Web Editing - The Basics

by Jonathan and Lisa Price
The Internet Writing Journal, May 2002
Hot Text by Jonathan and Lisa Price
Click here for ordering information.
Edit visually

You're vying for each guest's attention. A snappy headline may get it. A blinking picture may grab it. But then what? Web readers want to see what the article or site is about in a snap. If they can't figure it out right away, they'll go elsewhere. So, grab them with an attention-getting title, tightly, and then, to hold them, design sparkling subheads.

Good test: Imagine there's no text at all-only subheads. What would you say? How would you list them? Make them the story. The more outrageous, the better. (It might be the only thing a reader skims.)

Got some text to go with those subheads? Great. Sprinkle a little text in. (And be sure you don't get sucked into the Web trap of using jargon or techno-babble just cause you're on the Web.)

Got a paragraph with more than three sentences? Seriously consider using bullets. Readers like short, insightful, information-packed stories. The shorter, the better.

Want to reference something on the Web? Paraphrase it in one sentence and then provide a link to it. No need for readers to have to slog through the findings if they're not interested.

Make the text consistent

One reason that general-purpose Web sites have had problems making money is that they are very broad. The sites that are doing well have branded themselves into the reader's mind by taking a consistent tone throughout their site, in their e-mail, and in their advertising. Readers appreciate this. They know what to expect. Readers get angry when you change a site that they've become accustomed to. Don't think so? Why did everyone hate the final episode of Seinfeld? Didn't Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer always get away with everything? Didn't you love to see them accomplish that? In the last episode that all changed. They were sent to jail for their past and present "sins." The last episode would have been better if their lawyer had gotten them out on some totally insane technicality after they were sent to jail.

Think globally, act locally

What's the right usage? That's a big debate among Web editors. The Web has ushered in so many new words that we see widely different spelling, capitalization, and even grammar choices on different sites or on different pages within the same site. There are two basic schools of thought about usage: One is to use the AP (Associated Press) Style Guide, which tends to opt for the English Major version of words (e-mail, Web site, on-line) and a lot of optional punctuation like commas and hyphens. The other is to use the "common" or "down" style-the way you see these words most often on the Web (e-mail, website, online). This approach also tends to eliminate all but the most critical commas, decrying colons, and wiping out semicolons. Our feeling is that this "downstyle" will eventually win the field.

As an editor, a big part of your job is to decide which style to use and stick to it. When you have time (OK, so stop laughing), you should write up a styleguide for your site and give it out to all of the writers and copy editors, if you have them. It will eventually make your job a lot easier. (Check out the Web Editor's Toolkit at http://www.sciencesitescom.com/webresources.html, compiled by Merry Bruns, Content Strategist, Editor and Trainer of ScienceSites Communications. Bruns gives Web writing and editing workshops, and has done a terrific job assembling a list of resources for the Web editor.)

And make sure that you edit each text a few times. You'd be surprised how many inconsistencies, typos, and grammatical mistakes you miss on the first pass. (You might also want to proofread the text in different browsers, such as Internet Explorer and Netscape. Even look at AOL if a lot of your readers come from there, too.)

And even though this is the Web, print out your final version to make one last editing pass. It's easier to catch little mistakes on paper than on-screen.

Take this test to see if you're up for the challenge

Think you're ready for Web editing? Follow these steps for a crash course:
  1. Pick up a copy of the Smithsonian, The Nation, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, or any other magazine that has long, leisurely stories.
  2. Pick any article that you like and reduce it to half of its original word length.
  3. Cut the article in half again, making 4 sections. Write headings for each section.
  4. Make each section no more than 2 paragraphs long. (Hint: use bullets).
  5. Give the finished product to a friend to see if the article makes any sense.
Sound silly? Then Web editing is not in your future. As an editor, more often than not, you'll be expected to take vast amounts of information and cut to the core, finding the nugget for your readers.

Take a look at these paragraphs and see what happens when we edit them for the Web.
Mesa Communications released the results of a year-long study today. According to John McCurran, Chief Strategist for Mesa, more people than ever are using the Web, and even though there have been a lot of dot.com layoffs in recently months, consumer spending at online stores is at an all-time high with an expected $10 billion being spent on consumer goods in the first quarter of the year alone. These figures are good news for online stores looking for more venture capital money.

Women still have a small lead among purchasers at online stores (52%). The majority of women who purchase on the Web are in the 25-40 age range. Books still continue to sell well, according to McCurran, but apparel sites are on the rise, especially those with either a physical or catalog presence.

Mesa Communications found that customer service and personalization were big reasons for the upsurge in apparel sites. Ease of returns is also a factor. "E-Commerce is here to stay," said McCurran.
OK. Now you want to summarize these findings for your site or for a newsletter.
Mesa Communications released the results of its year-long study of e-commerce today. They say e-commerce is healthier than ever with consumers expected to spend $10 billion online this quarter.

Other highlights:
  • 52% of all purchases are made by women
  • 25[en]40-year-olds are the women mostly likely to buy on the Web
  • Sales of apparel are catching up to sales of books
  • Consumers opt for stores with good customer service and personalization
A rose by any other name...

We use the term Web editor. But, as with so many things on the Web, you'll see the same job described in many ways. So be careful when looking for a job. Don't discount a good possibility because of the job title. When the Web started, we just borrowed job titles from the magazine and newspaper worlds. Then, as the Web evolved to include audio and video, we started taking job titles from the movies and TV. Finally, the Web said, "Hey, we want our own job titles," so we got a whole new set of terms. Here are some titles that you should check out on the job boards to see if the job really is Web editing or not:

**Jonathan and Lisa Price are professional Web writers who teach other writers how to tailor their prose for email, webpages, and discussions. With Web clients such as America Online, Coupons.com, Disney.com, Hewlett-Packard, and KB Kids (now eToys), the Prices come out of a background in journalism, technical communication, marketing, and public relations. They've written 24 books for major publishers, and hundreds of articles for Web sites. Their consulting clients include such firms as Apple, Broderbund, Cadence, Canon, Cisco, Epson, Fujitsu, Hitachi, IBM, Ketchum, Lotus, Matsushita, Middleberg Euro, Mitsubishi, Nikon, Ogilvy, Oracle, PeopleSoft, Relational, Ricoh, Sprint, Sun, Symantec, Visa, Xerox, and Zycad. Jonathan has taught writing at New Mexico Tech, New York University, Rutgers, University of New Mexico, and the Extension programs of the University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Santa Cruz, and Stanford. Jonathan and Lisa Price's website can be found at webwritingthatworks.com.


© 2002 Jonathan and Lisa Price. All Rights Reserved. Excerpt reprinted from Hot Text: Web Writing That Works with permission. Any copying or reproduction whatsoever is prohibited.

More from Writers Write