Reviving Anorexic Web Writing
Issue № 242

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#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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.

55 Reader Comments

  1. I have been pondering some of the same thoughts lately. I have read Steve Krug’s book, I have read Jakob Nielsen’s book, but still something inside says that it is a matter of quality, not quantity. I believe that is the difference between copy (mindless quantity) and true content (quality).

    I, for one, don’t mind reading on the web (or anywhere). I try not to scan as I don’t want to mis-quote or mis-understand what the writer is trying to convey. I think there are people that scan, but I am not always sure if it is the writer’s fault. I think, as you said, it has been so pushed for the culture of the web that everything be short, that writer’s cut out the heart of their content. Are we as readers that impatient? Is it because we have 200 other feeds to read and we have to rush to the next one?

    Excellent article and content. I hope we can start to see more articles like this one around the web.

  2. What a great article. I love reading, I read everything I come across and wish more websites gave me more to read.

    I especially like the idea of needing the heart of the proposed website before the designer can build the body. How true!

  3. I am just amazed that I actually read all of this article without single hasitation. And equally shocked to realize how true this is and how poorly this has been thought in the schools I was (am) at. Great article, thanks.

  4. It’s funny that the web started as a way to host long documents containing oodles of content. When people search for a particular subject they expect content. And yet companies constantly build stock-standard brochure websites, thinking they’ll hit the big scene for having done so.

    Let’s make a move toward making the web not just beautiful–but keep to the original charter; let’s fill it with valuable content.

  5. I can’t tell you how many alt tags I’ve written like “photograph of the university tower.” No more though, I have been inspired. Thanks!

  6. All good and well… I also believe in quality… but do people read it? Here, i’m talking about a commerce site (not a blog or an online publication).

    Someone put it very nicely, which caused us to approach our soon-to-be-relaunched site, along the lines of, “The sooner you get over the fact that people don’t read your content, the sooner you can start writing good content.”

    Anyhow, I wish all the usability experts had your line of thinking (which i also share) as it would give me more confidence to stick to my ground.

  7. I read your article straight trough, as well… even taking the link to see the footer on Emily Gordon’s blog. Obviously, your writing won me over.

    I agree 100% with your article. I think we need to draw a better distinction on the web between “reference” material and true writing. I think it’s a blurring of these two that is causing a lot of headaches.

    We don’t have this problem in print. Most people would not pick up a dictionary or a product catalog and complain about the quality of writing. Even though the web is a source of information, it is not just a dumping ground for reference material. As you pointed out, web content is the literature of the future.

  8. I have run into this issue so many times that it is not even funny.

    When I was doing freelance, it almost seemed that clients were insulted by my insistence that content development proceed design and layout. I may have even lost a few jobs from companies who thought that a good developer should be willing to design in a vacuum.

    Now that I work in Higher Ed, you would think that things would be different…

  9. We all read it from start to finish. But that was because of its purpose and our goals as users (and it was well written).

    We were at the end point in our task and that task was to read an article that looked interesting. Most user journeys are not like this.

    Also many people who write content that appears on the web are (sadly) incapable of writing in such an entertaining manner. Unfortunately they are outnumbered by those who think they can.

    I agree that it’s not all about writing things briefly. But in my opinion, the instances where anorexic content is the best option far outweigh those opportunities that exist to write a nice full piece of text.

  10. bq. We were at the end point in our task and that task was to read an article that looked interesting. Most user journeys are not like this.

    I think my end in reading this article was – yes, to read something interesting – but moreover, to read something interesting that I _identified with_. The point, as Amber puts it, is for 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.”

    On a related note, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing first and designing later _as an interface designer_. In other words, writing my interface as a sentence, paragraph, or short essay to help myself fully grasp what needs to be communicated. From there I would begin making decisions about graphics, layout, and typography. I dunno – would at least be an interesting exercise.

  11. Writting content and designing webs is the same as making desktop apps where user experience and usability is a must.
    You have to design the user interface deppending of data needed to be shown and change every window according to data… so… the first is the data… then design, then make the core bussiness to merge all together…
    Can you explain my last web project customer the web is the same?

    Great !!! Thankx.

  12. In both my freelance work and my day job, content never seems to be a priority. Getting my clients to actually create and send me the content is like pulling teeth, and is usually what pushes back the launch date. I have to prove to them that creating a site map and figuring out what content the site will contain comes before color schemes and photos.

    That said, words do serve different purposes. A great article like this should be meticulously crafted. But most text on a site is part of the interface and helps visitors navigate. It communicates small sets of instructions or other info. In that case, the shorter the better. That kind of copy is meant to be scanned and not hold up the visitor on their way to the good stuff.

