Tips for making content look good on the web

Fountain pen nib and writing on a page

Writing in Russian cyrillic script with a fountain pen. Picture: Petar Milošević, Wikimedia Commons

Is writing for the web different from any other kind of writing?

The short answer is not really.

Writing on any platform should follow the same basic rules: good sense, good grammar and spelling, good reasoning. Clarity and conciseness. Lack of jargon. No padding… and so on.

That said, there are some things that need special attention on the web – and those are largely to do with the fact that the reader is not looking a text on a page. Let’s break this down.

When you are reading text on a page:

* You can see the text in a large context – if it’s in a newspaper or magazine, you can see the article in one glance along with its pictures and headlines and pull quotes and so on.

* You are likely to be spending a little time with text – with a book or a newspaper, there’s a built-in expectation that the reader has sat down metaphorically with a cup of tea or coffee and is going to read and inwardly digest as the saying goes.

When you are reading text on a screen:

* You don’t necessarily see all the related content at once – you have to scroll in one way or another to get to the pictures and other illustrations.

* You might be looking at a phone or a tablet in very small bits of time – quickly in a queue, or while sitting at a traffic light.

Studies suggest that people scan screens in particular ways – there is a whole field of research called eyetracking with keeps tabs on this, and the latest research suggests that people scan a page in a F-Shaped pattern. There’s a lot of detail on that but the takeaway for the purposes of this articles is making an assumption that people start at the top of an article and read to the bottom is not useful. Research also shows that when people encounter text which is not formatted for the web, they are likely to lose interest and click away:

“the vast majority of the web users would rather finish their tasks as fast as possible with the minimum amount of effort; they visit a page because they want to find a quick answer rather than read a dissertation on the topic and educate themselves.”

So the way in which text is formatted can be very important in keeping people reading. Vital elements of formatting for the web (or the smartphone) include:

  • Bolding important words
  • Bulleted lists (like this one!)
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Making sure the important information is easy to find
  • Visually grouping related content
  • Including pictures, maps and graphics

In other words, break the text up. Long screens on text simply don’t cut it!

How to generate ideas for your writing

Painting by Adriano Cecchi

Learn the fine art of eavesdropping. Painting by Adriano CecchiI had forgotten how much I enjoy training.

Last night, I did a two-hour workshop on making blog content interesting at Bergvliet High School in Cape Town, which runs a very good continuing education programme.
It was small group, which made it possible for everybody to ask all their questions, and for me to answer queries and go over material in some detail.
Arising out of the workshop, I thought I’d share our starting point, which was how to generate ideas for writing interesting blog posts.

Little language tip: Distressed, distraught

I spotted this on a site which shall remain nameless*.

In an article about a musician who had killed two people in a car crash was this phrase, used as a subhead:

“Singer takes to Facebook to express his distraught”.

Distraught is an adjective and can’t be used in that place in the sentence. The verb “express” needs a noun, and the right one here would be “distress”. The singer, on the other hand, can be distraught (or distressed).

  • I never mention the sites or names of authors where I spot mistakes. My purpose is not to name and shame or score points.

 

 

 

When to use the word alleged? Some simple rules

One of the most apparently difficult things to get right in news journalism is the correct use of the word alleged.
A Facebook post this morning from a local radio station illustrates the point:

“A shocking video has emerged online of an alleged taxi driver hitting a woman in a taxi at a CBD rank.”

See that alleged? It’s in the wrong place (and in fact is not even really needed) – and the sentence is just clumsy. Here’s what I would have done:

What makes for a perfect paragraph?

Enter key

Picture by Artur Cimoch, freeimages.com

Long ago, at school, there was probably an English lesson about how and where to break text into paragraphs.

As I remember it, the idea was that one thought meant one paragraph, like this in a story from the Guardian:

“The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the ministry of finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.”

There are two sentences there, but they both relate to the question of how much money may be missing in The Gambia.

Compare that to the same thought in the Daily Mail:

But amid growing controversy over the assurances offered to Jammeh to guarantee his departure, Barrow aide Mai Fatty said the new administration had discovered that millions had recently been stolen.

‘The coffers are largely empty,’ he told reporters in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Here, the Mail is applying what seems to be the modern trend, particularly in online articles: the end of every single sentence is a sign to hit the enter key and make a paragraph.

That makes for easy, fast editing and writing, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Back to blogging

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Image Search.”

The prompt said:

Pick a random word and do Google image of on it. Check out the eleventh picture it brings up. Write about whatever that image brings to mind.
So I found the eleventh image for the word “tree” and decided to see how complicated it would be to do this on my phone.

The image is beautiful but formatting and working on this tiny screen is not.

Try to remember this

When I was school (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) our
small, fierce and lovely matric English teacher (complete with
Scottish accent) drilled this into us: you never write “try and” – you
write “try to”.