Reviving Anorexic Web Writing

by Amber Simmons

55 Reader Comments

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  1. I’ll never look at alt text in the same way again.

    Thanks for a reminder of why quality matters.

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  2. Amber,

    You say “[good content] delivers what it promises and delights the attentive reader”. I agree.

    But the key word is “attentive”. There is ample research ( to show that not all – not even most – readers are not attentive.  As you acknowledge, this requires writing for scannability. So I maintain it’s still good advice. “Say exactly what [you] mean with precisely the words required” is not helpful.

    In any case, why should we, as writers, necessarily see these constraints as a negative? Pertarchian sonnets! The epistolary novel! Perec’s ‘La Disparition’! Great works of art have been written by writers embracing constraint. Did Basho ever complain about only having 5,7,5 syllables in a haiku?

    So here is my rendering of your article in a bullet-point haiku:

    • “Now cut your word count!”
    • But she saw in the footer
    • A tower aglow
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  3. Well said, Amber.  Thanks for putting it so well.

    As you suggested, to create alluring content is infinitely more difficult than cranking out marketing copy. I suspect most companies and organizations haven’t gone through the hard work of figuring out what they have to say, other than ‘We sell cement’, or “We offer services.” That’s why the bullets.  If you don’t have anything interesting to say, best be brief about it.

    It’s tricky for us writers to make this case, however. It always seems a bit self-serving.  But coming from a designer, it carries more weight.

    Perhaps we writers should champion the cause of good design.  While designers cry out for better content.

    Nothing works better than seductive content, brilliantly designed.

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  4. I have longed for reading something like this for a long time. You are right: good writing is very important and lousy writing, far from contributing, destroys the readers wish to read more. Congratulations for this article.

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  5. I just wasted hours reading this article, reading the links you mentioned, reading the imaginative offerings on your own Web site. And I am not at all religious—or even ethical.

    Well, I guess I will leave prodding the dull red embers of modern Web writing to poets like you. I am just a geek who designs Web applications. However, I have to admit it is nice to have a poet on my side when I propose to dissolve our app suite’s useless footer into nothingness.

    Thanks for taking the effort you took.


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  6. Dare I not agree with the writer? She is such an obvious authority on alt text writing. Really, I have never seen such a long ad. This text is aggressive, and thus out of place.

    I would really like to see her refuse a project like she explained in the opening paragraph. Unrealistic!

    Writer thinks he is the most important link in web site building.
    Programmer thinks the same thing.
    And surprise, surprise… web designer thinks this too.

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  7. Coming back to Alt=”“: I think your key point is when you observe that no-one should want Salon articles to be shorter. You call that content. Now, if images are part of your content – pictures a photo archive, or charts in a report – then you’re absolutely right, the alt tag content deserves as much good writing and art as the rest of the written content. And I think this is your central argument, and I agree with it.

    Where I’m coming from is that most images are non-content: they aren’t directly part of the information content or task availability of the page. I suspect the purpose of your UT Tower image is to make the page look good and the institution by extension seem of high quality. The image is actually communicating “This is a cool website for a cool university” not “This is a cool picture of a tower.” And the blind equivalent of this content, a cool website for a cool university, is a website that is accessible and easy-to-use.

    After all, you don’t make sighted users sit through a splash screen they can’t skip when they come to the site looking for the contact details for the UT admissions office – do you?

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  8. @*Alasdair*: You’re right: it completely depends on why you’re including the image.

    From a philosophical and/or usability point of view, my opinion is that there isn’t a “right way” to tag images that are not informational content. I think it’s up to the author to decide which is the point of the image: mental break from text (decoration), emotional experience (content and/or decoration), information (content). It’s that middle designation that is tricky: it could go either way.

    So, perhaps we’re not disagreeing fundamentally. I think it’s very much a matter of the kind of website we’re talking about, the context of the image, and the purpose of the image. I certainly don’t think every image needs a verbal alt tag, let alone a descriptive one. But where verbal alt tags are recommended, then I’d like to see a bit more thought put into them.

    I appreciate your clarification, btw. Thanks for coming back.

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  9. I work for a Web company, doing research and writing help files and in-house help articles. I also own a directory and write a blog about Macs.

    On any given day, I could be writing a help file, reviewing 5-10 sites for inclusion in my directory, and writing a post for my blog.

