October 18, 1999 -- Newsletter #50

By Joe Burns

October 18, 1999 -- Newsletter #50
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Greetings, Weekend Silicon Warriors,

This is newsletter Number 50.

I've written 50 of these newsletters? Unbelievable. All I can think of is my seventh grade math teacher who once told me to shut up because what I had to say was not very interesting and not worthy of someone's attention. Go figure.

Did you hear...

>Has your Web access been a little slow lately? You may have Ohio to thank. The main Internet Artery was cut clean in two by workers. Some areas were slowed by up to 50%. That's my home state hard at work!

>Members of U.S. Congress, President Clinton, and other interest groups have asked the World Trade Organization to impose a permanent global ban on Internet taxes in order to increase Web commerce. It's a good idea, but politicians agreeing to not collect taxes? Really?

>Hey, you college student wannabes! Have you rolled into yet? It's a site set up a lot like You go in, bid on how much you'd like to pay for room, board, tuition, and the like. The service then searches out a college to accept your bid. There are only 12 institutions of higher learning currently reviewing bids, but I'll bet that number goes up pretty quickly very soon.

And now onto today's topic...

So, I moved to Hammond, Louisiana, to start teaching at Southeastern Louisiana University. Great place. It took about a week before another professor asked if I could come and talk to her class. I, of course, accepted straightaway. I love to teach and the more time in front of a class the better.

Now, one would think that when one asks another professor to teach a class, one would pick a topic the professor had some knowledge of. The class was the advanced media writing course (That's the one that has low enrollment because it's a 400 level course that's a real bear). Graduates of the course will make their living in the media. These are the students with enough drive to be successful. I knew this would be a good group of kids to talk to.

"So, what's my topic?" I asked, innocently enough.

"Writing for the Web," she answered, smiling.

I agreed, we smiled, and she was gone. A week later I actually started to think about what in the world I was going to talk about. I have been writing for the Web now for going on seven years. My stuff is widely read by literally hundreds of thousands of people. Goodies gets over a million hits a week! I have been given too many awards to display and listed on so many reference pages that I've lost count. I put out close to 10,000 words every week for posting on Goodies. That's good, right? There's just one problem....

I have never once thought about a writing style or any set of rules to writing for the Web. I just do it, I don't think about it. The vast majority of my stuff is first draft. Oh, sure, Lindy reads over it and does some editing, but for the most part, what I write the first time out is what gets to your desktop. This newsletter is always written free form.

Is there really a trick to this? Can rules and parameters be set up so that a writing style for the Web can be quantified the same as writing for TV, radio, or the print media?

I went to my books. Not much there. The topic has hardly been broached, and where it has the rules are written so broadly that students might do better not writing them down.

So, I became a Man on a Mission. What is it that I do each week? What tricks do I follow? Can this stuff be taught? The following is what I came up with.

Ever heard of a guy by the name of Marshall McLuhan? He wrote a bunch of books, but the one he really hit pay-dirt with was titled "Understanding Media." In it he wrote "The medium is the message."

"So what?" you say... you and the students. The point of the statement is that when a person uses media, say watching TV, there is more than a simple viewing and listening event occurring. There is a whole-person event going on defined by the medium itself. Research states that women see TV viewing as social, men see it as defining. That's why my wife talks through most of the World Series. Men use television as a "replacement medium." It replaces what we were previously doing. TV is to be watched, not to be background noise. Shut up, it's the bottom of the ninth!

There is also something to the perception of a medium. Why is it that my mother did her darndest to stop me from watching TV, but encouraged me to read? I could have been reading the filthiest red-cover book and it wouldn't have mattered to her. I was reading and not rotting my brain watching documentaries on great figures in world history. See how the medium is defining?

It's the same thing with writing for the Web. The medium is the message. I tried and tried to come up with a set of rules that applied directly to the writing itself. No dice. It always came back to the writing in regards to the medium it was being written for, the Web.

After almost canceling the class, here's what I did come up with:

1. A Web author must not only be a writer. He or she must also understand programming, graphics, audio, video, and each medium's delivery over the Web.

