Brian Carroll
| COM 303

"The Web is jam-packed with empty, incoherent, ill-organized, meaningless, repetitive pages. Gunk. Spam. Junk. Crap. It gives the Web a bad name."   --Rachel McAlpine, author, Web Word Wizardry



Our understanding of how to structure information comes from the organization of printed books and periodicals. How to put a book together is well established, from its table of contents to its index (it is a technology).

Maybe Web pages, too, will evolve and standardize. (Maybe they won't.) Certainly some do's and don'ts have emerged.

In some ways, text presentations for the Web are similar to those for traditional print publications. First and foremost, Web content requires good writing, just like print (or TV, radio, and film), though it is often neglected on the Web.

Graphics, animation, audio and video often get more attention, but the lack of good writing is a significant problem on the Web. This is where we come in.

Web users are not merely reading content. They are interacting with it in ways print on paper cannot facilitate. They inhabit a space rather than merely read a linear narrative. Help them figure this space out and be comfortable in it.


Hypertext makes "reading" on the Web non-hierarchical and non-linear, more like accessing a matrix and moving around within it than reading left to right, line by line, as in a narrative.

<<As author Carolyn Dowling put it, "Writers [and editors] of hypertext . . . might be described as the designers and builders of an information 'space' to be explored by their readers."


Key Words >> Space >> The Matrix

Paper has a fixed structure. Hypertextual environments do not. Think about how the content is structured and whether that structure can be easily subverted. Think three-dimensional space. Think of this room and perhaps waking up this morning in its middle. How would you know where you were? How desperate would you be to find out?

metaphor: Web as vast terrain

Think cues and key words. Web editors "must enter the mind of the site's target visitors and second-guess their choice of vocabulary," McAlpine writes. Text for the Web, therefore, must be rich in key words.

A related point is to present text with the ways search engines classify and organize information in mind.

This relates to the Google-ization of American culture

  • surface web v. deep web
  • blue bar on browsers
  • meta tags
  • labeling

google balls

ow do people read on the Web?

People typically do not read word for word on Web pages. They scan.

One study showed that perhaps 79% of Web users scan any new page they download; just 16% reported reading word for word (see Nielsen's study for much more).

So, they need clues, sign posts, highlights. Content should be shaped and labeled for scanning.

Based on the need for scannable text, Jakob Nielsen recommends several techniques or attributes that can enhance "scannability"

  • Highlighted key words and hypertext links; typeface variations and color
  • Sub-headings
  • Bulleted lists (like this one)
  • One idea per paragraph, ideally introducing it in the first few words
  • Information presented in inverted pyramid style.
  • Brevity. Nielsen recommends half the word count (or less) than conventional writing (more on this later)


How Web text differs from traditional print publication text

Unlike print, which is basically presented in take-it-or-leave-it form, the online environment is influenced and sometimes directly controlled by the user.

The one-way producer-consumer relationship is not as relevant on the Web.

McAlpine advises that to successfully communicate on the Web, "You need to switch from 'think paper' mode to 'think Web' mode."

Holding the reader's attention.
Web users are "monsters of impatience."

The Web is ephemeral, unlike ink on paper, so the context and the purpose should always be clear.

Content is appearing on a PC screen, which is not fun to read. We should be sensitive to contributing to eyestrain.

Another difference:

Unlike print, online content producers lack control over how users view content, particularly the order in which they view or scan it.

One of the mistakes inexperienced Web writers and editors make is to assume that everyone enters a site through the home page.

Remember Google

This assumption carries with it the inference that the visitors know the context of all the other pages on the site.

This isn't so, so each and every page should be designed and written and edited with this in mind. The pages should be independent, and with their own self-contained context independent of the rest of the site.

In a study by the Poynter Institute and Stanford University, researchers tracked users' eye movements. Among the findings was that these online readers fixed their eyes first on words, not images. This is the opposite of how we understand people read print newspapers, grabbed first by photos, then by headlines, and finally copy.

Quick summary: K*I*S*S*S

The Web puts a unique burden on the writer. Editors need to ensure that the writing is

  • Concise (simple)
  • Easily scanned (scan-able)
  • Devoid of hype (straightforward)

    No print data dumps (shovelware) or "dumb" re-purposing.

"Your audience gives you everything you need. They tell you. There is no director who can direct you like an audience."     --Fanny Brice, entertainer

Web content, like any other content, should be developed and presented with someone in mind.

This knowledge facilitates logical, predictable, consistent presentations that enhance readability and usability, which in turn encourage return visits.

Hammerich and Harrison: "Keeping the attention of drive-thru users will be the greatest challenge you face in developing Web content."

