Every opening paragraph is the beginning of a delicate and transient relationship between reader and writer. This relationship begins quietly, usually without much fanfare—and if it’s properly initiated, the reader doesn’t even know it’s happening. Yet the success of this relationship is an important factor in creating an enjoyable, engaging experience for the reader. This is especially true on the web where author credibility can be difficult to establish, and where, increasingly, readers have so many choices that separating the chaff from the wheat can be a daunting process.
One of my favorite scenes from Shakespeare comes from Hamlet, wherein Polonius reads to the queen a love letter addressed to his daughter. Impatient, the queen interrupts, wanting to know if the letter was authored by her son, Hamlet. Polonius admonishes her saying, “Good madam, stay awhile. I will be faithful.” (Act II, Scene ii)
Like the queen, online readers tend to have little patience. This is due to several factors, not the least of which is that unless the reader knows my work, he doesn’t necessarily know if he can trust me, and he is wary of investing in a relationship that might not work out for him. People do still tend to view online media with more skepticism than print media, and often this skepticism is warranted. In order to earn my reader’s trust, in order to convince him to “stay awhile,” I must be faithful.
From writer to faithful writer#section2
Writers write for different reasons. Sometimes we are moved by something that has happened to us in our personal lives. Perhaps we are stirred to respond to something we read online or in print. Sometimes our jobs force us to write. In these situations, it is very easy to write only for ourselves or only for our employers—in other words, for everyone but the real reader. The unsuspecting reader may stumble upon this work and be left with more questions than answers:
- What prompted the author to write this article?
- What greater context surrounds this work?
- What’s really the point of this paper?
- Is she writing this for someone in my position, or a different set of people altogether?
If my reader comes away with too many of these questions, it means I have not really done my job; I have not been faithful. This sort of reader experience is often the result of unidirectional writing in which the writer simply doesn’t see the reader on the other end of her work. Her writing becomes too self-centered, too myopic, or conversely, much too general.
To be a faithful writer is to form a clear mental picture of that reader and speak to him as a real person. A faithful writer keeps at the forefront of her mind that she is writing for someone, that her work is only truly completed in the reader himself. A faithful writer makes the reader glad he stayed.
I spent about a year working in marketing. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned was that a good campaign does two things: 1) it delivers what the marketer wants the audience to know, and 2) it delivers the information the audience wants to know. Good marketing doesn’t just sell a product or service; good marketing creates a feeling of trust or faith between the audience and the company. After all, at the end of the day we’re talking about people interacting with people; we’re talking about relationships.
The same is true for writing. When I write, I must tell my reader what I want him to know—otherwise, why am I writing? On the other hand, I must also address whatever it is my reader wants to know. He probably wants background information, related reading, and source information. (For example, if I am writing an article on tea making, I should tell my reader where to find the supplies I mention in my article.) He certainly wants the information that he expects to find. (How many of us have thrown things at our computers when we seek answers from a FAQ, only to find marketing fluff instead of real questions and answers?)
The reader also wants to know where my weaknesses are and where the gaps in my knowledge lie. Honesty goes a long way, and it is better to point my reader to another article and another faithful writer than damage the relationship with partial truths and faulty information. These things aren’t always fun or interesting to write about, but our reader values this information, and if we value our reader, we will oblige his needs.
To convince my reader to stay awhile, I must offer good faith and demonstrate that I am loyal to his cause, whether that cause is learning how to make the most delicious deviled eggs or mere high-brow entertainment. In this way, writing is a kind of alliance. It is the basis for a relationship of trust. And on the internet, where relationships and content are both mere ephemerons, showing a reader that I am loyal to his cause is particularly important.