    Well written (while short and catchy) headlines and summaries help visitors weed out what doesn’t interest them or discover something that might. But even this kind of text must be created by someone who knows what they’re doing.

    In the meantime, I’ll unfortunately have to keep depending on my clients, who aren’t writers, to deliver the content while I polish it up as best I can.

  13. Hey Amber – great article!

    You’re so right about the problem not being length of copy but quality of writing. I was also inspired by your insight about writing thoughtful ALT tags. I’m definitely guilty of using ALT text shorthand.

    I wrote a couple newsletters awhile back that I think contribute to your subject: Word’s Make the Web Work (www.newfangled.com/writing_for_websites) and Unleashing the Power of Words (www.newfangled.com/the_power_of_words).

    I also blogged your article, (www.newfangled.com/copywriting_on_the_web_from_a_list_apart), tagged it, and Stumbled it. Thanks!

  14. Enjoyed the article. Who was the famous author who apologised to a friend for writing a long letter because he had to write it in a hurry? That sums up good writing for me. Taking the time to get whatever space you need to communicate without elaboration and decoration seems to me the right thing and a very difficult thing to do. The same for web content.

    Alt text.
    I started a site years ago illustrating Scottish words, http://www.stooryduster.co.uk. Essentially a cartoon site – images first then the words. I decided from the beginning to try and get the alt text to earn its keep. For those who cannot see the cartoons then the alt text should work to compliment the caption. A real alternative to the image. I don’t think I succeed too well but every week I still always make the attempt.

    It’s pitiful in a way because I doubt if anyone has ever noticed. Works well in some search engines though.

  15. It’s really a thought provoking and minder opener article.A body can’t survive without a heart.Like wise without the content the design can’t survive as well.Your Article itself shows the essence of meaningful writing.

    Thanks.Great article.It was a pleasure reading throught it.

  16. Hi Amber

    I couldn’t agree more that the industry of web design has, by and large, forgotten the value of good writing. It’s principally a function, I believe, of people having entered the ‘communications’ field who are not in themselves communicators.

    I have been a writer and designer for the past twenty years in the UK, working with some of the largest brands here, across a lot of different market sectors. During this time, I have helped to develop the verbal identities of some great organisations, but along the way I have also had to manage and work alongside designers who, sadly, have entered the business of communication because they were, to be blunt, lousy at English at school. That’s why they ended up doing technical drawing as a subject, or perhaps design and technology, then a degree in graphics. Hey presto, they arrive in the commercial world as qualified communicators… yet wouldn’t know a good sentence structure if it slapped them in the face.

    More recently, I have become a part-owner of a web design company (www.featurecreep.com), and am happy to say that we take verbal identity and language very seriously. Words matter to us, and our clients are slowly beind educated into appreciating the value of good copy.

    Perhaps at this point I should clarify what is meant by the term ‘copy’ here, as my definition certainly differs from your own. Copy is words, pure and simple. There’s good copy, and there’s bad copy. To say that copy is always marketing fluff is not entirely fair. Copy is simply commercial writing. ‘Content’, on the other hand, is just stuff that fills a gap, and this can be vacuous or enthralling. Content is words, graphics, photographs and tables – whatever is involved in filling pages on a website or any other receptacle. In other words, content is not the ‘good’ version of copy, as you had suggested; it is the thing that includes copy, however good that copy may be.

    Another thing I wanted to point out is that I feel you have missed a substantial point that could have been made in your article (forgive me if you have made it elsewhere, but I have only just discovered you on the web). That point is this: good website copy is good not merely because it reads well, but because it works well with search engines. In a commercial context, to be a truly effective web writer you need to write in such a way that search engines can crawl and understand your copy with ease. Otherwise you’re probably failing your clients. The trick, obviously, is then to make sure your copy can be read and enjoyed by the humans amongst us.

    By the way, nice copy in your article!

    Yours

    David

  17. If you’re sighted you instantly take in web pages at a glance: you assess the quality of the website and its intended audience from images, layout, font. A beautiful picture of a tower says “Yes, this is a site of an organization of high quality.”

    If you’re blind you can’t see at a glance, you have to slowly explore web pages. Sure, you can put in a poem for the alt text for the picture of a tower, but even better? alt=””. Making your website accessible and easy-to-use is a better indicator of quality to a blind person than your lengthy descriptions.

    The last time I used alt text for an image is when I was annotating a picture of myself, then a University faculty member. I used “white, thirty-something man” because that’s the information content that a sighted person can get at a glance: sex and race and age. I’d like to think none of that matters, of course, but I don’t see why blind people shouldn’t get the chance to be prejudiced too.

