Monday morning began precisely as Monday mornings are not supposed
to begin: with an argumentative prospective client standing in my
office (sans appointment) telling me why I should stop what I’m
doing and build him a “quick and dirty” website for his
latest project. I smiled at him, nodding in all the right places, and
when he stopped talking for just long enough I said, “All that
sounds great. When you’re ready to give me the content you want
to use so I can see what I’m dealing with, let’s
The client balked. “Can’t we just add that later, once the
design is finished?”
My inner writer growled, but my outer designer smiled, accustomed to
the request. “Sorry; can’t do it. The content is the heart
of the website. I can’t build you a body until you give me a
Content is the heart of a brilliant user experience. From the body content to the
text to the footer, the words that shape the page lie at the very
center of an engaging visit. If the words aren’t beautiful and
meaningful, the sleekest design in the world won’t compensate for
it. The body can never replace a missing heart.
But we’ve gone astray as an industry, and we’ve starved
all the life out of web writing. The kind of writing we encourage is
lifeless, insipid, and calorie-free. If we want to get back on
track—to allow writers to write wonderful user
experiences—we have to change our expectations and our rules.
A history of anorexia
I have always been disheartened by the ubiquitous advice to keep all
writing on the web short, though I understand where the advice comes
from. For years designers and writers worked separately, designers
working their magic to make the website as flashy and awesome as
possible while the writers, if they were invited to the party at all,
were given a paltry few days to whip up some words to fill the white
space on the page. Because the two teams worked separately, much of the
purpose of the website was lost: pages were designed to be looked at,
but not read. Line lengths were much too long. Typography was unheard
of. Color schemes were not designed to facilitate easy reading.
Center-aligned text in Comic Sans ruled supreme.
In those dark days, the people writing the web copy weren’t
actually writers: They were secretaries, product engineers,
and—horrors!—designers; more often than not, the content
was thrown together as an afterthought by someone who didn’t know
a semicolon from a hole in the ground. Web writing was simply painful
to read. Not only were the pages not designed for reading, the content
itself wasn’t worth reading. As a result, writers and
designers cultivated impatient, lazy readers, and this in turn bred the
advice to skip the art of writing altogether and merely summarize.
Years later, however, things are looking much better. Designers and
writers collaborate more, and line lengths have become manageable and
typography has become more standardized and reader-friendly. Talented
writers often lend their skill to website creation. Yet though our
situation has improved, the advice to omit words, chunk content, use
bullets, and keep it short remains. This is sometimes, but not universally good advice. I thought I was the only one who felt this way until I read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think!
wherein he writes, “No one is suggesting the articles on
Salon.com be shorter.” I cheered inside! Except that people are suggesting this. Because we haven’t yet figured out the difference between content and copy.
Writing the heart of the web
The distinction I make between “content” and
“copy” is my own: I don’t pretend this is an industry
standard. But we all know copy when we read it: it’s the
marketing fluff that serves no purpose but to take up space. It
doublespeaks and obfuscates. It’s the inflated speech of the
politician using many words to say nothing, the sales pitch of the
greasy used-car cretin whose crafty euphemisms try to disguise the fact
that his product sucks. Copy is recognized by its pervasive use of
agonizing words such as “leverage,” “optimize,”
and “facilitate,” or a litany of intolerable phrases such
as “economically disadvantaged,” “heavyset,”
“law enforcement officer,” and “ethnic
community.” Writing like this is self-conscious and
boring—what’s wrong with saying Marvin is a poor, fat cop
from the ghetto?
(If you find yourself writing like this, by all means, use bullets
and omit words. The less of this pain inflicted upon the reading public
Content, on the other hand, fills a real need: it establishes
emotional connections between people. The writing has heart and spirit;
it has something to say and the wherewithal to stand up and say it.
Content is the stuff readers want to read, even if they have to print
it to do so. (And readers will print a long piece; just because
something is published online doesn’t mean it must be read online). Content is thoughtful, personable, and faithfully
written. It hooks the reader and draws him in, encouraging him to click
this link or that, to venture further into a website. It delivers what
it promises and delights the attentive reader.
I remember the first time I read Shelley Jackson’s My Body.
I was enchanted by her narrative, compelled to click her many links, to
delve deeper into the stories about her arms, her legs, her breasts. I
wasn’t concerned about how long I was reading. I was not at all
bothered by her lack of headlines, and I most assuredly did not pine
away for want of a bullet. This is real writing: beautiful, lucid,
captivating. It doesn’t matter what the subject is; content
should enrich our experience of any website, be it a university website
or a personal blog. Give me passion and give me flair, and I will give
you my full attention, page after page after page.
