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writing for the web

words - writing - web

Sue Emms
Waiariki Institute of Technology

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


Defining the Internet, the Web, browsers and users; the opportunities and limitations of technology,
text on the Web, initial considerations around how users read web content.
“Writing web copy that is effective for both humans and search engines is a bit of an art.”
Barbara Tallent

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


Anyone who wants their writing to be on the web, or who wishes to write for web publication, will find it
helpful to have a general understanding of what the Internet is and how it works, because writing for the
web isn’t only about good writing. Some technical knowledge and expertise is vital.
We’ll begin, then, with the fastest introduction ever to the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the concept
of Users.
People often use the terms ‘Internet’ and the ‘World Wide Web’ interchangeably - but they are two separate things. Paul Gil puts it this way: “the Internet is a network of computers, and the World Wide Web is a
collection of HTML pages on those computers”.
To explain further:
The Internet is a massive combination of computers world-wide. Millions of them. Personal, business,
governmental, all joined by cables and/or wireless connections.
No one owns the Internet, no one governs it or has authority over its operations.
(Some governments try to control what is allowed in their countries, but no one has control over the
entire thing.)
Think of the Internet as the hardware.
The World Wide Web, usually called the web, is a collection of HTML pages on the Internet. It is the
huge amount of software
dedicated to broadcasting the HTML pages.
The web is based on a particular computer language: hypertext transfer protocol (http).
Think of the web as the content and the software.
Users. That is, people who use the Internet in any way, whether it is creating software programs, creating web-page content, interacting via social sites, or reading websites.
Think of the Users as ‘us’.

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


People who read through web pages are often called browsers. It’s important
not to get hung up on terminology but it is as equally important to be aware that,
in the Internet world, a browser is not a person, but a software application which
allows users to navigate around the various HTML pages on the Internet.
The most popular browsers, at the time of writing, are Mozilla Firefox, Google
Chrome, Opera, Apple Safari and Internet Explorer.
Many computer users take their browser for granted - it is something which is on their computer when they
buy it - but there are a number of popular browsers freely available, and which can be downloaded to allow
users to personalise their browsing.
The important thing to know is this:
Different browsers may display content differently
What that means to you, as a writer of web content, is you need to be aware that your careful tweaking
and formatting of text - which looks terrific on your computer - could be a jumbled, slow-loading mess on
someone else’s.
(I discovered that, personally, when creating this PDF for uploading. Worked fine in eCampus, and didn’t
work fine in Scribd. Turned out I’d used fonts and page sizes that weren’t compatible. Rats. I should have
read the directions more closely!)
The Waiariki Institute does not recommend one browser over another.
But knowing how your text will look, especially if you are responsible for uploading it to the Net, is part of
being web-savvy. Go to Web Browser Resources by Jennifer Kym to read more about the most popular