The beauty and importance of the single reader#section4
I don’t write for an audience. Audiences are impersonal and distant. When I think of writing for an audience, I feel obligated to put on a show and be properly entertaining. But although I do hope my readers enjoy what I write, my primary goal isn’t to appear larger-than-life. Therefore, when I write, I initiate an intimate conversation with one reader. Not an audience: just one person. Being a faithful writer in this context means being devoted to my reader and his immediate goals and being consistent in my attempt to craft a quiet dialogue with him. I imagine him sitting before me, asking questions, making suggestions, wanting to know more. I consider my obligation to this person (an obligation that will vary depending on what I am writing), and consider each aspect of my writing, from my tone to my content to the hyperlinks, and evaluate whether these things serve my reader and not merely my own agenda. If I imagine that I am inviting a single person to journey with me into a topic about which we both care, I am much more likely to reach his heart and mind, and this is what I want. I want him engaged—I want him glad he invested his time with me.
The reader’s time#section5
I know my reader could be doing any number of other things, but he is choosing to spend his time with me, and this is another reason I don’t write for an audience. Audiences don’t have “time” to respect. It’s easy to think of an audience as a captive and to abuse our time together; it is more difficult to think of a single reader that way. The single reader is much more likely to flee and he is therefore more demanding of my attention and respect.
Of course, it won’t always be possible to address every reader equally. Nevertheless, I shouldn’t merely resort to catering to the lowest common denominator. Lazy writing is never good writing, and it doesn’t show good faith toward the reader. It may require some extra time to deliver the reader to exotic or interesting places on the web, but if it earns his trust, the time is well spent.
It is important that I honor not only my reader’s time, but his intelligence and interests as well. If I am writing an advanced or specialized article, I am not going to pepper my work with links to basic articles or very popular sites my reader has likely already visited. Part of my job is to unveil something new and interesting, to offer something to pique his curiosity. I want to take my reader places he will enjoy visiting; I want to be a worthy tour guide in all aspects of the subject we are exploring together. I can’t do that if I underestimate his knowledge or inquisitiveness. As a show of good faith, I want to reveal something of myself, something I find compelling. I want to show him a piece of the web that he might not have found on his own. In this way, I not only earn his trust by honoring his intelligence and his time, I also earn his respect by showing him something he may find impressive or fulfilling.
Faithful writers encourage faithful readers#section7
Although most of us read something daily, we aren’t all good readers. Being a good reader is challenging; many of us aren’t taught this skill in school, and even fewer of us have discovered the best way to read and absorb online content. Realizing the difficulties even a talented reader faces, web content writers have a special obligation to help their readers be good readers.
Good readers interpret what they are reading, whether they are reading a blog, an academic journal, or a recap of The Colbert Report. They ask questions about the text and about the author. “Is she credible? What are her biases? Do I agree with what she’s saying?” Our job as writers is to predict these questions and to address them in our writing. We should imagine ourselves immersed in a conversation taking place in a time warp; we are challenged with answering questions and satisfying curiosities before they are formed. It is no small feat, but the attentive reader will respect us for catering to his needs.
Good readers also attempt to place texts within their historical and cultural contexts. As a writer, I have no way of knowing if my readers will stumble upon my work two weeks after I’ve written it, or two years after it has been archived. Either way, I want to do my reader the courtesy of helping him contextualize the content, especially if I am writing a timely article or delivering technical information that is likely to quickly become obsolete. This is especially important on the web, where fresh material constantly replaces stale. Because the nature of web publishing allows content updates to happen regularly, readers have been conditioned to assume that what they’re reading is current.
If I know a date will be attached to my work, it is probably less important to place my writing in its proper cultural or historical context. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to remind my reader of the zeitgeist that shapes my work. I can’t know when in time a reader will enter into the conversation I have so carefully initiated. The more clues I can give him about the world in which I am living and experiencing, the more deeply my reader can engage with me, the more faith he will have in our unfolding relationship.
Some writers might briefly consider what I suggest here before disregarding it, concluding that it is a waste of time to be faithful writers when so many of our readers won’t even be good readers, let alone faithful readers. Why should we spend so much time carefully crafting a relationship with a reader who might not be interested in making a similar commitment? For me, the answer is very simple: if just one person is enriched by the reader-writer relationship I have attempted to establish, I have done my job. I don’t have to reach everyone, I just have to reach someone. If I consider that even a single reader is worth my time and write with that level of individual respect, it is also likely that I will reach many more people.
