Writing for the Web
Developing content for a Web site will probably mean writing new materials. The writing you have already done for your courses - for handouts and other instructional materials - may not work well on the Web. Writing Web documents is different from writing for print, and if you simply move your print documents onto Web pages, you are not using the medium to its best advantage. If you are including textual information on your course Web site, you should rewrite or adapt your materials to the style of the genre. Web readers tend to scan text online and read text offline. They typically do not read a page from start to finish on the computer screen. Instead, they scan a site looking for relevant items and then print pages that contain the information they seek. You need to apply a style and method to your Web documents that accommodate this type of reading.
Among the Web's many peculiarities is its writing genre. Most Web documents follow a style that you may not normally use in your writing. One of an author's tasks, however, is to write in the language and style of the reader. You cannot afford to bury your message so deep that the typical Web reader scanning your pages will either skip over it or not even bother to find it. The following approach will help ensure that Web readers will find your information:
Summarize first. Put the main points of your document in the first paragraph, so that readers scanning your pages will not miss your point.
Be concise. Use lists rather than paragraphs, but only when your prose lends itself to such treatment. Readers can pick out information more easily from a list than from within a paragraph.
Write for scanning. Most Web readers scan pages for relevant materials rather than reading through a document word by word. Guide the reader by highlighting the salient points in your document using headings, lists, and typographical emphasis.
These stylistic devices are meant to accommodate the reading habits of online readers. Be careful, though, that you do not undermine your message simply to be accommodating. Readers will happily print lengthy Web documents if they are comprehensive and provide needed detail. For materials that do not lend themselves to the clipped style of online documents, do not compromise your content to fit the genre. Assume that most readers will print your materials, and make printing easy. Your readers are more likely to thank you for providing depth than to grouse about page length.
Another peculiarity of the Web is that readers generally do not read pages in sequence. Novels are intended to be read sequentially, so readers know that they can't pick up a work of fiction at chapter 3 and expect it to make sense. Likewise, novelists can be fairly confident when writing page 32 that their readers will have just read page 31 and will likely continue to page 33, which means that they do not have to keep setting the stage for the reader throughout the story. Web readers, by contrast, are unpredictable. There is no way to tell where they've been or where they'll go after visiting your page. Even if you try to provide context using links to tie related pages together, you cannot force a Web reader to follow those links. As a result, your approach must be encyclopedic, giving the reader a fairly comprehensive presentation of the topic on every page.Much of what is on the Web is reference information, and providing this type of information in precise segments, or "chunks," allows readers to quickly locate the materials they seek. A well-constructed chunk provides readers with a comprehensive account, as well as links to related or supporting pages for further study.
When deciding what defines a chunk of information, consider the following:
Access. Your content list should already be composed of information chunks, because the definition of a content item is any piece of information that needs to be accessed individually. Consider how users will interact with your materials: What items will they want to access directly? Define your information chunks to accommodate the expected usage patterns of your users.
Page length. Chunking provides a way to limit the length of your Web pages: Web readers generally prefer shorter pages. Don't arbitrarily divide a document, however, and don't divide a document that is likely to be printed anyway (see next entry).
Printing. Don't break your narrative into small segments if you expect that most users will want to print the information. Documents are easier to print from a single Web page. Or, if usage is difficult to predict, offer both a Web version and a link to an easy-to-print page or printing alternative, such as a downloadable PDF file.
There are also hazards to watch for when chunking information:
Fragmentation. Be careful not to over-subdivide your information. If you break up your information into many small chunks, your readers will be overwhelmed and frustrated by too many choices. You will also find it hard to create a coherent narrative if the information chunks are too specific to make sense out of context.
Redundancy. If you provide a comprehensive narrative for each information segment, you are going to be redundant. Don't resort to an incomplete presentation of your materials or to excessive use of links (see next entry) in order to avoid repeating yourself. It's okay - even necessary - to be redundant when writing for the Web.
Excessive linking. Web authors often try to avoid redundancy by using links. Instead of providing a full account on one page, they sprinkle the page with links to other pages, either within their site or elsewhere. These linked pages are employed to supply the reader with the context needed to understand the materials. A well-constructed information chunk, however, provides a complete account of the subject, with an appropriate amount of background, and links to pages providing supporting information. Readers should not have to follow links to gain an understanding of the information; the links are for those who wish to pursue the topic, or some aspect of the topic, further.
One reason that Web authors chunk information is to limit page length. It is generally believed that longer pages are unsuited to the Web, based on the notion that the physical act of scrolling is a deterrent for some users. Scrolling may have implications for a casual audience: for "surfers" skimming along the surface of the Web, scrolling goes against the grain. In this discussion of course Web sites, however, your audience is made up of committed users, and scrolling is probably not a big concern. If you have information that students need, they will scroll to get it.
The primary measure of page length should be content. Create logical divisions and subdivisions based on the structure of your information. Do not arbitrarily divide your information to conform to some alleged measure of acceptable page length.
Printing versus reading online
Most people prefer to read lengthy or complicated texts offline. If your presentation includes extensive texts, dividing them into chunks only makes it harder for users to print your information. If you know that your content is likely to be printed, either present it as a single Web page or divide it into subdivisions but provide a link to a printing version.
If your content is more like a reference work than a novel (that is, more segmental than linear), users are likely to read it online, and providing direct access should be the highest priority. In this case, break your information into chunks and write for scanning to accommodate online readers.
Although the ability to link documents is one of the advantages of putting information on the Web, the misuse of links is perhaps the most common failure of Web authors. Used effectively, links can supplement a narrative by providing background information, reinforcing concepts, and adding detail. Used poorly, links disrupt narrative flow in several ways:
Visual distraction. Colored and underlined text within body text pulls the eye by disrupting the uniformity of the text block. If you place a link within a paragraph, the user's eye will be drawn to the link. Many users will click on that link directly without ever reading the text that forms its context.
Disruption of narrative. Links lead to stories half-told. If halfway though your account you offer a link to another site, users may follow the link (and another link and another) and never return to your site.
Lack of context. When readers follow a link, they move from the contextual framework of your site into unfamiliar territory. Users also may not be able to ascertain the connection between the materials on your site and the linked site. This plunge from the known to the mysterious can frustrate and bewilder users.
When creating content for your Web pages, do not mistake a collection of links for content. Links are useful, but only within the context of a narrative. Use links to support your presentation - to provide information that is not critical to your argument but may be of use. And remember that links break - Web pages change, move, or are removed - so the coherence of your presentation should not rely on content from linked sites.