Checklist of assumptions

  • Who do you want to visit your site or individual page? Be specific. Thinking this through will help you determine not only the substance of content but levels of detail and abstraction, as well.
  • Where is does this audience live, geographically? Local, national, international? All of the above? Does this have any implications culturally, ethnically, or linguistically?
  • What information challenges does this audience face? Too much information. Too little? Immediate need? Long-term planning?
  • What are you offering in response to these challenges? Efficiency, advice, participation in something meaningful, networking, etc.
  • What information should your site provide in order to achieve these goals?
  • Where does your audience go to satisfy its information needs? Again, be as specific as you can. You can learn from these other sources.
  • How often do you want or do you anticipate visitors coming to your site? Once, daily, weekly, monthly? The frequency will guide how often your site's content should be updated or replaced.

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Print v. Web: Case Study #1

Look at news coverage in print versus online.

How are they different and why?

How does the Web version facilitate interactivity?

What all can readers/users DO?

How is the text presentation different?

How does the page convey location and space?



        • Macro and micro navigation
        • Path: >> Business >> Media & Advertising
        • "Article Tools" -- Email the article, print it, reprints
        • Multimedia
        • Background (drill-down): .pdf files, statements, reports
        • Further drill-down at bottom to related, archived articles
        • Reader forums (discussion/interactivity)
        • Hyperlinks throughout article (not to homepages, but to related articles)
Online Style Points

In print, for a book or newspaper, the document forms a whole. The reader is focused on the entire set of information.

On the Web, each document should stand alone. Site visitors can enter a site from multiple points, or any of the site's individual pages. Each page should, therefore, be independent and explain its topic without assumptions about the previous or subsequent pages.

Web design guru Jakob Nielsen, writing for Sun Microsystems, provided these suggestions and conventions for online style:

  • Cut the word count for an online version by half that used writing for print. Web users find it painful to read too much text on screens. They read about 25% more slowly from screens than from paper.
  • Most important information should go at the top. Users do not like to scroll.
  • A related point: Content should be written in the "news you can use" style. Allow users to quickly find the information they want. Web users are impatient and critical. As Nielsen says, they did not select your site because you are great but because they have something they need to do.
  • "Marketingese" should be avoided. Snake oil. A more objective style should be used since credibility is important on the Web, where users connect to unknown servers at remote locations. Web writers have to work to earn the user's trust, which is rapidly lost if you use exaggerated claims or overly boastful language.
  • Clever or cute headings? No. Convey useful information instead.
  • Avoid metaphors, particularly in headings. Users might take the metaphors literally, which would make it more difficult to readily grasp the purpose of the content. I would think this especially dangerous in public health-related information.
  • Simple sentence structures are preferred. Convoluted writing and complex words are even more difficult to understand online. Puns are not recommended. International users, especially, would find them confusing.

Web Style Guide 2: Case Study #2

Patrick Lynch and Sarah Horton expertly developed pages that both belong together but can stand alone.

The pages in this site are fairly brief, with hyperlinked material within and easy navigation down the left panel and at the top right.

It is important to link to background or explanatory information to help users who perhaps do not have the necessary knowledge, and navigation must be intuitive and readily available. Note also the authors' use of bolded text and graphics.

Lynch and Horton add the following to Nielsen's suggestions:

  • Build clear navigation aids (mentioned above in building credibility, as well). Users should always be able to easily return to the home page.
  • Have no dead-end pages. Every Web page should contain at least one link.
    Give users direct access. Provide the user with the information they want in the fewest possible steps.

  • Direct the viewer's eye, but do not distract. Graphics should be used deliberately and not gratuitously.

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Information that can be briefly included on a Web page should not be hyperlinked.

What is hyperlinked should be accompanied by information about that link so a reader knows where he or she is going.

Hyperlinks should provide supplemental information, like definitions of terms and abbreviations, reference information and background reading.

Links allow content to be added without interfering with the flow of the story.

If a presentation is about the hazards of childhood smoking, links to actual studies, resources, and related articles might be appropriate. Readers do not have to rely solely on the content.

Nielsen suggests thinking of "linking" as the quickest means to get the user to the most relevant information.

State conclusions and link to supporting details.

Nielsen also makes the point that links embedded in a document are the primary links a Web publisher wants a reader to see.

Readers use these links as guideposts in scanning, so they should be used correctly and written in a way that takes best advantage of them.

Only the most pertinent should actually be a "part" of the document. Use them judiciously, consistent with your main points, and do not them distract.

BLOGS: Case Study #3



Readers do not need labels such as, "Click here" or "ENTER." All of the text should be content, not merely neon signage pointing to content.


lessig blog shot

Select appropriate key words, then bold them for easy scanning and to help users quickly discern the purpose of the page where to get more information.