The reader is an integral, necessary participant in the complete writing process. This is especially true on the web where reading is often a deliberate process: readers choose which links to follow, which threads to pursue. A good writer must consider whom she is writing for when choosing which links to include, which journeys to suggest. Of course, writing is also intensely personal—it has to be. And yet picking up the pen or sitting down at the keyboard, is also a commitment to my reader.
To sum up#section10
Perhaps this all appears to be a lot of work. But essentially it boils down to a few key points:
- Write for a single reader rather than an audience. Speak to him in an appropriate tone, and treat him as a real person.
- Tell your reader what he wants to know, even if it bores you to tell him.
- Provide as much context as possible.
- Anticipate and answer your reader’s questions.
- Take your reader on an interesting and well-considered journey into the web.
- Respect the time your reader chooses to spend with you. Treat him fairly.
The web is a unique medium for the writer. I prefer writing for the web to writing for print. I appreciate the immediacy of the medium, and I enjoy the lack of boundaries between readers and writers. I welcome the unique set of challenges that writing for the web presents. I enjoy each moment that allows me to create new, faithful relationships with unsuspecting readers who encounter my voice.
If I’ve done my job well, at least a handful of readers will indeed stay awhile.
32 Reader Comments
I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that we write for one person. I’m in the radio business and just as in writing, the best broadcasters *speak* to only one person, the listener.
Amber, you say that online readers tend to have little patience; however, I had to read over 200 words of your article (not including the wonderfully vague title) to really understand what it is about.
My impression (rightly or wrongly) from this – especially given ALA’s audience – is that you are writing for yourself rather than your reader.
Overall, I like the theme of your article, although it was a struggle to get through it, largely because of presentational issues. One of your paragraphs is 10 lines and 175 words long!
As a reader I look at that and see a block of intimidating text and am inclined to skip straight to the next paragraph.
Much as I like the advice you offer, I would suggest that readers would be better off learning the basic rules of writing for the web before moving on to your ‘master class’.
As a suggestion, most news sites such as the BBC are a great place to learn how to write compelling content that is also readable.
Alternatively, I link to a number of “good articles about writing for the web”:http://www.smileycat.com/miaow/archives/cat_writing_for_the_web.html on my own site.
What has especially touched me is your comment about “just one reader.” I was reminded recently of this idea when a friend who I’d not seen for over a year asked how my podcast was doing. “Not so well,” I glumly told him, “only about 800 listeners.”
He was dumbfounded. “When I saw you last year, when you were starting,” he said,”you were giddy because you had dozens of listeners!”
He was right. I had started it thinking that if I only had 5 listeners, I’d be happy. And when I do public speaking, it’s not to the audience, it’s in the engaging, conversational style I learned from my father. I’d not thought of applying it to writing, but I suspect the best writing I do does apply this idea.
Thanks–looking forward to reading your other work. And very jealous that you live in one of the coolest cities in the nation.
I agree with Christian’s criticisms. Way too many words for web writing! Needs more Strunk & White.
Also, can I humbly suggest a global moratorium on the use of the ultra-cliche “at the end of the day”? Every time I read this phrase, I cringe, and I have to force myself to keep reading any further.
The snapshot blurb off to the right of the article is an excellent innovation. It’s also “faithful” by giving us readers an idea of what the article is all about before we begin. I suggest moving it into the main column, above the article, as a guide to readers.
Also, on the idea of writing for one reader… we use that on the site I work on but it’s tough to get scientists and researchers to write for a general audience. Practical ideas on how to achieve some of the ideas mentioned in your article would be helpful.
The snapshot idea is definitely a good one – too bad it’s in the wrong place. I never even noticed it. Why can’t the summary or snapshot go at the beginning of the article?
