Writing for the Web

Despite the fact that the www has been around now for more than 20 years, and that over the past decade it has become perhaps the most critical communication tool for businesses, many organisations still do not get it. Writing for the web is not the same as writing for brochures or writing articles. A completely different approach is required. Why? Because most people don’t read websites. That’s right, they don’t read them. They scan them.

To quote the web useabilty guru, Jakob Nielsen, ‘People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.’

When people scan, they pick up key words and key ideas. They go to the site searching for the information they want, not to settle down for hours of discovery, like one might read a novel. You might think that the 500 words bios of each of your executives are interesting, but no-one else is. A brief 100 word bio, however, outlining career path, important projects and current position, will be remembered.

So what does all this mean for people responsible for an organisation’s website. Well here are a few crucial points:

  • Keep word length to a minimum – remember, visitors to your site only want to get an overview or the more critical pieces of information.
  • Highlight key words (often through the use of a hyperlink),
  • Put the most important information toward top left of screen – that’s the most scanned area.
  • Create extra pages with less text, rather than few pages with heaps of text. (Scrolls are for monks).
  • Use bullet points to get across important points. People will read bullet pints (you just have, haven’t you?)  

Next time you go searching for information on an organisation’s website, take note of how you do it. It will help you if you’re ever in charge of your company’s website.

Nicolas Brasch
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Yellow and Red Cards

During the week I was watching Arsenal v Barcelona in the Champions League. (What’s this got to do with writing?, I hear you ask. Hold on, I’m getting there). I was dismayed when Arsenal’s main striker was given a red card and sent from the field, thereby ending my beloved Arsenal’s chances of progressing further in the competition. But it got me thinking – what if the world of writing and literature had a system of yellow and red cards for warning and sending-off writers.

In which situations, and to which writers, would I issue yellow (warning) and red (immediate sending off) cards?

Well, I think yellow cards would have to be issued to writers who sit in cafes procrastinating and pretending to have writer’s block, instead of sitting at their computers and writing. (Of course, writing while in a cafe would not incur such a warning because I have been known to do this).

I would also issue a yellow card for pretension. In other words, to those writers who use long, often archaic words just to show how clever they are, rather than to help drive their story. Now that certainly gets rid of a lot of writers.

Then there are all those ‘emerging’ writers who send their first drafts to publishers in the expectation that their work is done and a contract will be forthcoming. It’s almost a red card offence but I’ll give them the benefit of doubt and only issue a yellow card.

I’m not letting publishers off the hook, though. My final yellow card goes to the publishers of sporting biographies who make the text double spaced, extra large and within large margins, to try and hide the fact that the book only has about 80 pages of text – and therefore is far less substantial than the sporting identity’s achievements.

Now onto the red cards. And this is where I get personal.

A red card to Roger Hargreaves (Mr Men books) and Rev. W. Awdry (Thomas the Tank Engine) for inflicting upon the world the most boring, overwritten, uninteresting children’s books.

A red card to Patrick White for somehow becoming the most acclaimed Australian author without just about anyone reading (or at least finishing) any of his books.

A red card to Sarah Ferguson and the other celebrities who think that writing a children’s book is as easy as A, B, C (or in their cases, A, B, D because I doubt they can even read).

And a red card to William Shakespeare for being just so damn good.

My final red card for the moment goes not to an individual but to those ‘emerging’ writers and writing students who don’t believe it is necessary to read to become a writer. In fact, a red card is too good for them. They should not even be allowed to take to the field.

How about you? Who would you issue yellow and red cards to?

Nicolas Brasch
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Quotes on Writing

Yesterday I was browsing through some quotes on writing and found quite a few that reinforced some views on the craft that I hold. So I thought I’d share some of them with you.

I have long been sceptical about people who claim to have writer’s block. I consider it to be merely procrastination by would-be-writers who would prefer to spend their time in cafes. So I was pleased to read this quote from Terry Pratchett:

‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.’

And in a similar vein, from Dorothy C. Fontana:

‘You can’t say, I won’t write today because that excuse will extend into several days, then several months, then… you are not a writer anymore, just someone who dreams about being a writer.’

 And as someone who cannot hammer a nail in straight but loves playing with words, I could not but agree with Edward Gibbon:

‘There is more pleasure to building castles in the air than on the ground.’

I am a firm believer in getting your mind to a state when the words and characters are doing the work. So I love Raymond Chandler’s quote:

‘The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.’