Go to any news source. Not only can you read the story but you can also hear an audio clip, see a video clip, click on other links. The Web audience is way past the "Ooooo" factor of video over the Web. Now they demand it as part of telling a story. If you are to compete, you've got to know how each of these elements is created, edited, and delivered over the Web.

2. A Web author must know the Web around them.

You are fully unimpressive if you are an island unto yourself. The Web was built on the concept of hypertext. I want to click on links to move around. You had better offer me links to things you're talking about so I can learn more if I want. Plus one or two links won't do, you have to offer myriad links to other credible sources. Your audience is simply too knowledgeable about the Web around them. You have to be the same.

3. Placement of links.

Yes, you must offer links, but not in a distracting way. Look at CNN or USA Today. They have links to all their other sections, but not in the body of the story. That text is all left without hypertext altering. The reason is that putting a link in the body of a story is simply too inviting. People will want to click on it. When they do, you've interrupted their reading and they've left the page. Audiences get confused and they blame you even though they've clicked. Save the links for the side or the bottom.

4. Conversationalist format writing is the name of the game.

The Web is a form of communication. I believe that with all my heart. Your writing style must come at the reader from a communication standpoint. You must anticipate questions and answer them. You must write for the ear even though it is the eye that will do the reading. My suggestion is to always read what you've written out loud. If it sounds stiff... it is. Rewrite it. I think my writing translates to the Web because my background is radio. It might have been a different thing if I was a TV guy.

5. Poor grammar ain't so bad.

The Web is a form of communication, and as such, the written word should follow the spoken word. Now, please don't get me wrong here. I am not offering carte blanche for you to write in fragments and noun/verb disagreement. However, the Queen's English is stiff. It is not the way you speak. I told the class to write as if they are speaking to someone of importance, not your friend. Be conversational, but don't use slang.

6. Interact with me.

Since we're talking communication here, at least two people need to be involved. (Yes, I know there are theories out there that say one person can have communication. I don't buy them.) The Web is built on interaction so you'd better interact. Let me hear sounds. Let me answer questions. Let me leave my name for more information. Give me links. Make me click to see more. I don't mind clicking. You know what I do hate? Scrolling.

7. Get it all on one page.

It's a proven fact, folks. People will click to death, but having to scroll, especially horizontal scrolling, makes them very angry. Get your story onto one page, two at the outmost. Yes, I know the major news sources often offer long stories that scroll four or five screens. I would be willing to bet that after the first screen or two, most people are gone, even though there is more to read. I'll click to see more. It's like reading a book. I'll turn the pages. It gives me a sense of getting somewhere.

8. Let me get in touch with you.

There are no prima donnas on the Web. If you write and post a story, I should be able to write to you.

9. Content is king.

Fill your pages with graphics. Add bells and whistles galore. If the content isn't there, no one cares.

10. Write for the Web alone.

Too often a student will try to write one story for all media. It doesn't work. The same story will need to be re-written for radio, TV, print, and now the Web.

My final comment was to never see one medium as lesser than another. I have seen it happen that someone feels radio is beneath TV so that the radio script doesn't require as much time or effort as a TV version would.

Horse manure.

The Web is far past the "fad" phase. It is a legitimate mass (and one to one) medium that will generate its own writing style once we all agree on how it's done. I told the students that if they choose the Web as their outlet, they should put heart and soul into their words. Believe me, the audience can tell if you really care about what you write or not.

Then, maybe five years from now, other writer wannabe's will be coming to you asking how you write for the Web. I won't be around forever, you know, even though my last checkup found me in good health.


And that's that. Fifty times, that's that. Thanks for reading. My mother would be proud.

Joe Burns, Ph.D.

And Remember: Since this is the 50th newsletter, I thought I'd end on a high note, so let's take three from the "Oh, yuck!" department. >Did you know that gelatin is actually made from the boiled skin of bovine? Yep, boiled until little is left but the collagen. But who cares, cool it down with some banana slices and it rocks! >The shiny coating on Junior Mints is made from a secretion from the lac insect. I don't know exactly what the lac insect is, but... eeeeewww! >Finally, most cherries today are given their bright red appearance through a nonkosher artificial color called "carmine." It comes from the dried bodies of the cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus). Yum.

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