While I agree the post was a bit wordy, I’m glad I read it. It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with myself. When I started my blog late last year, it was mostly for my family and friends. But somewhere along the line, I was seduced by the idea that I could write to attract “traffic” that could generate clicks and revenue. Not only had I lost sight of my reader, I wasn’t even thinking in terms of an audience. And it wasn’t long before I realized I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore.
I was reminded of why I started when my aunt asked why I hadn’t posted in so long. So, thanks for the reality check.
I have my reader.
Perhaps using words like “zeitgeist” ( which your casual reader might have to take a time-out to go jaunting off to Merriam-Webster On-line to check the context of… ) in an informative article might want to be re-thought. I was doing great up to that point. 😉
bq. Perhaps using words like “zeitgeist”? “¦ in an informative article might want to be re-thought. [sic]
Why? Is it so hard to look up a word once and a while—particularly when it is used in a context such that the meaning can be deduced by the reader?
bq. If I know a date will be attached to my work, it is probably less important to place my writing in its proper cultural or historical context. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to remind my reader of the *zeitgeist* that shapes my work.
So far, everyone who has commented on wordiness have been male, as best as I can deduce from the names provided.
As I read, I thought, “This is pretty feminine for an ALA article”. There was no value judgement in the thought, just a general observation.
Is it wordiness, or is it communicating ideas differently than we are accustomed, particularlay in a “technical” journal like ALA? Does this stylistic differencee have anything to teach us? Does it offer any additional food for thought in the context of the content of the article? Could it even have been a conscience decision on the part of the author?
bq. (And as for zeitgeist”¦c’mon, folks. If you hope to become a better writer, you can’t afford to be a lazy reader.)
Consider the context of this article.
It is in the “writing” section of ALA.
Given this, I don’t think “wordiness” is really an issue.
I appreciate the substance, and if that is acheived by 10 line paragraphs this a good thing.
I wonder if the practice of writing to one user would still be ideal in instructional type articles. In this I am frequently diffusing and correcting common thoughts and approaches to things that just don’t work. “You might have tried…”, “You’re probably thinking…”, etc. Which assumes some level of missunderstanding on the reader. I would rather assume that misunderstanding on an unspecified audience. “Some people have attempted..”, “Many think the best way is to…”
_”I’ve personally noticed that forum comments vary in certain ways depending on the sex of the article’s author.”_
I’d be interested to learn what these observations are.
Interesting article, but does anyone really ask questions like these?
“What prompted the author to write this article?
What greater context surrounds this work?”
First of all, let me thank y’all for the feedback. I’d like to address a couple of the concerns raised here, particularly the notion of the piece being too long or wordy.
I think it’s important to keep in mind whom this piece is written for. While I would be thrilled to hear that non-writers got something out of this article, essentially it is written for writers. Most writers tend to be voracious readers; we love words, and we tend to enjoy making en emotional connection with whatever we’re reading (I would even argue that is true of casual readers, too.) It’s very difficult to achieve the appropriate emotional connection with a subject like this with few words. Although I’m writing for the web, I don’t believe in sacrificing the human connection with my reader in order to be in line with current web writing standards.
This brings me to my second point. I accept that in today’s world casual readers don’t read online; they skim. Historically, the web has been an unfriendly place for readers: pages weren’t designed for ease of reading, content (let alone grammar or style) was a secondary consideration. Why would anyone invest time in a hostile environment like that? But I’m looking toward tomorrow. I see writers and designers working together to make pages easy and inviting to read. I see them building pages that are engaging, accurate, interesting. I’m looking forward to when readers will read online, and I want to challenge other writers to usher in that era by writing good, engaging content, even if that means it’s long. Writers train their readers, and as the content of the web changes, the way casual readers approach online content will change, too. If we don’t raise the bar higher, the web will never improve. And that, to me, is unacceptable.
