Why it might be time to stop “writing for the web”

Sep. 07, 2010 | by Tamsin Hemingray

My colleague Ifraz Mughal (user experience architect here at iCrossing) and I had a funny conversation this morning that I thought I might share. He’d been sent a recommendation to a training course called “writing for the web” and wondered whether I thought it would be any good. His timing was impeccable as I’d just been thinking about a request from a client of ours to provide them with some training on this subject. To cut a long thought process short, I’d come to the conclusion that the idea of “writing for the web” was pretty much defunct – and that training sessions with this title need to be handled with extreme caution. Ifraz was surprised to hear this, especially from me, someone who bangs on about the need for the highest quality writing being a non-negotiable element of online content delivery.

But the more I think about it, the more I think that there’s no such thing as a single, coherent entity that is “the web” any more. So how can you possibly “write for” it?

The basics of good writing

When the journalists, copywriters and editors in our content team sit down to write on behalf of our clients, I take it as a given that they know how to do all the basic stuff – use hyperlinks, shorten URLs, provide references to supporting information, check facts, quote accurately, get all relevant permissions, keep it short and sweet, be interesting and original, source a kick-ass creative commons image to support their copy and so on. (We wouldn’t have hired them otherwise). But after that, the idea that there are further hard-and-fast, one size fits all “rules” for “web writing” which can be applied in all circumstances is pretty silly.

“Writing for print”

Think about it – you can’t “write for print” can you? The immediate question follows – what kind of print? A newspaper? A magazine? A booklet? A novel? Let’s say the answer is “a booklet”. Then straight away questions are begged: what is the booklet about? What do you want to achieve with your booklet? What kind of people are you trying to talk to? What do you know about the kinds of things that get that group of people interested and engaged? What do you want them to feel when you read your booklet? This is the brief that an editor must give a writer if they’re going to get anything decent back.

And those are just the basic questions that will shape and define what you write in your booklet and the way you write it. Any editor who is worth their salt will want to know whether they’ve been succesful at reaching their readership and achieving their objectives. How are you going to get feedback to your booklet? How will you know if it needs revision or a re-think?

The publisher will be thinking about the timing of their booklet – when is the booklet going to have most impact? What else is going on in the world that’s relevant – are there any events happening that the publication of the booklet coincide with and thus “piggy back” on? How are they going to market it? How are they going to keep things on budget and on time?

So what about “writing for the web”?

Writing content for the web is no different. Our writers work with words in myriad different circumstances and formats. They might be writing site copy, blog posts, features, news, Twitter updates, Facebook wall comments, iPhone app pages or iPad widgets. They might be responding to comments, chatting on forums, promoting competitions or reporting on the budget. They might be writing for an audience of hybrid car enthusiasts, or the mothers of newborn babies.

Meanwhile our editors are busy defining the requirements of these different formats and briefs – thinking about users and online networks, their interests, their passions and their preferences. They’re looking at analytics and listening to user research and working out what’s working and what’s not, and refining content plans as a result. They’re listening to suggestions from users and spotting opportunities in the conversations that are happening across a multitide of platforms and social spaces with the help of our social media team and UX colleagues.

The buck stops here

Returning to our print example – someone somewhere has decided that a booklet is the right format for this print communication. That same person has almost certainly considered what other communications are going to be happening at the same time. For example, the booklet might be promoted in other print formats, or it might tie-in to a wider communication campaign. That happens with web writing too. When we start writing for our clients, we’re usually looking at a multi-format, multi-platform approach because the business of engaging on the web requires it.

That’s what content strategy is. And the person who decides which audiences, what formats, what messages, when and how? That’s the content strategist.

So may I politely suggest that it’s time to stop “writing for the web” and start writing for our audiences? The next time you’re tempted to sign up your people for a “writing for the web” course, maybe get in touch with us and let us get you up to speed with content strategy instead? It’s the future of successful communication on “the web”.