    I have to follow our company’s conventions (and help file standards) for the content I produce. Often, I’m not happy with what I produce, but it’s the way I have to write it.

    When I review sites for the directory, I’m usually surprised by the quality of the content when it’s good. I’m so used to seeing mediocre content (what Amber calls “copy”) that when I see really great (or just good) content, I’m taken aback.

    So when I write for my blog, I aim for posts that Mac users will want to read. A lot of my posts are tips for making life even easier with a Mac. But they aren’t just help files. I post my perspective on each tip, how it’s helped me in my day-to-day.

    After reading this article, it’s clear that I’m still not writing great stuff for my blog. Thanks, Amber, for opening my eyes wide.

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  10. You are writing in past tense (“In those dark days, the people writing the web copy weren’t actually writers”) and present tense (“Years later, however, things are looking much better. Designers and writers collaborate more”). This is not true except for some small fortunate islands in the web but for the most everything is exactly as it was:

    Few clients (and web developers) agree to hire a copy writer. Mostly clients or webdesigners still write the copy. Most clients (and web developers) still produce empty designs before developing the content. And even webdesign is still just “something to make it pretty” for most.

    Nevertheless personally I agree with what you write and will strive to push clients in that direction again.

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  11. What a great article. I am a young web developer / designer and I can’t even count the amount of times I have had to address issues related to poor content. Most of the time I have allowed clients to plug in content after the design, however, I only do this because most of my clients don’t know what they want to say about their business,and I can’t afford to stale out a project. After lots of coaxing, they deliver content that derives from their anxieties about forgetting something. If only there was a way to make all clients understand the value of hired help…

    Jaymz Barber

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  12. You said:

    “pages were designed to be looked at, but not read. Line lengths were much too long. Typography was unheard of. Color schemes were not designed to facilitate easy reading. Center-aligned text in Comic Sans ruled supreme.”

    Please don’t assign the above to the efforts of designers.

    As a long-time designer, I can assure you that is not how we were trained.


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  13. meaningful and compelling – exactly how website content should be. I’m just starting out as a content writer and have been scouting high and low for articles such as this. I concur wholeheartedly with Ms. Simmons when she says that content is the heart of any design. No offense to designers, but you don’t look to the design or Flash to explain to you what the site is all about, You look for content – for lucid words to explain what the site is telling you, what it wants to do and what it wants you to do. Meaningful, compelling words that usher you in, seat you, and narrate the purpose of the website and then gently compel you to fulfill that purpose.

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  14. Whilst I fully understand what the article is saying and completely agree with it for the right kind of website, the fact is that most surfers are looking for information. They are not looking for works of art. They are trying to find what they want asap without having to read through 5 pages of content (or copy…).

    For example, when I visit ALA I know that I will find an article which will take about 15 minutes to read. But if I am trying to figure out whether company X offers some service I don’t actually want to read, I want to find the answer.

    I have always been disheartened by the ubiquitous advice to keep all writing on the web short

    I don’t actually agree that this has been the advice. It’s certainly not advice I’ve read very often. In ten years of web development the advice I’ve read has always been the content should fit the purpose of the site. It might have been interpreted like that, but that’s different.

    Not only were the pages not designed for reading, the content itself wasn’t worth reading. As a result, writers and designers cultivated impatient, lazy readers, and this in turn bred the advice to skip the art of writing altogether and merely summarize.

    I don’t really agree with this either. It is only natural to want to find what you’re looking for with minimal effort. I certainly don’t believe bad content has created lazy readers. I would say it is the opposite. Good content creates attentive readers.

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  15. Good writing makes good reading, doesn’t it.

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  16. Black on white is such high contrast, and too hard for many people to read.  Black, ie absence-of-light, forms the text, on white, the light.  This is like reading the text on a flourescent tube when it’s turned on.

    Shouldn’t we start using reverse contrast, so that we’re reading the information (the light) rather than the absence of information (the shadow).