  18. First, thank you all for the wonderful comments. I really appreciate hearing what you have to say.

    @*David*: Perhaps I wasn’t clear in the body of the article, but I am not suggesting that all of that which is commonly called “copy” is crappy. As I wrote, the distinction I make here is completely my own, terms I use in my writing to distinguish different types of writing. I am absolutely not suggesting that everything the industry calls copy is garbage.

    (I realize there will be those who don’t like my use of these words, but if Humpty Dumpty can use words however he means them, surely I can be granted some leeway with a little explanation. And if I make a word work _very_ hard, I shall pay it extra.)

    On the subject of SEO, it was a very purposeful omission. Hundreds of people have already talked that subject to death. My interest isn’t marketing. My interests are art and experience. I’m not trying to address what makes “good” web writing: I’m speaking specifically to the idea of writing, even on the web, as a cultural foundation, as something to be experienced.

    @*Alasdair*: I can’t disagree with you more, I”m afraid. Alt=”” is certainly not better than a thoughtful explanation. It’s dismissive. If we’re going to talk accessibility, let’s talk _emotional_ accessibility: how am I to engage my blind users if I don’t engage them with words? Am I doing my job if I serve up a sterile user experience under the guise of “accessibility”?

    I think it’s important to recall that not everyone making websites is doing so merely to make someone else money. We’re not all working for corporations and businesses. Museums, universities, online magazines, personal websites–many of these websites exist to share information, experiences, stories. As i’ve mentioned, prosaic writing will not always be appropriate: I just want to remind us that sometimes it _is_, and we shouldn’t limit ourselves to one style.

  19. bq. 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[…]

    Just a philosophical quibble: although the argument about designing alt text is well-made and important, my understanding of the alt=”” attribute is that it’s intended _only_ to provide information (in the context of the flow of text) in the case that the image is not downloaded. So decorative images should not have alt text because, while they’re part of an over-all designed page, they are not part of the text-only experience. Alt text *must* be provided for informational images such as charts, or where images replace text, but I _think_ the HTML standard is relatively clear in saying that the alt attribute should be left empty for decorative images.

    In support of the example, I suppose that if you’re designing an emotional piece of copy, you could use alt text in a sort of movie-script style to say “[Evening view of UT tower aglow after a big Texas win]”. I quite like the sound of that, actually (that is, the text-only version presented in movie-script style). Usually, however, if it’s not part of the _flow_ of the text, it shouldn’t be added to the copy for the same reason that we’re trained to add “skip navigation” links. Unnecessary alt text detracts from the text-only user experience.

  20. Amber-
    Excellent piece!
    Like many others, I read through this entire article — uncharacteristically of typical Web consumption.

    It makes me think about how many times have I’ve heard Strunk and White misquoted to “chunk” and “bullet” everything. It’s actually more to the effect (and I left my copy at another desk): it’s okay to use long sentences, just make every word count.

    Countless times I have bulletized for the sake bulleting even to the point of deadening my thoughts in name of SALES.*Sigh*

    One of the many reasons we’ve been encouraged to simplify; thereby, castrating our writing on the Web, was originally of technical reason. CRT (tube-based) monitors refreshed images. There was a consistent flashing of radiation onto readers’ eyes that would physically tire them. Additionally, pixel-depth is VERY course compared to the printed pages. (72 ppi I think) And that also requires the eyes to work harder.

    So, add all that to the mental taxation of reading (for some it is a small fee, others great) writing for the screen was forcibly truncated to the lowest common denominator. (reffering back to your latest “blog post”http://technicalpoet.com/2007/07/31/undeadartofwriting/)

    I’m hoping with the proliferation of LCD monitors this rational will wane. iPhone resolution of 160ppi has actually made reading a screen pleasant. It’ll be great when our other screens will have this resolution.

    Anyway, my point is that there is hope. Prose will make its comeback. 🙂

    Thank you, Amber. Quality stuff.

  21. A powerful and beautifully argued piece which has left me squirming and embarrassed at how lazy I’ve become with my content writing. And it’s made me realise how far I’ve abrogated my responsibility for content to the Marketing Dept.

    It’s a wake up call and I envisage some tough ‘negotiations’ coming in the future as I try to remove the vapid marketing speak! Many thanks.

  22. That is a well written piece. I quite enjoyed it. I am and have designed web sites before content, but it is never fun because you later discover that you need definition lists where none was defined or text is to long for the design or any one of a dozen things have to be added after the fact top support the text.

    But I am also one who can write beautifully twice a year. I am inspired and I write something wonderful, then the other 363 days I write crap. So is life.