Student Organization Guy, you make a good point. It’s never good to alienate a reader, especially by making negative assumptions about him. You’ll notice in my article I chose to use the pronoun “I” instead of “you”. I didn’t want to say, “If you’re a good writer…” because that could be construed as judgmental and/or derogatory. But by using “I” instead, the reader won’t take my words too personally, and can stay attentive without getting his feelings hurt or being insulted.
I do think you can write for a single reader regardless of what you’re writing. It isn’t necessarily about word choice, but about tone, style, and approach. If you think about it, the vast majority of people who read your work online are sitting at the computer by themselves. Reading is a solitary process anyway. I think we make the process that much more engaging when we acknowledge that and write appropriately.
Do good readers ask questions about greater context and author motivation? Yes, they do. If someone stumbles upon a piece I’ve written talking about why atheists can’t be Christians, a good reader is probably thinking, “Why is she talking about this? Where did this come from?” If my reader doesn’t have this information, then my writing is a pointless rant, and the reader can’t relate. Good readers want to know where I’m coming from so that they know how to meet me head-on.
Yeah, I do all the time. See my previous post for several examples.
There are entire accademic disciplines built around these types of questions. It would probably do the web design community good to get our collective toes wet in them.
I for one always like to look up a new word when I read an online article. Gotta expand that vocabulary.
This article seems relevant to me since I’ve recently begun to read Slate. It’s been around forever, but only in the past couple of weeks have I desired to read something more substantive than I find on most “hyper-chunked” news sites and blogs. The fact that an editorial process is involved is one of the good things about Slate, and one of the curses of the blogosphere. At some point I get tired of the grammar mistakes and the aimless rambling.
Also, Amber, I notice that you work for UT Austin. I make frequent use of their page that links to all the college websites. I was part of a university site redesign, and it provided a great hub to see what others were doing and how we could do things better.
I don’t want anyone getting the impression that I think all web designers should get a PhD in comparative lit. So let me break it down like this.
We’ve all met people who think anyone can build a website. We may even have had them as clients or employers. They surf the web, they make their daily rounds through the favorite dozen sites or so, they know how to use boookmarks and maybe they even know some really advanced stuff like how to subscribe to an RSS feed.
So the only thing that seperates us from them is some basic knowledge in that HTML hooey and they could learn it themselves in an afternoon but their time is way more important than that so they’d rather pay us, since they couldn’t find some 16 year old MySpace user to do it for them.
Don’t you hate those people?
Now, we all read everyday. We have our favorite writers, journals, magazines, and newspapers. If we’re really good, we may be able to pull off something really advanced, like figure out an Agatha Christie mystery half way through.
The only thing that seperates us from those professional writers is a college degree in English, which is about as useful as nipples on a boar hog, right?
Isn’t that the same attitude that pisses us off daily? Is it any less assanine when we do it?
The web is driven by content, and a hell of a lot of that content is textual, ie. it has to be written. And just like we could easily offer advice on how sites like barrygifford.com and joerlansdale.com could be improved, people who understand the fine art of writing may very well have a thing or two to teach us about improving our user experience through better writing.
The “emotional connection” Amber’s talking about may sound like a bunch of fluff and fairy dust to people who spend as much time “writing” code for web servers as we do communicating with actual human beings. But that’s just it, in technical fields such as ours its all too easy to loose sight of the human element.
If you don’t make an emotional connection with your site visitors, your site is doomed to fail. That’s why good visual design matters, that’s why good usability design matters, that’s why good branding matters, and that’s why good writing matters.
To learn more about the symbiotic relationship between literature and the web, I reccomend sites like Shelley Jackson’s “The Body”:http://www.altx.com/thebody/body.html and books like Janet Murray’s “Hamlet on the Holodeck”:http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/~murray/hoh/hoh.html .
bq. If you don’t make an emotional connection with your site visitors, your site is doomed to fail. That’s why good visual design matters, that’s why good usability design matters, that’s why good branding matters, and that’s why good writing matters.
I think that about nails it. Thanks, Derek; I’ve really enjoyed your contributions to this discussion.
oops; screwed that up. 🙂 Maybe it’s time to get back to work…
and you see, that it*s written, but only for you!