C|Net: Case Study #4

cnet screen

c|net news

Notice what is in bold and how the content behind the link is described.

The reporter's name and relevant information are linked within.

Supporting or related information also linked down the right side.

Macro site navigation at the top and bottom of the screen, which is consistent throughout c|net.


Nebraska: Case Study #5

Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor State Lodge Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Suhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,000), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).

In 1996, six of the most-visited places in Nebraska were:

Fort Robinson State Park 355,000 visitors
Scotts Bluff National Monument 132,000
Arbor State Lodge Historical Park & Museum 100,000
Carhenge 87,000
Suhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer 60,000
Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park 28,000

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Roles of Web Writers and Editors

An online editor must be part content developer, content strategist, producer, manager, managing editor and project manager.

The job has evolved as media have evolved, and as convergence has become pervasive.


  • Communicator: How many sites fail to make a point, any point? The message needs to be conveyed in clever, amusing, interesting, and profound ways.
  • Organizer of information: Decisions must be made about what is most important and, in leaving information out, what is not important enough.
  • Interpreter: The message has to be right for the medium.

More specifically:

  • Identify readers and the purpose of the content. Think about readers' needs.

    Knowing readers also means knowing what hardware and software they may be using (and conversely, knowing what they probably aren't using).

  • Define document structure and links. Develop a structure suited to the content's purpose that is obvious and easy to navigate.

    Sections and pages should be largely independent, with associative and navigational links serving as transitions.

    Content is the focus of the user's attention; it is the reason they go online in the first place and it is the first thing they look at when they load a new page.

  • Web pages should support non-sequential, incomplete reading. Content should be broken up into coherent, self-contained chunks that are understandable even if read out of sequence.

    A reader's path may be unpredictable, but the structure of that document should not be. Readers require a clear sense of how the document is organized so they can move through its structure easily.

    Troffer writes that as an online editor, the goal is to reduce the risk of disorientation. Readers should not become "lost in cyberspace" - having to retrace their steps, or move forward with no clear idea of where they are going.

  • Edit. Review and edit content, structure and navigation, links, writing style, and visual design. Begin early and repeat throughout.

    Check colors, graphics, headlines, subheads, paragraph lengths, and consistency of all elements.

    Troffer suggests editing content chunks in random order, rather than in sequence.

  • Copyedit. Online copyediting also involves checking consistency in visual design, testing links, and ensuring accurate reading. Content should be read many times, even backwards, to catch mistakes and typos.

    This function includes inspecting naming conventions for individual pages, folders and sections. The organization of a site is translated into file names according to certain conventions.

    Also check pages in different browsers (Mozilla, Opera, Netscape), using different monitors and connection speeds. Hard copy printouts can really help at this stage. Misspelled words are an embarrassment and detract from credibility. Good copyeditors also can tighten up the writing and facilitate scanning.

  • Write headlines. Online headlines are used differently than those in print, so they should be written differently.

    Online headlines are often displayed out of context, alone, or as part of a list of articles. Findings in an online search query are one example. Users don't get the benefit of the background information and context to interpret the headline.

    Secondly, available space is smaller, so headlines must be smaller relative to print and rely on less around them. While scanning a list of stories, for example, people often look only at the highlighted headlines, skipping summaries and other information.

  • Test usability. Test the tasks that readers probably will want to perform, check that navigation is easy and intuitive, and evaluate reading comprehension.


Editing: A Summary
Everything on a Web page or Web site should be scrutinized.

Particularly wherever words appear.

    • text in navigational icons
    • bars
    • buttons
    • headers and hyperlinks
    • copyright notices
    • words in graphics and illustrations
    • titles, alt tags, meta tags


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Issues & Opportunities

I. Global audience

II. Source credibility

III. Interactivity

IV. Participatory journalism and personal publishing

I. Global communication  

Plain Korean wanted

Web pages are read globally on a 24x7 basis.

Keep it simple and straightforward, or translate the text into several foreign languages.

No confusing acronyms.

Short sentences.

Simple, common, concrete words.

Positive (rather than negative) language.

Active verbs.

Avoid slang, idoms, culturally bound metaphors, wordy clichés, colloquial expressions and ambiguous pronouns, particularly gender-based pronouns.

Dates: Many countries, including most in Asia, present the day first, then month, followed by year.

U.S.: 01/11/2003 means January 11, 2003
For the world, it means November 1, 2003

Confusion can be prevented simply by presenting dates in full: 11 November 2003.

Similar challenges when presenting phone numbers (country codes, area codes, regional codes, etc.) and currencies. A dollar? Whose dollar? Taiwan's? Australia's? The United States'?