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


Although early versions of the Internet have been around for decades, the Internet as we know it today
only hit its stride in the late 1990s. A number of things lead to the enormous change in Internet usage.
(a) Email. The advent of email engaged the average user with the Internet - because email
was an easy introduction into a technology that, previously, was seen as the province of
‘geeks and nerds’.
(b) Faster Internet connections. In the 90s, most people with Internet had a dial-up connection that might have seemed miraculous in the day, but was achingly slow (56kbps*).
To compare: if you want to download a feature-length film on an average broadband
connection (in New Zealand), it will take about 1 hour. With a dial-up connection, it will
take about 3-5 days).
Broadband arrived at the turn of the century and suddenly the Internet became completely relevant. Data could be transmitted at a useful speed, and data travelling down
a telephone line could be split between telephone and Internet, meaning an ordinary
phone line was no longer clogged up whenever a person went on line.
(c) Wireless technology arrived and, suddenly users could connect anyplace, anytime, anywhere. Wherever, whenever, however.
KEY THOUGHT. The arrival of the Internet paved the way for the World Wide Web.
*KBps - Kilobytes per second. Essentially, the higher the kilobyte number, the faster the broadband speed.
The impact of wireless technology
With the arrival of wireless technology and fast Internet connection speeds, the commercial world sat up
and took notice. Suddenly, people could see opportunities for making big money. The result? The Internet
exploded in size, purpose and popularity. The result was the bursting of the ‘dot-com bubble’.
The ‘ bubble’ refers to how quickly the Internet expanded and the way it burst, just like a soap bubble will pop if it is blown up too fast. Huge numbers of ‘start-up’ Internet companies went bust at this point.
The burst of the bubble was a good thing
The burst of the dot-com bubble left many people out of pocket, but brought about a clearer focus on what
the Internet was all about, and its potential purpose.
Business and commerce moved in to sell or inform across their websites; distance education became easier
to manage - content could be created and stored and presented in interesting and interactive ways; online
gaming rapidly evolved to become the preferred form of relaxation (beating out TV, films, and books). People starting making connections with complete strangers and developing genuine and meaningful relationships.
Innovative thinkers brought entirely new ideas to the page - Facebook, for example, which was launched in
February 2004; YouTube in 2005; Twitter, in March 2006.
KEY THOUGHT. Developments on the Internet have changed the face of personal interaction, business operations, public relations, news reporting, entertainment, everything.

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


The ease of creating and uploading web content makes it very appealing to users at a variety of levels.
Some people consider the web a great way to:
Make money - selling stuff online or promoting off-line services.
Share information, either freely, or as paid content.
Connect with like-minded people.
Be heard (via blogs, etc.)
The overall focus of the Applied Writing qualification is on writing. As such, we don’t plan to side-track too
much into how to write sales stuff, for example, or the technology side of things like building websites they are both huge topics that need and deserve separate courses.
But just as writers of:
Five hundred years ago needed to know how to dip a quill into an inkwell and to blot their pages
properly so the ink didn’t smudge;
Seventy years ago needed to know how to roll paper into a typewriter and use carbon paper;
Thirty years ago needed to know how to use a word processor;
Today need to know how to use a computer-someone who wants to write web content needs to know enough to write content that looks good on a
webpage, which appeals to readers, which can be found, and they need to know how to upload successfully. We will be discussing all of these topics throughout this course.
KEY THOUGHT. There is no need to be daunted by the idea of publishing online, in any form. The World
Wide Web is simply another opportunity for writers to be read. But it
does mean a writer needs to wear a few more hats than only that of
What the previous information tells you is what you no doubt know
The World Wide Web is monstrous. It is huge. There are literally
billions of HTML pages ‘out there’. How then, do you find the right
person to submit your writing to - or get the piece of writing you’ve
uploaded noticed? There are a number of ways, and we will discuss a variety of them throughout this
But at this point it’s worth mentioning one important way to get noticed: that is, by making a page appealing to search engines. Yes, those tools like Google, Ask Jeeves, Bing, and hundreds more you use to search
the web.

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


A search engine is a software program that searches websites according to the particular search term put in
by a user.
Search engines use 'spiders' (bits of software, basically, that crawl around the web) to identify sites
which contain the user's search term.
Search engines create a database of the information found by the spiders - which is why you can
sometimes get stuck with old, cached material: a search engine has its directory of stored information and that's where it goes first when a new search is started. That can be frustrating but, on the
other hand, sometimes a cache is the only place you'll find that website you looked at 6 months ago...
Search engines are enormously complex and clever. They search for words and phrases exactly as
entered and they work out which webpages to search, out of the billions 'out there'.
So, how does a search engine decide a webpage is important to the user?
Methods vary between search engines2 but include:
Proximity searches - the engine knows your location and tries to figure out what is local and most
Popular searches - the engine notes what other engines have found, and what people are already
Keyword searches, and codes hidden in text, and tags.
The more connected a website is with other sites, the more often it is visited, the more likely it is to be
found by the spiders. That's why you'll see people exchanging links, or clicking 'like' at the bottom of a blog
KEY THOUGHT. Considerations around writing web-content include making text 'findable' to search engines. (More on this later in the course.)
So far so good?
That's a brief background to the Internet and the World Wide Web. It is there, in all its glorious and massive existence, and it has changed the way we live our lives.
Changed what we do, maybe, and how we do it - but it hasn't changed the essence of who we are. It's this
confluence of new technology and 'who' people are which makes writing for the web so interesting.
It helps the writer to know that, as a general rule, people absorb information in a variety of ways.
Please bear with me: the info that follows may seem a digression, but it is helpful and relevant to those
who want to write good web content.

