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Writing for Websites
and Email

Home > Writing for Websites and Email Last change July 25, 2012

Website Writing

Email Writing

Write for Scanners

4 Characteristics of
Good Website Writing
:

  1. Short and simple
  2. Formatted
  3. Objective and unemotional
  4. Mapped and hyperlinked

Writing for Search Engines

Writing Email

  1. Subject line
  2. One idea
  3. Text-only formatting
  4. Avoid attachments
  5. Edit your reply
  6. Respect originator
  7. Mail-merge email

References

Website Writing

Too much information:
Every morning the Library of Congress receives 20 000 new items.

- Washington Post
March 12/99

Write for Scanners

People looking for information don't read - they scan, on screen or on paper. Good website writing makes scanning for information easier.

It is easier to scan a document on paper than on screen because:

  • you can see more of it at one time - not just a window
  • you can move around very quickly without waiting for downloads.

Newspaper readers find information they need very quickly, even in an unfamiliar newspaper. Learn to use newspaper techniques to improve scannability of website writing. Also learn from yellow pages and classified ads.

Website writers contribute heavily to a website's success. They are responsible for the top two things that drive users to a website:

  • content
  • ease of use

4 Characteristics of Good Website Writing

1.

Short and simple

The more you say, the less people remember. The fewer the words, the greater the profit.
- Felelon

  • inverted pyramid style - conclusions and important facts first
    • newspaper style, but originally to address "download time" of the telegraph
  • as few words as possible, avoid full sentences
  • no unnecessary information - puts users off the scent

USA Today was able to condense the whole thing down to 25 words and a pie chart.
- Jay Leno, on The Washington Post's publication of the Unabomber's 35,000-word manifesto.

2.

Formatted

  • headings, subheadings, leads, pullquotes
  • lists - bulleted or numbered
  • bolded keywords
  • descriptive hyperlinks:
    • attract attention with traditional link format (underlined and colored)
    • show user what optional information is available, even if it takes quite a few words.
3.

Objective and unemotional

4.

Mapped and hyperlinked

Make your writing a library, not a pile of books.
- David Weinberger

  • mapped to orient user in site and section
    • clear sections - newspaper concept (sports, stock page, etc.)
    • area above the scroll (fold) used wisely - show user what page contains
  • hyperlinked to offer user content options
    • "It is polite to point." - use hyperlinks to help users interact, creating own nonlinear path through material
    • links described clearly - users make informed choice to follow or not

"Who'd have thought that the most valuable emergent skill of the professional author wouldn't be the ability to write sentences or structure documents ... but would be the ability to compile an index and table of contents."
-
David Weinberger's "Metadata is Monarch" article, February 8/99.

Writing for Search Engines

Search engines create an extra wrinkle for writers. Generally, they assume the more times a keyword occurs the more likely the webpage is relevant to the searcher. So, if it is important that search engines send users to your website:

use keywords often to improve ranking at search engines

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Writing for Email - Respect the Recipient

1.

Subject line - descriptive but short

  • help recipient decide how to process your message - perhaps one of hundreds received that day

  • put most important words first - subject may be truncated in recipient's inbox list

2.

One idea per message

  • keep it simple and short, or users may not read it all
3.

Use text-only formatting

  • make message easy to scan

  • you can't tell what it will look like to recipient, depends on email tool and computer

    • use new lines to create white space

    • underline with symbols on a new line (--- or *****)

    • use spaces to indent, rather than tabs

    • assume font, size, color, bolding, italics, links, etc., won't work

4.

Avoid attachments

  • save recipient the extra step of opening an application

  • recipient may not have compatible application (platform or version)

  • attachments often large files wasting bandwidth

  • spare recipient concern for viruses (straight text not virus-prone)

  • attached files may be blocked by firewalls or spam detectors

5.

Edit your reply

  • deleting unnecessary portions of the original message to save user time

  • don't bury your reply in the original message (unless you point out you are doing that) or recipient may not notice it

  • use text-only formatting to make your reply noticeable (for example, separate it with vertical space)

6.

Respect originator when forwarding

  • although you may want to delete all those ugly headers, leave information about the source

  • respect ownership/ copyright / traceability

7.

Learn how to use mail-merge to email for sending messages to a group.

  • eliminate the long headers showing a zillion email addresses:

    • annoying waste of area above the scroll

    • unscrupulous people can harvest your list and send spam and UCE (unsolicited commercial email) to your group

  • Check Help in Microsoft Word to find out how to do an email merge in Word.

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References

Dr. Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox - much good information from this website usability guru

GoodDocuments
  - website writing techniques, philosophies, samples, and links to other resources including web style guides.

SearchEngineWatch - everything you need to know about search engines

About this Webpage

This topic was presented by Micky Gulless to students of Writing for Public Relations at Mount Royal College in Calgary, at the invitation of instructors Nancy Snowball and Maureen Healey (March 4/99, Nov.4/99, March 2/00). Repeated Dec.8/99 for IABC Calgary's Editors' Club.

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, Canada

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Posted March 4, 1999