Writing for the web
Many newspapers have websites that simply reprint stories from the paper, with no changes whatsoever. That works – so in one sense there is no point in worrying about ‘writing for the web’. If you have completed a worthwhile investigative project, you may immediately post it, as it is, on whatever website is available to you.
However, it is possible to adapt stories to make them more web-friendly. Especially if your story is long, complex and linked to large amounts of other information, a little re-editing can maximise the value readers will take from it.
You probably came up with some of the following points:
- It’s harder to identify the right web article, unlike a print story where headings, sub-headings and so on lead you to what you’re seeking.
- Technology problems (such as power cuts) get in the way more often; you can read by candle-light. So getting to what you need fast is important.
- You tend not to read a web article from beginning to end, but skip through it looking for key points.
- You often rely on the navigation tools like indexes to skip through.
- You may leave a web article half-read, to chase links to other, more relevant-seeming material.
For this reason, getting an article web-ready is not so much about writing it in a different way, but rather about editing your print article so that it has the architecture (shape) and navigation tools a web reader will need. This may mean:
1 The good old ‘Who, Where, What, When, Why and How’ summary.
In this case the essence of the story is summed up at the beginning. Readers who are interested can then read the ‘long tail’ (the full story which follows that nutshell introduction).
2 Giving it a new headline.
Search engines such as Google are very literal-minded: they will only find stories containing the actual keywords a searcher has entered. Wordplay and teases often don’t get picked up, and may irritate readers if they mislead. So while your newspaper may headline the Gindrin story “Deadly harvest”, the web version is more likely to be picked up if it is headlined “Gindrin crop spray damages village health, crops.” A New York Times journalist headlined his analysis of web headlining “This boring headline is written for Google”!
3 Revising language.
Because many web readers tend to be ‘skimmers’, a more straightforward ‘writing for the ear’ approach to language is more user-friendly.
4 Breaking the text into a series of self-contained sub-documents.
Each of those sections you began your story plan with, could be given a sub-heading, and tidied up so that it can be read as a mini-story on its own. The bigger a story is, the longer it will take your reader to download, especially in African countries with narrow bandwidth. And while there is no limit to how long a web story can be, we know that readers read 25% more slowly on screen, so there may be a limit to human patience! So it’s important to inform readers about the content and value of the story, and, if you make them download the whole, unbroken document, make sure it’s worth it. If you do break a story up, make sure each section is genuinely self-contained: since a search engine will not necessarily have brought them in through the ‘front door’ – your introduction – you may need to repeat some information or context in each section. Make sure date markers are clear, so readers know when your story happened.
5 Identifying links to other texts.
For example, you could list links to stories on the FDA suspension of Gindrin, to the national code on crop-spraying, and to international stories on pesticides. But check out sites you link to, to make sure the links are worth following. And get the URL (web address) right: even a skipped comma can make a link valueless.
6 Adding indexes and outlines where needed.
This is so that readers can skip to the part of the story that interests them.
7 Simplifying layout and captions.
The eyes of web readers bounce around, so simple and arresting words are better than long complex lines.
8 Not being carried away by the multimedia possibilities.
Big complex graphics, moving charts and interactive sections require fast connectivity and big bandwidth – which many African searchers simply do not have. In fact, they may be desperately trying to read or download while the electric power holds out. And fancy visuals do not make up for bad writing.
9 Re-checking everything!
Mistakes are easier to spot and faster to correct on the web than in print, but while they are up they may be seen by many more people, and this can, for example, multiply the seriousness of a defamation.
Finally, the following points from the 2007 meeting of the American Copy Editors Society, from an address on Editing for the web by Theresa Schmedding:
Choose the RIGHT multimedia element!
- Still photos – best for setting a mood; making readers stop and think
- Video – best for action, changes, bringing readers face-to-face with a person or event
- Audio – best to hear emotions, add context, ‘in their own words’, narrative backbone behind visual material
- Graphics – best to explain complicated processes, numbers and stats, sequence, scale, development over time, relationship of different elements. Don’t forget maps
- Words – added value, more depth.
Know your audience!
- Myth: Online users log onto your web site for the same reasons they read the paper.
- Fact: Whether that’s true depends on your market, but it is unlikely. Find out who is accessing your site and why.