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


By listening
People absorb information aurally. That is, they listen. At one time, information was
shared mostly through stories told around the campfire, maybe, or at the local meeting
Speakers may have emphasised details with the use of props or gestures or facial expressions, but the prime information was spoken in some way. One reason travelling minstrels were popular in Europe, and song and dance was popular in Polynesian cultures
etc. is that rhyme, song and dance make complex info memorable.
Today, along with traditional story-telling methods, radio and podcasts meet aural needs.

By observing
People absorb information through what they see. Originally, way back in time, that would have been the
observation of 'live' action, whether it was watching Gor catch a mammoth, or Minnie milk a cow.
It was often subconscious learning or absorbing of
Today, visual needs are met that way and through a wide variety of media - film,
television, ‘how-to’ demonstrations, stage shows, street performers, and so on.

By doing
Many people absorb information by doing. This kind of person is called 'kinaesthetic'. They like a hands-on
approach to finding out what they need to know. They would rather go through the process of creating a
webpage, say, than sit in a class and listen to someone tell them how to do it.
If they watched over someone's shoulder as that person created a page, a kinaesthetic person would soon
be edging their way onto the seat and taking over the keyboard.
Many computer programs offer interactive, 'hands on' learning through
simulation and games.
KEY THOUGHT. Most people absorb information in a number of ways, but
lean most strongly toward one of the above styles. They prefer to listen,
to see, or to do
Where does the written word feature?
You may note that text hasn’t yet been mentioned.
That's because text holds a unique place. Yes, it is read and, ergo, it must be visual. But it is not truly visual
in the sense that it is not easy to scan like an image on a screen. It takes concentration to read a block of
text and take meaning from it.
I am not criticising the written word, by the way.
I am a fan of reading and it is always my preferred method of absorbing information and of entertainment.
But I am stating the facts -- reading text isn't necessarily easy.
(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


Compare, for instance, the difference between reading a text which tells you how to build a garage, with a
text that includes pictures of how to build a garage; and then compare those methods to watching an actual demonstration of how to do it. If it's well written, the plain text may give the best specific info, but it's
likely to be the hardest to absorb.
Text plus images can give clear instructions and is brilliant because the builder can go back and check, and
work at their own pace.
A live demonstration can be good IF the demo allows live interaction.
If it doesn't, then a surprising amount of detail can be missed by those watching. It's an acknowledged fact
that most people have poor observational skills, for a variety of reasons.
KEY THOUGHT. Text is one of the best ways of conveying information and detail - but how that text is presented can make all the difference to the reader.

We could spend a year discussing this topic! But keeping focus on the point of this course, here, again, is
super-fast overview:
Writing has been around for thousands of decades but it was hard work producing paper and ink, and
writing was usually left to experts - trained scribes, priests, etc. Few people could read.
The primary method of sharing information in early societies was oral. In an 'aural' society (for want
of a better expression), the orator was king. People listened, and they went away and discussed what
they'd heard.
The risk with this kind of information sharing was misinformation - the 'Chinese whispers' effect.
The arrival of mass printing changed the way society absorbed information. Printed material allowed
people to read and reflect. It was a benchmark - that is, a reference point that helped stop misinformation (i.e. people could refer to what was written and dispel rumours.)
Mass printing changed the dissemination of stories and knowledge. Now, anyone could share their
opinion. Knowledge was no longer under the control of a small select group (such as religious orders
of the day).
In a short period of time - relatively speaking - printed material became the preferred method of
disseminating information, of sharing teaching materials, of entertainment.
KEY THOUGHT. The printing press was the Internet of its day. Just as the Internet has changed social interaction and society today, the printing press changed society in its day.

