Writing for the web: guidelines for an introductory writing class

The following are some notes I have made for a discussion I am having with the JEM 200 writing instructors about what we are teaching concerning writing for the web. I invite your comments.

As we move from writing in print mode to writing for the web, here are some general principles that we should keep in mind:

  • The writing should be tighter – more concise.
  • Writers should use words and phrases that are information rich.
  • Writing should be shorter but with no loss of information.
  • Writers must learn to write quickly and with confidence.

We need to explore in some depth what each of these principles mean with our students. I admit that we haven’t gotten them all figured out yet, but all of us have ideas about them that we should share.

For instance, what are words and phrases that are information rich? Well, I know one that isn’t: “There is.” We should avoid those kinds of constructions. Maybe you know of others.

Possibly one way to think of information rich is to think of the Ws: who, what, when and where. If the words we use don’t convey something about those, we probably shouldn’t be using them.

But I digress.

Here are some specific guidelines that I want us to discuss at our meeting on Friday:

— No story should be more than 200 words unless there is a compelling reason for it.

— Summaries should be a maximum of 35 words.

— Headlines should be a maximum of eight words. They should be abstracted sentences. That is, they must contain a subject and a verb and be as specific as possible. No puns, no play-on-words. Use alliteration only when it makes sense. In the words of Jakob Nielsen, they should be “pearls of clarity.”

— Use lists when appropriate. Teach your students how to create lists. Check out what I say about lists in the third lecture on writing for the web.

— Paragraphs should be a maximum of two sentences and 50 words.

— Only one direct quotation per story. Direct quotations generally do not pull their informational weight. They add a bit of color and character to the story, but that’s about it.

— Every story should contain at least one in-line link to additional information. The link should be constructed in a way so that the reader will have a good idea as to where the link goes. Check out this article on linking on JPROF. Teach your students how to set up a link in HTML.

— Teach the concept of key words. Students should identify key words and put the tag around them.

The goals of our writing should be to deliver as much information to the readers as quickly as possible. Send the readers on their way satisfied, and they will return.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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