You communicate with noone, but with yourself.
it*s not important to reach someone all the time.
Sometimes people communicate in their ways, like in this cute website, i just found here…. Never been here bevor..
Donc, je dis: salut!
Je tire mon rÃ©vÃ©rence , et dis A+!
Ecoute: j*ai une squat pours les jeunes europeean!
Venez, voir l*Wissensnetzwerk fÃ¼r Europa. Von und FÃ¼r Freidenker und KÃ¼nstler! Mehr Sein als $chein http://www.danou.eu
FÃ¼r eine Bessere Welt, lasst uns unser Wissen tauschen! Denn gemeinsam haben wir superviel im Kasten! Wir mÃ¼ssen nur unsere kollektie Intelligenz zusammenbringen und zu einem planetaren Bewusstsein verschmelzen. Dann entsteht aus unserem gemeinsamen Geist ein neues, intelligenteres Geflecht.
:: Danou.eu :: Europas Wissensnetzwerk fÃ¼r Freidenker und Individualisten ::
_”But that’s just it, in technical fields such as ours its all too easy to loose sight of the human element.”_
One very important thing in writing is also to use correct spelling.
Plus… can anyone tell me how to format a quote properly in the comments? The Textile link shows to add “bq” but that makes my reply part of the quote too! I cannot find a way to turn the style off. There must be an easy way…
Bickering over spelling is almost as petty as bickering over “wordiness”.
bq. Plus”¦ can anyone tell me how to format a quote properly in the comments? The Textile link shows to add “bq”? but that makes my reply part of the quote too! I cannot find a way to turn the style off. There must be an easy way”¦
The blockquote command is “bq. ” in front of the block of text to be quoted. That’s bee kwoo dot *space*. The space is probably what threw you off. It threw me off at first.
Were you writing to just me?
It seemed like it. Nice work 🙂
I’ve just begun a blog and will use your advice to try and engage my readers as you’ve engaged me.
I look forward to visiting your blog more often…I can see why it’s so popular!
I have been running a blog since the start of the year and find that everything you wrote is true but one thing I found also is that using images and live video in posts also draws people to stay longer and surf more pages.But to Petty commentar 28 making sure your spelling and grammer are correct is essintial for keeping your readers going and coming back.
Posts made here in this dicussion thread and main site content are two very different things in some very important ways.
On the rare occasion I’m made responsible for the content of a site rather than markup, scripting, and design, I always use at least one pass, usually several passes, through a spelling and grammar checking program. If at all possible, I pass it under the nose of a few trusted friends and/or coworkers for some editing and advice before publication. I don’t want my imperfections to reflect poorly on my clients or whatever the site I happen to be working on at the time is representing.
Here, I’m not representing anyone but myself. And here I am, warts and all. As some of you have so kindly pointed out, I can’t spell worth poop. Being an intuitive thinker/learner, I’m far too caught up in the meaning behind the words to get caught up in something as insignifigant as the individual letters.
The more detail oriented of you out there probably see that as a major flaw. I see your even bothering to notice (in the informal context of this discussion area) as a flaw.
However, I judge people not by their (_perceived_) flaws but by the (_perceived_) relative validity of the meaning they are attempting to convey.
So let’s hear something meaningful.
bq. “bee kwoo”
Isn’t it: “bee kyoo”?
You’re right. A diphthong would be more technically correct.
While ignoring the first golden rule about web writing (ie front loading), this article eventually provides some advice on how to ‘speak’ to readers.
I’m not sure how effectively applying the Long Tail approach to web copy will work if you’re writing for a diverse audience, but it’ll no doubt prove useful for sites dealing with niche audiences.
Amber, You note some crucial points to good writing of any kind, even print. I will definitely use your article in my web editing work and trainings… though I will have to cut it short. Like most web readers, I scan content for the most pertinent points. I think you could use some concision (as other commenters have noted)…!
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