This has been cluttering up my bookmarks for too long, I have to make note of it here or I’ll forget to get back to it: Writing for the Web, Jakob Nielsen on A pretty useful guide that covers, among other things, how writing on the web is different from writing for print.

This is something that I’m going to be spending a lot of time talking about at work over the next year or so, as my team begins more actively working with people to figure out how the web does or does not fit into their business processes. As people make the transition toward the web being the sole delivery mechanism for some documents, it’s taking some effort on my part to explain how the publication standards to which they have become accustomed over the past several decades don’t necessarily apply on the web, or at least need some modification.

Sometimes it’s little things like headers: people often want them centered, because that’s usually what works well in print — or at least that’s what they’re used to. On a web page, though, it often makes more sense to have headlines left-aligned: it’s easier for people to identify headlines that way. Not always, no, it depends on other elements of the page layout and design, but left-aligned headlines are a convention to which many are accustomed, so are a Good Thing.

The really hard part is helping people shed their desire for absolute control over presentation. They want everything to be PDF because they want to control exactly how everything looks. Resisting the urge to scream, “GET OVER IT!”, I instead explain that no, PDFs are good for some things, and we can certainly make PDFs available, but we have to have HTML versions because they allow for much greater flexibility, they’re much more broadly accessible, and are the very foundation of the web. The ability to display HTML documents in many different devices and presentation formats is a feature, not a bug. I honestly think that I have an easier time discussing this with professional designers with a print background than I do the amateur desktop publishers.

What I think I need to do, then, is focus attention on non-presentational aspects of creating web content: how the writing is different, how to write more effectively for the web. Hence my interest in Nielsen’s work and this article in particular.

A couple major hurdles I expect to face:

  • Structuring documents. I don’t know why this is so hard, you’d think that people would be comfortable with the idea of an outline and be able to translate that to the web. But no. They’re not. This makes using markup for structure almost impossible.
  • Omitting needless words. This is difficult for people in academia and government. I work in both worlds. Great.
  • Convincing people that I, a techie, can credibly offer advice on how to write effectively.
  • People not being fooled by this transparent distraction from what they care about: superficial presentation.