A List Apart


Reviving Anorexic Web Writing

Reviving Anorexic Web Writing

Monday morning began precisely as Monday mornings are not supposed to begin: with an argumentative prospective client standing in my office (sans appointment) telling me why I should stop what I’m doing and build him a “quick and dirty” website for his latest project. I smiled at him, nodding in all the right places, and when he stopped talking for just long enough I said, “All that sounds great. When you’re ready to give me the content you want to use so I can see what I’m dealing with, let’s talk.”

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The client balked. “Can’t we just add that later, once the design is finished?”

My inner writer growled, but my outer designer smiled, accustomed to the request. “Sorry; can’t do it. The content is the heart of the website. I can’t build you a body until you give me a heart.”

Content is the heart of a brilliant user experience. From the body content to the alt text to the footer, the words that shape the page lie at the very center of an engaging visit. If the words aren’t beautiful and meaningful, the sleekest design in the world won’t compensate for it. The body can never replace a missing heart.

But we’ve gone astray as an industry, and we’ve starved all the life out of web writing. The kind of writing we encourage is lifeless, insipid, and calorie-free. If we want to get back on track—to allow writers to write wonderful user experiences—we have to change our expectations and our rules.

A history of anorexia

I have always been disheartened by the ubiquitous advice to keep all writing on the web short, though I understand where the advice comes from. For years designers and writers worked separately, designers working their magic to make the website as flashy and awesome as possible while the writers, if they were invited to the party at all, were given a paltry few days to whip up some words to fill the white space on the page. Because the two teams worked separately, much of the purpose of the website was lost: 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.

In those dark days, the people writing the web copy weren’t actually writers: They were secretaries, product engineers, and—horrors!—designers; more often than not, the content was thrown together as an afterthought by someone who didn’t know a semicolon from a hole in the ground. Web writing was simply painful to read. 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.

Years later, however, things are looking much better. Designers and writers collaborate more, and line lengths have become manageable and typography has become more standardized and reader-friendly. Talented writers often lend their skill to website creation. Yet though our situation has improved, the advice to omit words, chunk content, use bullets, and keep it short remains. This is sometimes, but not universally good advice. I thought I was the only one who felt this way until I read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! wherein he writes, “No one is suggesting the articles on Salon.com be shorter.” I cheered inside! Except that people are suggesting this. Because we haven’t yet figured out the difference between content and copy.

Writing the heart of the web

The distinction I make between “content” and “copy” is my own: I don’t pretend this is an industry standard. But we all know copy when we read it: it’s the marketing fluff that serves no purpose but to take up space. It doublespeaks and obfuscates. It’s the inflated speech of the politician using many words to say nothing, the sales pitch of the greasy used-car cretin whose crafty euphemisms try to disguise the fact that his product sucks. Copy is recognized by its pervasive use of agonizing words such as “leverage,” “optimize,” and “facilitate,” or a litany of intolerable phrases such as “economically disadvantaged,” “heavyset,” “law enforcement officer,” and “ethnic community.” Writing like this is self-conscious and boring—what’s wrong with saying Marvin is a poor, fat cop from the ghetto?

(If you find yourself writing like this, by all means, use bullets and omit words. The less of this pain inflicted upon the reading public the better.)

Content, on the other hand, fills a real need: it establishes emotional connections between people. The writing has heart and spirit; it has something to say and the wherewithal to stand up and say it. Content is the stuff readers want to read, even if they have to print it to do so. (And readers will print a long piece; just because something is published online doesn’t mean it must be read online). Content is thoughtful, personable, and faithfully written. It hooks the reader and draws him in, encouraging him to click this link or that, to venture further into a website. It delivers what it promises and delights the attentive reader.

I remember the first time I read Shelley Jackson’s My Body. I was enchanted by her narrative, compelled to click her many links, to delve deeper into the stories about her arms, her legs, her breasts. I wasn’t concerned about how long I was reading. I was not at all bothered by her lack of headlines, and I most assuredly did not pine away for want of a bullet. This is real writing: beautiful, lucid, captivating. It doesn’t matter what the subject is; content should enrich our experience of any website, be it a university website or a personal blog. Give me passion and give me flair, and I will give you my full attention, page after page after page.

