Believe it or not, I’ve never really thought specifically about writing for the web.
I think that’s because I don’t believe there’s really any difference between writing online and writing elsewhere.
This is not to say that all online writing follows the same pattern or that analog writing is perfectly adaptable to the online world. Tweets (of which I have now posted 1,739) and blogs (I have several, and have been doing it since 2002) are obvious examples.
Writers have always tuned their voice to the medium in question. News articles aren’t magazine articles aren’t novels. Television news isn’t television comedy. Movies aren’t theater. This, I think, is the key insight in understanding how to communicate best in whatever forum.
Thus, Rule One: Know thy forum.
You can’t write successfully online if you aren’t immersed online. You learn blog conventions by reading blogs. You learn Twitter by tweeting (and following good tweeters).
If you haven’t spent hours on end grazing across the web, you aren’t going to understand what it is that causes a reader to give up and click elsewhere. You won’t realize that if your blog looks the same every time a reader clicks (even during the same day), she’ll soon look elsewhere. You won’t know that referring readers to choice items from others — retweets, we call that — is an excellent way to keep them following you.
Rule Two: Escape is only a click away.
Online readers have no patience. I read somewhere that an episode of The West Wing had about twice as many words as a television drama 10 years earlier. Newspaper research proves conclusively that a high percentage of readers falls away every time you ask them to turn the page. Cable news crawls and split-screen pictures are evidence of diminished attention span.
Rule Three: The biggest turn-off is an unanswered question.
Patience is tested (more accurately, demolished) by writing that leaves readers confused rather than enlightened. You must know why they’ve come to read your piece, and make sure that impulse is satisfied. Afterward, you may be able to entice them to spend time with other things, but they won’t hang around long enough to find them if their initial itch isn’t scratched.
Rule Four: Reading online rots your brain.
It’s apparently true that spending time online does indeed diminish thoughtfulness, concentration and patience. Nicholas Carr writes in the current issue of Wired, “Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”
I’m not sure what a writer is supposed to do with this knowledge, but it seems imperative to know it.
Rule Five: These rules don’t actually mean much.
As I suggested in the second paragraph, there really isn’t any singular kind of writing for “the web.” There isn’t even any singular “web” at all. It exists only in the intentions of its users and is as varied and differentiated as they are.
For instance, I suppose the most important writing on a porn site might be the single word MORE, with a hyperlink. On the other hand, substantial journalism can and does flourish online; in the right environment, readers will navigate through a great deal of complex and challenging prose to get to the nuggets inside.
Take a look at longform.org, a site designed to highlight long narrative journalism. It’s particularly tuned to serve the site Instapaper, which makes it easy to archive a long online article for later reading. (It is a particular delight on the iPad, which itself is a delight for reading when compared to a VDT screen).
Nobody knows just yet how profound the iPad effect may be, but it seems likely to me that App-based reading will be vastly different than web-based reading. Apps offer a curated, bounded exposure, and can be tailored to combine typography and illustration to augment and amplify the words in ways websites (with the ubiquitous exit just a click away) never can. If I click on my “NPR addict” app or my BBC app, I have made a decision to seek a specific information experience, and I will approach what I find there differently.
John McPhee once told me his years of apprenticeship at Time Magazine — where he wrote countless short entertainment articles — was valuable mainly because it taught him that every story has to “stand up, move, and find a place to sit down.” Beginning, middle, end.
Online writing is not so different, I suggest.