More than one kind of writing

We were never very impressed with Crawford Kilian’s advice on writing for the Web, which boils down to “Cut, cut, and cut again.”

We’ve covered the issues involved in long online content before (first; second; third). Moral of the story? Some Web pages need to be 3,000 words long. Present the text appropriately and nobody’s gonna get hurt.

Now Kilian provides a more sophisticated analysis of online reading, enumerating these styles of reader. Writing a very long article for Web Techniques (indeed, it is itself the “long columns of closely-packed text” he decries), he tells us:

Web designer Jeffrey Zeldman makes a crucial distinction about those who use this medium. He says there are three very separate groups with different goals and attitudes:

  1. Viewers who would rather be watching TV. This group goes to the Web in search of eye candy and other audiovisual jolts. They use text only as directions to the next surprise.
  2. Users who want information they can apply to their own work. They want your stats for their report, or your business plan as a model for their own. They love hit-and-run retrieval, they hate to scroll, and no one has ever built a site that they find really sticky.
  3. Readers (a rare breed). They will actually scroll through long documents, even whole books. Or they’ll download what they find, print it out, and read it in an armchair like any other print document.
  4. A new but growing fourth group is the listeners. Whether sight-impaired or not, they use programs that read text off the screen. As voice programs improve in quality, more people will adopt them.

(Crawford the K appears to be citing Jeffy the Z’s article “Design Your Audience.” It’s something of a classic.)

Fascinating. The second point applies to one of our founding precepts – that the Web is divided into service and content sites. Your content can facilitate a service. (We mentioned this already.)

So kudos to Kilian for accepting reality. (He was becoming perilously nielsenesque for a while.) But we are very tired of this kind of admonition: “Each of these groups needs a particular kind of text, and if they don’t find it on your site, they’ll move elsewhere.” It’s simply not true. There is no such thing as perfect elasticity online. Sites are not interchangeable; people do not give up quite as easily as is thought, though that may be true with E-commerce sites.

If an item interests you, you will finish it. You will put up with a lot in order to do so. You may not read anything else at that site, but you won’t bail mid-paragraph.

Do you doubt us? OK. Tell us the last time you bailed from a Web site in mid-paragraph because the particular writing style, as enumerated by Kilian, pushed you over the edge.

It just doesn’t happen.

We need to knock off the hard sell. When it comes to Web writing, our goals should be:

Short, punchy, heavily subdivided Web copy is nice when appropriate. It ain’t the only way to go, because there’s more than one way to read online.

(Pre-emptive strike: We write long here, but we break things up in lists, use more than one kind of emphasis for scannability, employ a liquid table layout that works even on a 640-by-480 screen, write strictly to HTML 4 specs, use every relevant accessibility tag in the book, and employ overridable liquid stylesheets. We walk the walk.)

Posted on 2001-01-28