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  17. I am a freelance writer. I also happen to be blind. Easter Seals Headquarters in Chicago contacted me last year to ask if I’d be interested in doing a nine-month internship with them – they’d procured a grant to team up with a software company (Convio, in Austin) to develop software to allow blind people to manage web content. Until then I had only been writing for print magazines (Woman’s Day, for one) and newspapers – Chicago Tribune, etc.
    For the internship I had to listen in on sessions like “Writing for the Web” to learn to use bullet points, write short paragraphs, an so on.
    I did my best to argue   content vs. copy.  I made some headway, thanks to open-minded supervisors. By the end of the internship I had written some colorful copy and created some web pages. When the internship was over, I was hired on part-time as the moderator of a new blog Easter Seals launched about autism. I tell people I am the only blind woman in America being paid to moderate a blog. So far no one has told me differently.
    Yesterday at work my supervisor sent me the link to Amber’s story and asked me to summarize it for her. What fun this is, Amber is singing my song and giving me credibility at work. Thank you for writing this, Amber.
    A note about alt tags: I agree with whoever it was that commented above,  the author should decide the point of the image: mental break from text (decoration), emotional experience (content and/or decoration),
    information (content).
    To be honest, the only alt tag I myself am really interested in is hthat last one: informational. It takes time to plod through a web site using speech software. I’ve come across web sites that have alt tags saying “white line” or “divider.” THIS MAKES ME CRAZY. I assume some do-gooder content provider or web designer thinks they are being nice to blind people, letting us know about decorative elements like white lines dividing one paragraph from another. What do we care? The only thing that sort of alt tag does for me is make the web site take   longer to read.
    Again, thanks for the article and all the interesting comments. Sorry this comment was so long….!

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  18. I appreciate your input and comments. I don’t often get feedback from blind users, so this info is helpful to me.

    I assume some do-gooder content provider or web designer thinks they are being nice to blind people, letting us know about decorative elements like white lines dividing one paragraph from another.

    I suspect that the majority of people writing alt text like this have absolutely no idea why they’re writing alt text or what the purpose of it may be. I think they have heard, somewhere, that they should provide a description of the image, so they do. they’re following instructions without any thought to what they’re actually doing.

    So, unfortunately, I don’t believe they’re thinking about blind folks at all; maybe the properties box in Dreamweaver had an empty space for alt text so they filled it in.

    At least, that’s what I hope. Because if folks think blind people want to hear about dividers then I fear for our future.

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  19. I greatly enjoyed while reading your article. Spending too much efforts trying to meet the search engine requirements, we at times forget the important things. And you opened to me a completely new way of looking at the alt tab. Many thanks!

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  20. I thought, almost, that you had seen my website, down to, and including the point of the “punch in the gut” you gave me about sacrifice on an altar of pith.

    I tend to write in a terse, haiku-like manner (see Dave Nolan’s comment, above). En boca cerrada no entran moscas…que no?

    But, while a website visitor may appreciate short words, it may come down to the point that s/he has not the patience to draw out the full depth so carefully crafted therein.

    Heart matters, as you said so convincingly.

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  21. I disagree with the author on quite a few points. Web is not a book and shouldn’t contain walls of text in flowery English. What she calls anorexic, I call concise and concise is good: “Back to basics writing for web”:

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  22. Reading this article is like a breath of fresh air. However, after all of Amber’s persuasive arguments for informative ALT text, I did find it amusing that the image for the ALA article – an illustration of a syringe and a feather – was given the somewhat useless tag: “Reviving Anorexic Web Writing”. Doh!

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  23. The extent to which this article is true depends on the aims and objectives of the website and audience.

    An oft quoted measure of a good website is how effectively people can complete the task they came to do. If I visit a news site or am doing research then, yes, I want to read engaging, well written content.

    If I am visiting a transport website and want to work out what sort of discount I can get, how I buy my ticket, find out about travel disruption, then I want scannable, concise, content.

    User testing still shows that users scan content and will leave a page / site very quickly if they can’t find what they’re looking for.

    How content is written must be driven by what / who we’re writing for.

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  24. As a web content startup owner, I could not agree more. Wonderful article that covers many important points!

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  25. Hmmm, the only way I can see this being answered is if you reverse the question – can you build content based on the design? I would say yes…and no! Yes, because a quirky design may dictate quirky content, but a more serious, business like design might influence more business like writing style. I would veer more towards no, though, because it design shouldn’t dictate content. You read content, content is information, content is what someone has come to a site for. And therefore, I think you are right – content before design!

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