For nearly a hundred years, the printed word held sway
The printing of images was difficult and costly, and most books and newspapers contained pages and pages
of densely-written text. Due to a variety of factors, there was little consideration of font styles, white space
and images.
No-one complained - that's just the way it was. Few people today would enjoy reading older-style layouts.

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


Let's change direction slightly. Three points to begin:
1. The availability of the web to almost everyone as a forum for sharing information makes
it very appealing.
2. People are not as scared of (or impressed by) technology as previous generations.
3. Technology has, perhaps for the first time ever, become user friendly in a genuine and
meaningful way. There is lots to learn, yes, but much of the 'work' has been done for users.
Compare, as an example, early web-pages which had to be written in HTML code, with the
'ready-to-wear' website templates freely available. Users can simply copy and paste material
from a Word document and, voila, they have created a website.
At the level we are discussing, technology today allows anyone to be an expert at placing web content on
the Internet. If a person can get their hands on a computer, if they can connect to the Internet, they can put
content on the web.
It might be a daily blog, a Facebook comment or a complex website - the options are huge - but the point is,
anyone can do it. Users can:
1. Create their own space by creating a new website, or by using a template set up by any number of
2. Share content freely with other online users through shared websites.
3. Sell content to other site owners, in the same way they might sell to a print magazine editor or
business corporation (depending on what the content is. )
Just as the arrival of the printing press in 1454 changed people's perceptions of what they could do, so has
the arrival of the computer and the Internet today. Publishing is no longer the province of specialised publishing houses. Publishing has become the province of the ordinary person.
In other words - you and me.
KEY THOUGHT. Technology frees people to pursue complex goals that were once outside of the average
person's grasp.

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


People may develop technology, and it is 'our' servant to a great degree (in other words, we use it for our
own purposes) but technology is also a great limiter. Users can only do what technology allows. It's always
been that way. As some examples:
Back in the day (3,000 BC and onward) people used carved cylinders to roll an impression into a clay
tablet. Clay can't take truly complex images, and the carving of the cylinders, the pressing of the cylinder into the clay, and the drying process were all long and involved. If a dry clay tablet was dropped it
was likely to smash, and all the work lost.
Later, images were carved into stone, wood and/or metal, rolled with ink and pressed against parchments and vellum.
Imagine the skills needed to implement this kind of technology - and its limitations. No quick delete
or handy bottles of Twink...
Realistically, although people of all types of skills were needed to create paper or vellum, to carve the
presses, make ink and complete the process - very few people could actually do the job.
It wasn't a process easily available to Average Joe.
Compare that with the ease of today's printing. There may still be lots going on in the background which
allows today's user to print but, essentially, almost anyone can boot up a computer and print a page.
Anyone can, if they want, write text or create images and upload them to the web. But to make the most of
this opportunity, it's best to master basic technology concepts.
KEY THOUGHT. Technology both allows something to happen - and limits what can be done.
The information on the previous pages is leading to this point: when you write for the web, you must write
to its technological limitations as well as the usual considerations of 'what you are writing and for whom'
as you would consider when writing for a print readership. Some technical limitations are obvious, others
more subtle.
Here is one quick example.
Consider the font you are reading. It is a sans-serif font - that is, a font without ticks and curlicues. A sansserif font makes reading text on a screen easier. Why? Because a monitor is lower resolution (in regard to
print quality) than a piece of paper. There is more white space around the individual letters, and a nonfussy font is easier for the eye to pick up.
In printed material, a serif font is considered easier to read. The serifs - those little ticks and curlicues on
the letters - work by leading the eye from one letter to the next. That, in turn, allows the reader to read
whole words and sentences.
On a screen, those serifs make the letters harder to read.
Want proof? The text in this PDF is Calibri 12. Here is the same text in Times New Roman 12.
(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