As our culture becomes increasingly digital, the art forms that
support it must be constructed with the same care, deliberateness, and
gusto as our traditional media. Intelligent content is the literature
of our time. It is not enough that our printed books and magazines are
ardently written and meticulously edited. Our culture loses much if we
encourage online writers to sacrifice grace and personality on the
altars of pith and scannability. Perhaps better advice is to encourage
writers to say exactly what they mean with precisely the words
required, however many they may be.
But anorexia on the web is not restricted to the substance of the
main article on a page. Perhaps the worst cases of undernourished
writing are found in
alt text and footers.
A picture is worth a thousand words
Where I work, writers don’t write
Designers do. (And they write it not because they think it’s
important, but because it’s a Section 508 requirement and they
have to.) While I’m sure there are many reasons that this task
falls to designers, I bet none of them are good reasons.
text does a tricky thing: it translates a visual experience into a
coherent, semantic expression. It takes the implied and makes it
explicit—an emotional trigger palpably interpreted. With a mere
handful of words,
alt text must relate the full impact of an image to those who can’t, for whatever reason, see it.
That takes skill. That takes a writer.
I admit to having overlooked
alt text. Until a year ago I sniffed at the idea of creating useful
text for images. “If a user is blind,” I reasoned,
“what does he care that I have a photograph of the university
tower on my website?”
My fellow designer shrugged. “Well, I guess if you don’t really care about what the image says,” she said slowly, “you really don’t need it in the first place.”
My ensuing epiphany was embarrassingly obvious. Thoughtfully constructed
alt text is valuable because it provides emotional content; it should make the reader feel something. Given a photograph of the University of Texas tower, for example, simple
text that says, “UT tower” might not be terribly useful to
someone who has never seen the tower, though it may be useful to
someone who knows what the tower looks like. But
that says, “Evening view of UT tower aglow after a big Texas
win” is better, because it is meaningful to anyone, sighted or
not—it projects pride, kinship, tradition. It conveys very
particular emotions using revealing language.
Even though I prided myself on being a writer-cum-designer, smugly
aware of the importance of emotional connections on the web, I wrote
alt copy—when I bothered writing anything at
all. As a result, my content suffered. When I allowed myself to write
thoughtless words, even in
alt text, my approach to
content writing was weakened. If I want to heal our anorexic culture of
writing on the web, I have to use every opportunity to imbue my web
projects with good, strong, meaningful language. I have to acknowledge
that in this digital-media-rich culture, most of the content people
encounter comes from writers like me—from blogs, news sites, and
online journals. Don’t I owe it to these people to offer rich,
healthy reads? If I feed them garbage, am I helping my culture? Can I
justify offering junk-food copy if I offer it in bites and chunks?
The last words
alt content is wanting on the web, footer content is downright insulting.
Most footers are useless. They usually contain a handful of throw-away
links, maybe a copyright statement, and contact information. Nobody
reads them, because they’re not worth reading.
I don’t know why we let footers languish in frivolity. Books
have back matter, with bibliographies and indices and endnotes and all
sorts of interesting, useful information for the curious reader. I know
plenty of voracious readers who read the back matter gleefully, even
taking the time to read about the typefaces used in the book. Book
publishers indulge their reader’s hunger for information; why do
we treat the online reader with any less respect?
One of my favorite footers is found on Emily Gordon’s blog.
This is a writer’s footer. This is information to be enjoyed. She
talks about herself, offering notes on what she’s written and why
she’s writing. She directly addresses her reader assuring him of
his privacy. When I get to her footer and see all that she offers down
there at the bottom of the page, I feel like she expected me to read
that far, and is acknowledging my visit. I love that she’s taken
the opportunity to offer me more information than I asked for, in a
place I didn’t expect to find it. I feel rewarded at the end of
reading her blog, and that’s what I call a wonderful user experience.
I realize that writing like Shelley Jackson’s and Emily
Gordon’s won’t be appropriate to many web projects. There
is a time and a place for copy. But what I don’t accept is the
persistent attitude that all writing on the web should adhere to the
standards of copy. I challenge the idea that web writing, which
increasingly is becoming the soul of literature and media in our world,
shouldn’t be beautiful and meaty, even lengthy where appropriate.
And I encourage writers to think of themselves as central to the
user’s experience, and to treat their own content not merely as
king, but as heart, soul, and breath. We owe it to our craft,
ourselves, and our culture to revive that which we have too long let