As our culture becomes increasingly digital, the art forms that support it must be constructed with the same care, deliberateness, and gusto as our traditional media. Intelligent content is the literature of our time. It is not enough that our printed books and magazines are ardently written and meticulously edited. Our culture loses much if we encourage online writers to sacrifice grace and personality on the altars of pith and scannability. Perhaps better advice is to encourage writers to say exactly what they mean with precisely the words required, however many they may be.

But anorexia on the web is not restricted to the substance of the main article on a page. Perhaps the worst cases of undernourished writing are found in alt text and footers.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Where I work, writers don’t write alt text. Designers do. (And they write it not because they think it’s important, but because it’s a Section 508 requirement and they have to.) While I’m sure there are many reasons that this task falls to designers, I bet none of them are good reasons. alt text does a tricky thing: it translates a visual experience into a coherent, semantic expression. It takes the implied and makes it explicit—an emotional trigger palpably interpreted. With a mere handful of words, alt text must relate the full impact of an image to those who can’t, for whatever reason, see it.

That takes skill. That takes a writer.

I admit to having overlooked alt text. Until a year ago I sniffed at the idea of creating useful alt text for images. “If a user is blind,” I reasoned, “what does he care that I have a photograph of the university tower on my website?”

My fellow designer shrugged. “Well, I guess if you don’t really care about what the image says,” she said slowly, “you really don’t need it in the first place.”

My ensuing epiphany was embarrassingly obvious. Thoughtfully constructed alt text is valuable because it provides emotional content; it should make the reader feel something. Given a photograph of the University of Texas tower, for example, simple alt text that says, “UT tower” might not be terribly useful to someone who has never seen the tower, though it may be useful to someone who knows what the tower looks like. But alt text that says, “Evening view of UT tower aglow after a big Texas win” is better, because it is meaningful to anyone, sighted or not—it projects pride, kinship, tradition. It conveys very particular emotions using revealing language.

Even though I prided myself on being a writer-cum-designer, smugly aware of the importance of emotional connections on the web, I wrote vapid alt copy—when I bothered writing anything at all. As a result, my content suffered. When I allowed myself to write thoughtless words, even in alt text, my approach to content writing was weakened. If I want to heal our anorexic culture of writing on the web, I have to use every opportunity to imbue my web projects with good, strong, meaningful language. I have to acknowledge that in this digital-media-rich culture, most of the content people encounter comes from writers like me—from blogs, news sites, and online journals. Don’t I owe it to these people to offer rich, healthy reads? If I feed them garbage, am I helping my culture? Can I justify offering junk-food copy if I offer it in bites and chunks?

The last words

If alt content is wanting on the web, footer content is downright insulting. Most footers are useless. They usually contain a handful of throw-away links, maybe a copyright statement, and contact information. Nobody reads them, because they’re not worth reading.

I don’t know why we let footers languish in frivolity. Books have back matter, with bibliographies and indices and endnotes and all sorts of interesting, useful information for the curious reader. I know plenty of voracious readers who read the back matter gleefully, even taking the time to read about the typefaces used in the book. Book publishers indulge their reader’s hunger for information; why do we treat the online reader with any less respect?

One of my favorite footers is found on Emily Gordon’s blog. This is a writer’s footer. This is information to be enjoyed. She talks about herself, offering notes on what she’s written and why she’s writing. She directly addresses her reader assuring him of his privacy. When I get to her footer and see all that she offers down there at the bottom of the page, I feel like she expected me to read that far, and is acknowledging my visit. I love that she’s taken the opportunity to offer me more information than I asked for, in a place I didn’t expect to find it. I feel rewarded at the end of reading her blog, and that’s what I call a wonderful user experience.

I realize that writing like Shelley Jackson’s and Emily Gordon’s won’t be appropriate to many web projects. There is a time and a place for copy. But what I don’t accept is the persistent attitude that all writing on the web should adhere to the standards of copy. I challenge the idea that web writing, which increasingly is becoming the soul of literature and media in our world, shouldn’t be beautiful and meaty, even lengthy where appropriate. And I encourage writers to think of themselves as central to the user’s experience, and to treat their own content not merely as king, but as heart, soul, and breath. We owe it to our craft, ourselves, and our culture to revive that which we have too long let suffer.

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