Consider the font you are reading. It is a serif font - that is, a font with ticks and curlicues. A sans-serif
font makes reading text on a screen easier. Why? Because a monitor is actually a lower resolution (in
regard to print quality) than a piece of paper. There is more white space around the individual letters,
and a non-fussy font is easier for the eye to pick up.
In printed material, a serif font is considered easier to read. The serifs - those little ticks and curlicues
on the letters - work by leading the eye from one letter to the next. That, in turn, allows the reader to
read whole words and sentences. At low resolution, as on a screen, the serifs make the letters harder to
What if you enlarge the Times New Roman font? Would that help?

Consider the font you are reading. It is a serif font - that is, a font with ticks and curlicues. A sans-serif font makes reading text on a screen easier. Why? Because a monitor
is actually a lower resolution (in regard to print quality) than a piece of paper. There is
more white space around the individual letters, and a non-fussy font is easier for the eye
to pick up.
In printed material, a serif font is considered easier to read. The serifs - those little ticks
and curlicues on the letters - work by leading the eye from one letter to the next. That,
in turn, allows the reader to read whole words and sentences. At low resolution, as on a
screen, the serifs make the letters harder to read.
What do you think? Share your thoughts on the forum.

You may have noticed that smaller screen sizes and shorter lines are easier to read. That's because it is
easier for the human eye to absorb the information. When we have to scan across long lines of text, it is
harder to read.
That should instantly tell you that, in regard to the written word, web content is best presented in
narrower widths - not across the widthe of a screen. The writer also needs to consider acknowledged
‘reading patterns’.
The F-shaped reading pattern
Eye-tracking studies have shown that people who read web pages tend to do so in an F-shaped pattern.
That is:
• They scan the first few lines of the page from left to right, all the way across the screen. That's the
top bar of the F.
• Then they move down the page a bit and read across the screen again, but only about halfway.
• Then they scan down the left-hand side of the page in a vertical direction.
Head along to 'Research on how users read on the Web' for some cool images that clearly demonstrate the
patterns. The red areas are the 'hot-spots' - the sections most read by the user. The yellow is the next most
read, the blue the least read.

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology


The F-shape might be slightly different according to a user or page layout, but the general principle is true.
What this tells you is you can't think "ha. I'll get around the technical side by creating a PDF and uploading
it" because your user is still likely to read in an F-shaped pattern, and is still likely to skip parts of the page.

Do the course texts break the F-shaped reading rule?
Yes, they do. We’ve put the major body of text for this course into weekly PDFs. Why?
1. Because we need to provide you with a large body of text. PDFs are easier for you to download and
save to your own computer, and to print off. As it happens, we are (as mentioned) experimenting with
different ways of delivering text based on feedback from previous students. If you have any observations or comments, we would love to hear from you.
2. There is a difference between a dedicated reader -- someone like yourself who has gone to a specific website with a specific purpose in mind, and the user who is simply browsing through websites
trying to find something informative or interesting.
The dedicated reader will focus on the screen more.
The user browsing around for what they want will not read the page, they will skim it. Studies have
shown that people rarely read a web page word-by-word. Users just skim the text and pick out individual words and sentences.
We have also kept a number of design considerations directly relevant to reading from a webpage in mind
when writing these courses. We use:
-lots of white space
-short concise paragraphs
-plain and informative headings.
These things are done for good reasons, a number of which we will be exploring later in this course.

Writing for the web takes a combination of:

Writing skills.
Understanding of the technology and the terminology.
Basic technological skills.
Awareness of the online reading habits of users.

The need to blend these four aspects can make writing for the web seem complex to begin with - after all,
it's hard enough just to write well! – but, as with many skills, once the basic steps are absorbed, the building of knowledge and application of skills becomes easier.

(c) Copryight Sue Emms/Waiariki Institute Technology