (in terms of spelling errors etc.) remain important. Clarity and simplicity allow people to get your message straight away. Some elementary structural rules help things hang logically on the web page, and catch the eye of the impatient, hard-to-please Google-friendly reader.

On the web, some things are clearly very different. There’s a strong sense of brevity in online writing. Stories, sentences and paragraphs are often kept short, because lots of people don’t like looking at screens for a long time – though that may be changing now we don’t use flickering cathode ray tube screens.

The big difference is to consider how the electronic word is found in many places. You might write something for your website, intending it to be found on the homepage, and yet a month later it’s downhome (ie well buried within the site, replaced by other people’s stuff) and that super intro you wrote for the homepage has disappeared, and the top of the story is puzzling as a result.

Even stranger, sometimes stories are shared out to other sites; syndicated. That means they show somewhere else, just as they are published on your site. Often your story is just a title when it’s found elsewhere, as a result of a thing called RSS (Really Simple Syndication; though the truth about RSS is far from simple) and it’s worryingly possible that your title, on it’s own, kidnapped from your text, sounds totally puzzling.

Your title or headline might be puzzling when it’s been kidnapped by the RSS wranglers, because those heartless fiends reading your title on someone else’s website can’t see the original story with it’s lovely picture leading the article, and you’d written a title that referred to the picture, and the story.

You see, in print, it’s often the case that a photo tops the page. The title of the story can be an oblique or obscure reference to the subject matter in print, because the reader sees, at first glance, the sense of what the story is about. And the sub-heading (the line of smaller, bold text below the big headline) often explains more about the story.

But online, often the pic (for copyright reasons) won’t be there, and the headings will not fit, and the title will need words in it that explain much more about what the story is about. For one simple reason: online, space and words are at a premium. People glance away, they scan link titles quickly, they read titles and headings using special software sometimes if they can’t see the text; we all get headaches if we read online too much. So every word counts, and when taken off site, on other websites, the title ‘has to tell it’s own story.’

And there’s more, but it’s quite elementary. Think about eBay or Amazon. Think about photo-sharing sites like Flickr, or blogs. Notice those simple (or not so simple) words in boxes down the side, in ‘clouds’ of words. Those words are ‘keywords’ or ‘tags.’ They’re still normal words like ‘publishing’ or ‘Internet’ but they are used to help other people find your articles. So you need to choose, carefully, six or seven words that you can tie to your article that will help people find your writing. Just like the numbers on the spines of books in the library. Just like the words tagging pictures on Flickr. Just like the tags you’ll find attached to music on lastfm.com.

And it’s not just people you’ll be helping if you choose good tags. In a database, where most of the text on the web lives, tags are used to ‘classify’ stories or text.  Software agents (search engines or ‘spiders’) look for things like tags too. If you’ve done a Google search for Picasso, the spider will set off looking for tags that match. Looking for anything about cubist art?

If there’s a blog with a Picasso exhibition review it’ll be tagged ‘cubist’. That is, if the writer has thought about how to match good tags to their story or object description. So that’s your job, when you write web text.  You’re not just helping people to find your text by tagging, you’re helping the machine-readable web to flourish, and as a result, more humans will eventually find your text too.

Writing basics

1. Target readers are not experts in gallery or museum culture – so don’t use jargon, or any terms that non-specialists would misunderstand.

 

2. As with all writing for the web, keep sentences and paragraphs short.

3. Structure: in simple news, event or exhibition text , in the first two paragraphs keep to the usual Who, What, Where, When, Why and How formula.

4. Older web content is often archived but still live so it is really important to include exhibition dates, venues and titles in the first two paragraphs of your story.

5. If appropriate, after the first two paragraphs,  get in a quote. Make it simple and direct. This brings the story alive. Make your first quote count.

6. Images are vital for longer stories. The images should be JPEG files and should not be too large in size or resolution, and file size should be kept small if possible.

7. Keep it informal and friendly. Don’t be afraid to use humour, if appropriate, but bear in mind the style and tone of voice of the museum.

8. Go through the copy and cut out all unnecessary floppy language – don’t say ‘several’, tell us how many exactly. Don’t say ‘the actual bus used by the cup winning team’, say ‘the bus used by the cup winning team.’

9. Don’t write the date like this – ‘April the 17th.’ Write it like this – ‘April 17′. Why? Because ‘ordinals’ like ‘th’ get mashed up by some web browsers and when text is translated to other character sets, ie Arabic scripts.

 

10. Always ask curators in the museum to explain to you things you don’t understand – and tell them you are doing the story for a general audience – it’ll help!

11. When you think you are finished – double-check all your spellings and the facts in the content.

Technical Issues: what’s really so different between web and print?

It sounds really odd and futuristic but it’s not. The web is meant to be read by machines as well as people. That reality is here with us now. Google reads your blog posts and decides (using complicated algorithms) what your content is about.

So that’s a massive and fundamental difference between the web and print. How do we work to match up those differences?