IMAGE CC licensed from Flickr user *n3wjack

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    Comments (16)

    • The blotter: Week ending 19 September 2010 | ARTS & FARCES internet

      [...] it time to stop writing for the web? Tamsin Hemingray thinks so, and she may have a point. Make no mistake, Hemingray isn’t at all in the content [...]Jun 4, 2013 01:14 pm

    • Alison Boston

      Very interesting reading.  I'll be back to read and say more.  I do both a lot of reading online, and a lot of writing.  Good to read some think the focus is shifting to quality content. Apr 19, 2011 03:05 am

    • James Royal-Lawson

      Interesting post and discussion, and I agree with aspects of it - but ultimately I disagree. Yes you should write for your target audience, but when writing for digital channels you have to understand as a writer that your target audience includes the machines that process, index & re-use your carefully written content.

      I wrote the above comment on my Facebook page and it created a little discussion which I've subsequently turned into a little blog post which you can read here:
      http://beantin.se/post/1160590277/no-more-writing-for-the-webSep 24, 2010 08:12 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      @Ian don't worry I didn't take it personally - and it's good to be kept on ones toes about presentation in blog format. It is too easy to waffle and lose your audience, so thanks for the timely reminder :-)

      Actually, my colleage Ifraz was telling me just yesterday about an interesting presentation he saw at UX Brighton relating to recent research into how much web users are willing to read. I'll get him to post about it . . . watch this space.Sep 14, 2010 11:37 am

    • Ian Waugh

      Tamsin, I was exaggerating for effect, apologies ;)

      I did skim some of it because your paragraphs are quite long and you have a big image at the top... but my tastes are quite extreme (as you might have guessed).

      I know what you mean about 'writing for the web' not being a catch-all solution that clients can just turn to to solve their content issues. The range of channels is growing all the time, I guess that will be a challenge to my old-school views!

      My main point is the danger of people taking your message too literally. There aren't many standard bearers for good web content our their in the real world, and we should try hard to be that.

      I'm just worried about web professionals beginning to let people off the hook because 'we don't need to write for the web any more'. I know that's not what you were literally saying though.

      I posted my point: http://www.abtsmpl.com/blog/web-writing-reports-of-my-death-are-greatly-exaggerated.htmlSep 13, 2010 11:27 pm

    • Roger

      Love it.  You're bang on.  Write (and do content) for a purpose, not for a channel/medium/whatnot.  Bleeding obvious, unless you've been brainwashed by a career in corporate marketing.Sep 11, 2010 12:18 am

    • Jessica

      Lots of good points here; this is an important discussion to have! But I think there are still a lot of people producing content for the web that haven't mastered those basics you mention: "use hyperlinks, shorten URLs, provide references to supporting information, check facts, quote accurately, get all relevant permissions, keep it short and sweet, be interesting and original, source a kick-ass creative commons image to support their copy and so on."

      Not everyone producing online content is a professional communicator, and when I do any sort of "writing for the web" training in my organization, it's really to communicate these basics that are easy for people used to writing online to take for granted. Once content producers in my organization understand why they shouldn't write "click here," spell out URLs rather than linking the text, or "borrow" whatever random image they find through a Google Image search, then we can move past the basics and on to a more nuanced discussion.Sep 10, 2010 05:50 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      Pleased to have sparked a bit of a conversation here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts everyone.

      @Ian Ouch! Have been writing words for websites, blogs and any other format online you'd care to mention since 1996, so if I haven't got the basics sorted by now I think I might be doomed. I guess I'll just have to find a way of carrying on life without your full attention. ;-)

      @Louise I've delivered these kinds of courses too . . . glad I made you smile.

      I am being deliberately provocative. Of course there are basic things that we all need to do to make our writing work online. And it's bad news when people don't do them. And people don't do them too often. But I really am just trying to make the point that there are so many different ways that your words might reach your audience online these days (and I'm not really even including mobile and iPads in that), that it's way too simplistic to suggest to the people who are trying to "catch up" that you can "write for the web" by doing a, b and c.Sep 10, 2010 01:43 pm

    • Andy Church

      Yes, writing for users and buyers is key. Pragmatic Marketing is one of my favorite references when clients ask why are you asking these questions as it relates to a content strategy and collateral development (print, web, interactive etc).