    I am on the fence with the alt attribute. I specialize in accessibility. Decorative images do not have alt text. No green house or left corners. It is not of importance, so the screen reader moves on.

    That said, I see your point and yes your alt text was good. I guess it comes to the reason for the image. If it is just there as a well known landmark on a page discussing the University, I would likely leave it out unless landmarks are discussed. If the page was about the tower, then I would certainly leave it in. I see your point as well as Alsdair’s. Best case with accessibility is for user choice, but with alt text it is always my choice with no reader input. In a perfect world the reader could choose to have alt text easily (meaning not a pre-set, I mean on the fly between pages and sites without resetting options all the time.)

    But I will spread this around, it is worth reading and I have argued for years that Content is the most important followed by structure/logic and last good looks. Readers will go to good content regardless of ugly sites, but will not return to pretty sites with lousy content. Course if the site is illogical and confusing neither content or looks matter, structure can kill both other concepts. Just wish I only wrote crappy two times a year.

  23. Amber,

    Thank you so much for writing this article. First of all, it seems appropriate to note that, in the course of calling for value to be placed on the Art of Writing, artful and thoughtful writing is exercised. Thus, your case is doubled in its strength.

    The matter underneath this issue of quality web writing is a broader social issue: empathy; which seems to be disappearing from many arenas of human activity in our culture. I am confident, however, that this indispensable characteristic will not completely perish with thoughtful people such as yourself alive and kicking.

  24. though it’s well written, I am old and probably ADD and I hate reading too much text online, now maybe worse than ever…. so while I take the point about the tired old “chunk it and shorten it” stuff — fact is, some of us just have short attention spans, even shorter when hunched over a non-ergonomic laptop. But I digress.

    What I’m popping in to say is I once wrote an ALA piece (I believe it was Dec 1999 and is now lost in the dust) in which I opined that web writing is actually more akin to orality than literacy. I still believe this to be true. And think that certain types of writing, specifically narrative styles (storytelling) really works well on the web.

  25. Hi Amber,

    I enjoyed your post, but I question the use of the word “anorexic” in this context. As a journalism graduate, and from one writer to another, I think the word should be used only to describe the condition. It was a good piece, but when I came across the subheading “A history of anorexia” I expected a completely different angle in the following paragraphs. I hope I’m not out of place by stating such a thing.

    Brian

  26. @*Brian*: I always appreciate other points of view when it comes to language, word choice, and style. As far as whether or not the word “anorexic” is appropriate, as in properly used, I’d have to say that it is: Dictionary.com has the following as an accepted definition of the word:

    bq. Characterized by severe economy of style and expression: “The book consists of nineteen rather anorexic stories, stripped of all but vestigial traces of emotion and often of plot” (Madison Smartt Bell).

    But that’s not to suggest that you can’t take issue with my usage: language is a democracy, and Lord knows I don’t own how words are used or interpreted. I employ a liberal use of language, stretching it to its limits, seeing how far I can take it and what I can make it do, especially if it helps limn a lovely picture or tell an entertaining tale. I can’t think of another word that would have sold the idea as neatly or as succinctly as this “anorexic” in this context; I found it perfect for the impressions I wanted to share. But one of the beauties of English is that we do have myriad words to choose from; if you’d have used another, that’s a-ok with me.

  27. Your piece, Amber, was both engaging and informative. I was engaged by your strong feelings and reminded painfully of how often I tend towards cursory alt text. Passion is a necessary ingredient in any great creation, or any creation that we desire to be great. Talent, skill, attention to detail, and the freedom to use said resources are important too. But without passion we only get “nice” or “competent”. I’m reading passion for good writing as the subtext of your article and reminded to reach for my own when performing the drudge work of supplying alt text and titles for pages and pages of images.

    I also love your definition for copy. Too often such meaningless and trivial bunches of words are foisted on us in the guise of marketing.

  28. I realize as I read everyone’s comments that I wish for absolutes, even knowing there are no absolutes! I edit the website of a health insurance company, and our users are coming to us with a task in mind. Our content has to be short, clear, and directive, and often involves numbered lists – first do this, then do this. A different world from Amber’s lovely blog. Thanks for carrying me away and inviting me to think. Now back to “Don’t Make Me Think” world…

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

    Thanks for a reminder of why quality matters.

  30. 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 (http://textgoeshere.org.uk/articles/2006/04/the-f-pattern-how-readers-dont-read/) 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

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

    Brett

  34. 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.

  35. 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?

  36. @*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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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

  40. 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.

    Bob

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

    bq. 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.

    bq. 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.

  43. 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).

  44. 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….!

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

    bq. 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.

  46. 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!

  47. 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.

  48. 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!

  49. 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.

  50. 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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