 

1. Don’t paste into the CMS straight from Word files. Try to use Wordpad or save your Word doc as plain txt. Word documents contain hidden formatting that often causes trouble with content management systems. Find out from the system manager what works.

 

2. Titles become vital online – it’s often how things are searched for and found. They must describe what the story is about. Look here: http://www.newsnow.co.uk and see how titles, taken out of context, often look weird.

3. Publishing context is key – beware changing contexts, when the text is moved off the homepage, it might need more intro text. Write it with that text in the first place.

 

4. Put keywords everywhere, but not intrusively. Keywords used with subtlety attract Google. They can tell when you’re trying to spoof them, so don’t bother!

5. Plain English is a technical issue as well as a style issue. A lot of the UK web is read by people whose first language in not English. This is especially the case if the subject is of generic interest, rather than geographical interest. So what you write ought to be translatable to another language without turning into puzzling figures of speech.

 

6. RSS broadcast of material will substantially affect IPR issues. Creative Commons licenses can be parcelled up with RSS output.

7. With RSS you are publishing outside your website straight into Google-land.

Copyright and the web museum

1. Always publish captions with copyright info as requested by the rights holder. If your CMS stores pictures separately from articles and content be careful how you caption and alt tag pics – it might be meaningless once the pic is re-used on another piece of content.

2. If you can’t secure permission to use images quickly, in writing (by email) then just go straight on to another image. Don’t hold up the production process by spending days chasing rights holders – use Google image search and find another pic.

3. If you are publishing long term or slow moving content, get rights info in one place, in a rights register that’s backed up sensibly.

4. Don’t plan content ideas without considering rights issues – ever! Image use costs frequently cripple publishing operations, in print and online.

5. Don’t base web projects on rights properties that rely on continuing payment for image use.

Workflow and sign-off

1. Editorial process needs to be led by structure and well-established lines of reporting and signoff.

2. Sensible moves for structuring publishing lies of signoff might begin at the top of the tree. An editorial board can be a great help in lending tone and authority to a publication – but they must be fully aware of where their remit stops, and when their input would be over detailed and unhelpful to the actual writers or producers.

3. Within the writing team there should be an Editor who has final signoff, taking responsibility for the last edit.

4. Anyone making copy changes would only do so with the Editors permission and knowledge.

5. Everything needs to be proof read at least twice by different individuals. A signoff protocol may be developed.

6. Some content Management Systems support audit trails of authors, editors and signoff info, which is a really good idea.

7. It’s vital that once online copy is published no-one touches it without good reason – it would then need reviewing and sign-off once more.

8. The flexibility and updatability of the web can be a nuisance if individuals are accessing pages and making changes that aren’t agreed by the publishing manager or editor.

9. It’s a good idea to look at version numbers and ‘last updated’ info for text. It may be that slow changing pages like ‘About Us’ or ‘Terms and Conditions’ sections would be good to treat like this.

Style guides and the web

While writing on the web (or for any publication) might seem like just a question of stringing words together and avoiding libel, it’s actually full of choices, at every step. How do you actually write the full title of a councillor? What is the accepted way to refer to dates and years before the birth of Christ? All these questions and more are answered in online style guides.

Bigger organisations with a culture of publishing in-house may develop their own style guides. These set out the way the organisation likes to express itself in public. It’s all about consistency, context and consensus. Getting the message across about the organisations’ ideals and values is a lot about how the actual message is transmitted.

You may wonder if this is why larger cultural organisations get hot under the collar about having control over the number of people who can blog or speak ‘for’ the museum or gallery in public. You may be right to wonder this…

For the rest of us, it’s easy to use style guides. For many years, writers on all sorts of intelligent publications, on line and offline, have been using one or two key style guides as templates for their own tone of published voice.

First choice guides – luckily both online – are The Guardian and The Economist. It’s not about making all writing read the same, it’s about how you write fundamental things like dates, times and units of money.

The Guardian Style Guide: http://tinyurl.com/pjrq6

The Economist Style Guide: http://tinyurl.com/je9zy

Next Up – Useful tools and links

 

 

2 Responses to Jon Pratty – Writing for the Web – the Basics

  1. Joy Suliman says:

    Hi Jon,
    I’m putting together resources for some Social Media and Online Content workshops that I am running for small museums. Your writing guide is fantastic and I’d like to add it the list of resources. Thanks for sharing! We talked about this when we met in San Fran in 2007 when I was project manager of CAN. I’m now with Thinkspace at the Powerhouse Museum.

    Great blog,
    Joy

    • Jon Pratty says:

      Hello Joy – thanks for the kind comments on this bit of comment. It’s something I’d like to grow, in response to questions/requirements from people I know in the museum/culture sector. So yep- go for it and link to the pieces here, and if you can, offer some response to things that need adding. At the moment, I think it needs more on tools and links, and I’d like to add a module on writing for social media like Twitter ands Facebook.

      All the best from rainy, summer Britain…

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