      Writing for the web sounds like a course from the distant past :)Sep 9, 2010 04:35 pm

    • Louise Hewitt

      Hahah - I used to deliver these courses, so your post made me smile.

      5-10 years ago, the internet was a new publication medium for most 'writers', and their hard and fast rules for grammar were inappropriate for screen reading. So it was really helpful to go out there with a new set of 'rules' to help them optimise impact and readability (e.g. write all numbers as numerals).

      For many people creating content for websites (and most commercial content is still delivered through traditional, browser-viewed web pages, not iPhones or iPads) the rules they learned in school still govern the way they write. So a 1-day course for how web-writing differs is still relevant.

      I think you are referring to a group that is still a minority: those who are tasked with writing professional copy for marketing via a range of digital devices. Perhaps there's a market for a new 1-dayer "How to write for the iPad" ;)

      Beyond all that though, and I have to agree a little with Ifraz, most writing (including this comment!) is still hard to read online. We use too many words. Perhaps we should take lessons from the deaf community (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sign_language#Spatial_grammar_and_simultaneity)

      Short good > Grammar obstructive.


      Lou.Sep 9, 2010 03:13 pm

    • Ifraz Mughal

      Focus on the audience and build around them - thank you Tamsin.Sep 9, 2010 12:24 am

    • Ian Waugh

      Have to admit that I skipped a lot of your post because it isn't written for the web. Ironic, possibly.

      I totally agree though, that writing for your audience is the most important thing. But that's the point of 'writing for the web'... writing for the way people read on the web, or for the fact that they are mostly focused on completing a brief task and leaving.

      It's a bit worrying to see important concepts being though of as 'defunct' when most people haven't started doing it yet!

      As you say though, as the number of digital channels has increased, the nuances of good web writing have developed. They all should be founded in the basics though.Sep 8, 2010 11:40 pm

    • Trisha Brandon

      Interesting thoughts and I do agree with you, Ahava, that there's some shockingly bad writing out there. But it feels to me that a present day "writing for the web" course would be primarily for latecomers or people dabbling in digital. Any writer with up-to-date skills should already get it, full stop. It's simply what's expected now. But maybe I'm a purist ;-)Sep 8, 2010 02:34 pm

    • Diana Railton

      I agree that 'web' is a shorthand term now that we have a plethora of web communication channels to choose from. But, whatever the title, there are solid research findings on how people read onscreen and on the web, so it's crucial to highlight these. Whether I'm running a training course on 'writing for the web', 'writing for the intranet', 'blog writing' etc I would emphasise these - as well as the number one rule to understand and engage with your audiences.

      As you say, certainly a one-day course is only a starting point but it can provide a very useful foundation for people to build on, whatever the channel. 

      I would be the first to advocate content strategy, but at the right managerial level. There is a huge difference between strategic planning and writing tactics. But I know what you mean.

      Thanks for raising some very useful points.Sep 8, 2010 01:47 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      Hi Ahava - thanks for your comment. I suppose my point is that the idea of a one day course where you learn to "write for the web" is not particularly relevant any more. Just like you wouldn't expect to be able to learn how to be a travel writer or legal reporter in a day. To really write properly on the web you have to stop seeing it as a single medium or channel, and get underneath the skin of your audiences and their preferences dependent on whether you're writing on a corporate website, a blog, on Twitter etc. A one day course (or even a week long one) will not necessarily a competent web writer make.Sep 7, 2010 08:19 pm

    • Ahava Leibtag

      I agree with your basic premise, but you make assumptions that aren't always correct.  For example, most people writing a booklet think about the audience, but don't think about how the content might translate in the online space.  And a lot of writers think that because they posted a press release online, they are a Web writer.  I think what you're really describing is a digital communications writer--not just a Web writer, and I like that title also.  But I don't think writing for the Web is over yet--just take a good look at what is being produced out there--it's scary.Sep 7, 2010 07:58 pm

    Please note: the opinions expressed in this post represent the views of the individual, not necessarily those of iCrossing.

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