II. Source credibility

Trust is another major issue on the Web, particularly in journalism.

On the Web, even subtle elements can either provide users with confidence in the site or make them suspicious.



These elements include:

  • Easy, intuitive site navigation
  • User-friendly site design (much more on this later)
  • High-quality graphics
  • Good writing, no typos or errors (how do you edit online presentations?)
  • Full contact information and a way to get to it on every page
  • Links to other, relevant Web sites (and no broken links)
  • Scannability (do it quickly)

III. Interactivity, Digital Storytelling

Compare with these interactive "experiences"

Meteor Show (MSN)
Aircraft Carrier Tour (WRAL)
Catastrophic Collapse

Market Map

J-Lab's Coolstuff

  • Interactive versions of traditional newspaper and TV graphics
  • Supplemental
  • Story-telling, combining linear and non-linear storytelling and giving users choices
  • Very popular among users
  • Also very time-consuming to produce

IV. Participatory journalism & personal publishing

Weblogs are perhaps the first wave in a new age of personal publishing, and this revolution is not unique to journalism.

The networking capabilities of the Internet are re-shaping society and culture. Michael Lewis describes, for example, Internet-sparked upheavals on Wall Street, in law and in the music business.

Lewis is convinced that:
• Creativity almost always happens at the edges of society and not in the center
• The Internet enables small groups or even individuals to undermine elites

A new media ecosystem is emerging.

We should think about personal publishing, moblogging, thumb tribes and Weblogs each as an emerging organism in this new and networked ecosystem

In this context, common questions being debated seem short-sighted. For example: Is a blogger a journalist? Is everyone with a camera a photographer?
What happens to journalism when every reader can be a writer, editor, producer?

It is not a binary choice. Personal publishing and participatory journalism are here.

Personal publishing, participatory journalism, mainstream media have different mandates:

Blogging >> expression, many voices, debate, speed, transparency, decentralization

Amateur writers
Easy-to-use software
Random acts of journalism (Lott, SF Bay Bridge, Jayson Blair)
Micro-content (micro-breweries similar in eerie ways)
The digestion of life, contemplation of and comment on our world and our place in it.

Journalism >> filtering, editing, checking, accuracy and fairness, agenda-setting, centralization

Blogging >> publish, then filter
Journalism >> filter, then publish

What blogs bring journalism:
Check and balance on sloppy, erroneous, incomplete coverage and reporting

What journalism brings blogs:
Without print journalism, there would be few blogs of import; most still dependent on journalism, reacting to it, commenting on the issues, events and people covered, providing context

Why some in journalism are embracing blogs:

• To connect with audience(s) and build trust.
News organizations see the blog as one of many channels through which editorial content flows.
It helps make these organizations more accessible, answerable and transparent.

• To push the envelope. Blogs expand the boundaries.

• To provide context, notes and content that doesn’t make it into the publication.
Blogs make room for content that doesn’t neatly fit into traditional media.

• To more quickly benefit from ideas and opinions bubbling up into the mainstream.
It has to do with tapping into this new networked media ecosystem.

• To build community, one of THE buzzwords in journalism.
Readers become active partners rather than passive consumers.
Gives readers a stake in the process and its product, increasing loyalty and understanding along the way.
Do not underestimate word-of-mouth referral power in this new media ecosystem.

• To give reporters and writers, who by nature love to write and to express themselves, another avenue for expression.

More on blogs, as tools or media for telling the story:

(Eatonweb publishes blog lists broken down by category)

Sniper trial of John Allen Muhammad in Virginia
The Gazette in Maryland
Reporter David Abrams: an ongoing weblog while he attends the trial. Great example of hard-news blogging.

Virginia-Pilot in Norfolk
Online news coordinator Kerry Sipe
Reporting live from the courts complex, posting minute-by-minute updates throughout the trial.

Sipe: "Continuous online coverage of the trial was my idea. Since there was to be no TV or audio allowed by the court, I felt that real-time online reports would be the next best way to satisfy the intense interest in the trial.

I am using a laptop with a wireless connection to the Internet. My copy is essentially self-edited, though I do have some folks back at the paper looking over my shoulder.

Microsoft as community
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Reporter Todd Bishop
Daily blog/journal to enhance and extend the P-I's regular Microsoft coverage

A few other blogs to sample:

Poynter Institute’s section on weblogs:

John Romensko, Poynter Institute

Dave Barry, humorist


Wrapping it up: What you need to know

  • Space (matrix >> movement >> management)
  • Scanning (road signs)
  • Style (simple, straightforward, informative)

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©2006 Brian Carroll
Last Updated:November 2006
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