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An Introduction to Writing on the Web

So why am I, Jeffrey Malone, putting my writing skills to use on the Web? The real question is, what took me so long? And all you other writers out there, what is taking you so long?

Ever since I decided that I wanted to pursue writing, one of my explanations for doing so is that I wanted to make connections with people. The Internet is the ultimate communication tool; it is where the largest potential audience is to be found.

Three-quarters of North Americans and half of Europeans currently use the Internet. While only one-quarter of the world’s population uses the Internet, the number of users has grown by nearly four hundred percent in the past decade. The spread of the web has been especially profound in Africa and the Middle East, as both regions have seen growth of more than one thousand percent. This all translates to nearly 2 billion potential readers. So folks, get on the web and find your audience.

How Do People Read on the Web?

There is a place on the Web for every form and style of writing. But before you decide what sort of web writing you will be contributing, keep in mind the reading habits of Internet users. According to Danish “web usability consultant” Jakob Nielsen, Internet users read at most 28 percent of the words on a webpage during an average visit, but 20 percent is actually more likely. Time is precious for Web users. They are going to look for the important stuff right away when they open up a webpage, and if it is difficult to find the important material, they are going to navigate away to another site as quickly as possible.

Moreover, the most common method of reading a webpage is the F-Shaped Pattern (see left image). Readers will first look over a section of the page horizontally, then another section below also horizontally but not as far, and finally vertically scan the rest of the left side of the page. Thus, you should put your most important or attention-grabbing information at the beginning. But still put valuable material in the rest of the page – your readers may very well come back later.

Forms of Web Writing

Once you decide what type of writing you will be contributing to the Internet, the next step is understanding the standards of writing that have been established in your chosen genre. Familiarize yourself with what techniques are used and what audience expectations are so that you can figure out what the most effective strategies are.

The Old Reliable Article

Article writing is alive and well on the Internet. Most major magazines and newspapers post their printed features on their websites. In addition, trade and academic journals often post their articles on online databases. Nowadays, most forms of printed publishing also end up on the Web in some form. Unless you are already writing for a print periodical, you do not have to worry about creating pieces in this field of web writing. Periodicals tend to have online-only content as well, but there is no need to focus on them specifically as the styles of writing they cover can be found on individual-run websites. Let’s explore.

THE BLOG

The form of web writing that everyone seems to be getting into these days is web logging, or blogging, for short. Basically any and all forms of web writing appear through this medium. A blog is essentially an online journal. As the writer of a blog, you write about whatever topic you feel like writing about, usually with the aim of attracting and maintaining an audience. Topics for blogging can range from politics to movies, from romance to child-rearing, from dieting and to the ever-popular Internet topic of cats.

If you want to create a place on the Internet where your writing will be stored and your audience can easily find you, a blog is the perfect place to start. Websites like Blogspot, Wordpress, and LiveJournal offer free blog hosting. A blog allows you to share your unfiltered thoughts as often as you like. Most blogs allow for comments from readers; yours should, too. Doing so will encourage your audience to stick around with you by allowing them to make a connection to you via the web.

Some bloggers buy domain names for their blogs, which allows you to bypass the name of the hosting service in the URL. This is not necessary unless you are going to update your blog frequently enough to get your money’s worth. Buying a domain name for your blog will allow you to use it as your own personal site. Such a website is good for a writer to have, and using a blog as yours will allow you to bypass many of the design elements of maintaining a website. You will already have a template design to use. You will not have to be trained in using HTML coding, as the blog hosting will provide most of that for you. You could use some HTML of your own if you want to, but your options are more confined than if you were to build your website from the ground up without the blog template design. If you want maximum freedom and are comfortable with coding language, then using a blog as your personal website is not the way to go.

Even though you likely will not be getting paid to write a blog when you start out, you can still take your cues from the pros. Consider Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker’s Watching TV blog, which shows off the value of embedded video links. In his weekly Saturday Night Live recaps, for example, he provides sketch-by-sketch breakdowns, with accompanying videos of the sketches from NBC.com. As these recaps are posted the day after an episode airs, Tucker’s comments are generally snappy and focused, with no more than a sentence or two devoted to each sketch. This is a good strategy if you are blog is going to include immediate reactions to TV shows or other aspects of pop culture.