And having co-written a book, it’s hard to argue with Agatha Christie:

‘I’ve always believed in writing without a collaborator, because when two people are writing the same book, each believes he gets all the worries and only half the royalties.’

Having spent a lot of time chasing up payments, it’s hard not to argue with Richard Curtis:

‘Most writers can write books faster than publishers can write cheques.’

But my favourite, for succinctness, comes from Raymond Chandler. I believe that when a story seems to be flailing a bit, a writer should stoke their characters much like one stokes a fire, to get them to react. Then conflict occurs and the story continues. Chandler explains it thus:

‘When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.’

Now that’s what I call nailing it!

Nicolas Brasch
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Newspaper Headlines

I have always enjoyed well-written, snappy and witty headlines. When the Walkley Award winners for journalism are announced I always look to see who won the category for headlines – and which of their headlines they won with. So this week’s blog is a bit of a homage to the sub editors who write the headlines.

One of my all-time favourite headlines is the oft-quoted:

Headless body in topless bar (New York Post)

One of the cleverest has to be:

Close But No Cigar (in News after the US Senate failed to impeach Bill Clinton)

From an Australian perspective, I put forward the following which appeared on the front page of The Truth:

Barassi On Drugs (see page 5)

and when you turned to page 5 you got:

Barassi on Drugs: Don’t Take Them

A sub-editor who was a Star Wars fan obviously gave a lot of thought to the headline about high wire walkers crossing the Han River in South Korea. The headline read:

Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo

When a councillor named Laura Chick accused male colleagues of sexism in the workplace, the sub-editor just could not resist:

Chick Accuses Some of Her Male Colleagues of Sexism

Then of course there are the unintentionally funny headlines (Well, I guess they were unintentional) such as:

Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons

One-armed Man Applauds the Kindness of Strangers

So next time you read the newspaper, take a moment to think of the sub-editors straining their brains to come up with attention-grabbing, snappy headlines. Of course, some will just despair, such as the one who wrote the headline:

DOE to do NEPA’s EIS on BNFL’s AMWTP at INEEL after SRA protest.

And if you have any favourites, let me know.

Nicolas Brasch
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Odd jobs

I was talking to a former student recently and she suggested that I write about some of the oddest corporate writing jobs I have had over the years. And I thought, ‘what a great idea’ (thanks Kyra).

As I thought about it, I decided I would make this category as broad as possible and include some jobs that were not really odd but were outside my usual gamut of corporate writing jobs. I have also included one that turned out to be strange because of the client (I have provided details but none that can be traced to a particular client or person).

Of course, for my clients of the following jobs, there was nothing strange or odd about them. They were essential communication materials on a subject of great importance. And I treated them as such. But some of the topics do lend themselves to be included in such a list. So here are five that spring readily to mind. I might add more at a later date.

1. An article titled The history of plumbing inside Victoria’s State Parliament for a plumbing industry trade magazine. Now that one is odd in just about anyone’s language.

2. A fact sheet on the science behind the development of paints and solvents used on naval vessels. I include this one because it seemed so odd to me that anyone would spend more than decades working in this field (as the subject I interviewed had) but I came away fascinated by his work and almost sharing his passion.

3. An annual report for a dot com company just after the dot com crash in the early 2000s. The CEO basically wanted me to talk up the company’s prospects while it was patently obvious by the state of the financials and the empty desks that the company was not long for the world. Of course, given it was a public company, I was obliged to write on the facts – which he wasn’t too crazy about.

4. A script for a well known comedian for a sales event for a very large corporation. The script took the form of a quiz show with the comedian acting as host, and executives of the company acting as contestants. The only problem was, the comedian was pissed before he started and just got drunker and drunker as the evening progressed, to the point that he had no idea what was supposed to happen next.

5. A scavenger hunt for a corporate sales event. I was flown from Melbourne to Sydney to spend two days walking around Coogee Beach and environs coming up with ideas to create clues for a scavenger hunt. It was the middle of winter and Melbourne was freezing, so two days at Coogee Beach (where it was nice and warm), walking around, drinking in local cafes (and the occasional bar), eating in local restaurants, and spending a fair bit of time reading a book on the beach, was a great corporate gig. Was it odd? Maybe not but it was not my usual writing job and for that reason I have included it here.

Nicolas Brasch
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