Contented: Learning to Write for the Web

By Deane Barker on September 6, 2010

Rachel McAlpine is a Kiwi, which is pretty awesome in and of itself.  However, she also wrote Web Word Wizardry, which is even cooler.

This book is one of the best I’ve ever read about writing for the Web.  It’s an old book (mine dates from 2001), so it was one of the first books in this space.  By natural extension, it was also one of the first books I ever read about SEO.  Despite its 10 years, it’s still relevant as anything written since.  I just pulled my copy off the shelf – the pages are yellowed, dog-eared,  and marked up with purple highlighter.  I love this book.

Cut to the present day and Rachel and Alice Hearnshaw run Contented.com, where they train people how to write for the Web.  In between this, she’s the head of Plain English Power which encourages the use of – wait for it – plain English in New Zealand government publications.

This is all the long way around to my current point – a couple months ago, I took Rachel’s online course on writing for Web.  You should probably take it too.  So should anyone in our organization tasked with writing content for you Web site or (especially) your intranet.

I took the course because of general frustration with the average skill level among Web editors.  I guess what bothers me is that few people ever get formally trained for Web writing – they just kind of stumble into it.  Before the Web, their writing wasn’t disseminated nearly as far and wide as it is now.  Yet, despite that fact that Bob from Accounting can publish content to two billion people with a single mouse click, he probably hasn’t even gotten five minutes training on how to do this well.

I’ve discussed the lack of text formatting skills, but more importantly is the lack of any framework for communicating on the Web.  To make sure your message is clear and consistent, you need people generating content with the same shared methodology.

Beyond just curiosity, my ultimate plan is wiggle formal writing for the Web training into content management integrations.  I’d love to force persuade clients to take this course before their content management system project is complete.  (The first rule of content management: make sure you have content worth managing.)

Going into the course, I admit I was expecting someone magical and amazing.  I was initially pretty disappointed with remedial courses on understanding my audience and their issues, writing headings, summaries, etc.

But, as the lessons wore on, I began to understand that this is the stuff that people really fall down on.  Simple stuff like knowing where to put a hyperlink – do you embed it in the middle of the paragraph, wrapped around some vague and oblique test, or do you provide simple, bulleted list of links, clearly titled for their corresponding resource?

(The fact is, the way I blog is completely contrary to how Rachel promotes writing. But she’s right – her method is clearer and easier to understand than the “link scatter” I vomit all over my posts.  But, old habits die hard, and I tend to want to be more artful than clear, which sucks for me.  Or you.)

A lot of it goes back to what you learned in school, updated for how the Web works.  Keep your verbs active and your pyramids inverted.  Check your Flesch Reading Ease and make sure your readers have somewhere to go or something to do at the end of the page.

The entire course cost me $199 USD.  There are ten lessons, and they each took me 30-40 minutes to read, absorb, and complete the test at the end.

If you’re embarking on an organizational content initiative (any intranet project automatically qualifies), this is something you want to consider.  Your content producers will learn a lot, and – perhaps more importantly – they’ll start thinking about their writing, which is probably half the battle.

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