You might prefer to take a more though-out approach with your blog posts. In this case, you could follow a different example from Entertainment Weekly, the Movie Critics Blog. The topics that EW’s critics Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum take on are not particularly time-sensitive. Thus, they employ long paragraphs and develop something of a thesis (such as, “In light of the recent A Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Hollywood horror movies should start adopting a more comedic tone.”). If your blog topics do not demand immediate posting, think things through and develop an overarching main idea.

If you are going to be discussing TV, movies, or anything else that can be found in video form, keep in mind that there are probably some video clips out there related to what you are talking about. The Internet is the epitome of a multimedia resource. As a web writer, you may want to mix up your writing with accompanying videos (as well as pictures and possibly music). Most video sharing websites have embedding options; take advantage.

Once you start your blog, you will want to include an explanation of who you are and why you are blogging. This can be your first blog post. After a few years as a web writer, once you have attracted a steady audience, you can just add your newest posts without any explanation as to what your writing aims are. The political blog forum Daily Kos, for example, has enough of a reputation to employ this style.

Obviously there are many more blogs employing many more writing styles than I could reasonably include in this piece. Explore some more by using a blog portal, such as this one.

The Personal Website

If you are an aspiring novelist, short story writer, poet, screenwriter, essayist, playwright, or journalist, you should post samples of your work on the Internet. An excellent way to do that is via a personal website, such as the one you are currently visiting. Create a portfolio page. Post excerpts, and also provide links to PDF copies of the full versions of your pieces. Check out my portfolio page to see what I am talking about. Because web readers often only give a cursory read at first you do not want to bombard them with a full story unless they are sure they want to commit.

Sometimes you may want to focus on promoting a single, full-length written work, such as a completed novel. In that case, you may want to tailor your entire website to that work. Check out first-time novelist James Magruder’s website for a well-designed example. The image on the homepage is the cover art from his novel, Sugarless. The background design is interesting but hardly gaudy. The links on the right side are arranged simply and easy to follow. For your personal website, keep in mind the principles of simple navigation and a design that is easy on the eyes.

Wikis and Beyond

One exciting area of web writing that has taken off recently is that of wikis. A wiki is a website consisting of interlinked web pages, meaning that it is essentially a site in which each page has the same design. It is appropriate to call each page on a wiki an “entry.” Whenever an item is mentioned on the entry of another item, there is a link to the former item’s entry. Many wikis are used for encyclopedic purposes, the most famous being Wikipedia. If you are significantly interested in a subject with many elements that demand organization, such as a television show or a film series, you may be qualified to contribute to a wiki or create your own. The wiki for cult favorite TV show Lost is among the best wikis out there.

Writing on the web is not hard, in the sense that you really can write whatever you want. The tricky part is figuring out how to write something that people will care about. It is also important to figure out if you should focus on short-form or long-form writing. The traditional blogging approach is the short-form style, and it is generally the preferable style for web writing, as you are constantly in a struggle to hold your audience’s attention on the web. Longer articles have their place on the Internet, but you should not lead with them. If you have longer pieces that are worth sharing, put them somewhere off to the side on your personal website (and include a PDF download option). Ultimately, you should not worry too much about your chances of success when there are nearly 2 billion web readers out there. Above all, keep this word in mind: niche.


-Jeffrey Malone - 5/4/2010



Sources Consulted:

www.wikipedia.org

www.rebeccablood.net/essays/ weblog_history.html

www.ew.com

www.internetworldstats.com

www.masternewmedia.org/news/2008/05/22/online_reading_habits_how_much.htm

www.useit.com/eyetracking

wordpress.org

www.livejournal.com

www.blogspot.com

www.dailykos.com

portal.eatonweb.com

www.jamesmagruder.com

lostpedia.wikia.com