May 27, 2003

Today’s web producers and writers may not have heard of Roy Rogers, the cowboy hero to their baby boomer pa’rdners, but the modern generation may identify with one of his songs. (Slightly altered here to make a point):

“Oh, give me white space, lots of white space
Under an editor’s smile from above,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me write through the wide open
Sites that I love,
Don’t fence me in.”

Roy Peter Clark, writing savant extraordinaire at The Poynter Institute, and a musician in his own right, once wrote that anything can be written in 800 words or less.

How do these two ideas tie together for practical journalists writing for the web? Well, let me get slightly verbose.

Know your audience

Bells and whistles impress techies, but readers want sites that are informative and easy to navigate. In other words, we want to write long, but our readers want to read short.

Jakob Nielsen, a web usability researcher and engineer, has done study after study saying web readers don’t read. They scan. Not only that, but they scan when they should be working, so they’re in a hurry to get news nuggets before the boss comes around the cubicle. Our hypothetical scanners with the suspicious bosses will only give a story a few seconds to get and hold their attention. So online stories should:

  • Have informative subheads.

  • Use bold type on proper nouns or important points.

  • Use bulleted lists.

  • Keep paragraphs short (one idea).

  • Have pictures or graphics. Remember the broadcast maxim: “See cow, don’t say cow.”

The form it takes

That means web stories should be cookie-cutter bland and formulaic, right? Hardly. They can be as creative as time and the boss will allow, but how we write and how we work a story are different. It’s not our grandparents’ news anymore.

Write to add depth. Layers can use text to explain why the story matters (as a print story would), allow the audience to hear or see human drama (like broadcast stories), and engage readers interactively.

Here’s a synopsis, without examples: (For examples, go to

  • Clickable interactive: graphics or other elements that add to the depth of a story.

  • Slideshows (with or without audio): photos with cutlines for strong visual stories.

  • Surveys: questions and answers on a topic.

Suggestion 1: Make it tight and bright!

  • Don’t write a mystery novel. Tell the readers the ending right away. (“She cut her hair to earn money to buy him a watch; he sold his watch to buy her some brushes.”)

  • Use subject-verb-object sentences. (“You didn’t!” they both exclaimed.)

  • Use active voice and action verbs to express connotation and denotation. (“What a strange Christmas this has been,” they said.)

  • Avoid overusing adjectives and adverbs. (“Stop this!” O. Henry thundered.)

Suggestion 2: Explain

Readers want to know not only who, what, when, and where, but also why the story is important. Why are city taxes going up? What will it mean to essential services? Use links to help amplify without adding words.

Don’t bury the lede and don’t pile on when updating. With each update, be sure the story is complete and cut out the superfluous text from previous versions.

Suggestion 3: Banish gray

Long gray or black blocks of type are deadly. Think: Can the info be better presented in a graph, chart, or table? Can the sentences and grafs be shorter? Punchier?

Readers want their info NOW. So web writing should be scannable and splitable.

  • Scannability: Highlight key words or phrases to make a point. Briefly repeat such info from time to time in new ways.

  • Splitability: Break some info off into links that are also in inverted pyramid style so that there is what Nielsen calls “a set of pyramids floating in cyberspace.”

Suggestion 4: Link, link, link!

Since the hed will likely be the first line of a link, make sure it is straightforward and succinct. Let readers know what they’re getting for their click.

We want to write long, but our readers want to read short.Don’t be afraid to link deep within a site instead of just to top pages. No reader wants to go to the top page and then search. Also, check and see if a site is available; don’t trust someone’s word that it is or will be.

And if you link to a specific geographic location, hyperlink to a map to show readers where it is.

Consider using internal links for navigational ease.

That was 764 words. Both Roys –- Rogers and Clark -– would be pleased.

[ What is your advice to someone writing for the web? ]

Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. He can be reached at

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Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, he…
Joe Marren

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