16 August 2002—Issue No. 149
SOME PARTS OF THE WEB are finished, unchanging creations — as polished and as fixed as books or posters. But many parts change all the time:
- news sites bring up-to-the-minute developments, ranging from breaking news and sports scores to reports on specific industries, markets, and technical fields
- weblogs, journals, and other personal sites provide a window on the interests and opinions of their creators
- corporate weblogs, wikis, knowledge banks, community sites, and workgroup journals provide share news and knowledge among co-workers and supply-chain stakeholders
Some of these sites change every week; many change every day; a few change every few minutes. Daypop’s Dan Chan calls this the Living Web, the part of the web that is always changing.
Every revision requires new writing, new words that become the essence of the site. Living sites are only as good as today’s update. If the words are dull, nobody will read them, and nobody will come back. If the words are wrong, people will be misled, disappointed, infuriated. If the words aren’t there, people will shake their heads and lament your untimely demise.
Writing for the Living Web is a tremendous challenge. Here are ten tips that can help.
1. Write for a reason
Write for a reason, and know why you write. Whether your daily updates concern your work life, your hobbies, or your innermost feelings, write passionately about things that matter.
To an artist, the smallest grace note and the tiniest flourish may be matters of great importance. Show us the details, teach us why they matter. People are fascinated by detail and enthralled by passion; explain to us why it matters to you, and no detail is too small, no technical question too arcane.
Bad personal sites bore us by telling us about trivial events and casual encounters about which we have no reason to care. Don’t tell us what happened: tell us why it matters. Don’t tell us your opinion: tell us why the question is important.
If you don’t really care, don’t write. If you are a student and everybody is talking about exams and papers and you simply don’t care, let it be. If your job bores you, it will bore us. (If you despise your job with a rich, enduring passion, that’s another thing entirely!) Write for yourself; you are, in the end, your most important reader.
If your site belongs to a product, a project, or an enterprise, you must still find a way to represent its passion and excitement. If you do not understand why your product is compelling or comprehend the beauty of your enterprise, find the reason or find a new writer.
Write honestly. Don’t hide, and don’t stop short. When writing about things that matter, you may be tempted to flee to safe, familiar havens: the familiar, the sentimental, the fashionable. Try to find the strength to be honest, to avoid starting the journey with passion and ending it with someone else’s tired formula. The work may be hard, it may be embarrassing, but it will be true — and it will be you, not a tired formula or an empty design. And if you can be satisfied with that tired formula, you aren’t writing for a reason.
Never, for any consideration, publish a statement you know to be false.
Though you write with passion about things that matter greatly, always remember that it’s a big world, filled with people and stories. Don’t expect the world to stop and listen. Never expect any individual (or, worse, any quantity of individuals) to read your work, for they may have other things to do. At the same time, steel yourself to expect the unexpected visitor and the uninvited guest; the most unlikely people may read your work. Your mother, who never uses a computer, may read your intimate weblog one day in the library. To be honest with the world, you may need to be honest with your mother; if you cannot face your mother, perhaps you are not ready to write for the world.
2. Write often
If you are writing for the Living Web, you must write consistently. You need not write constantly, and you need not write long, but you must write often. One afternoon in grad school, I heard B. F. Skinner remark that fifteen minutes a day, every day, adds up to about book every year, which he suggested was as much writing as anyone should indulge. You don’t need to write much, but you must write, and write often.
If you don’t write for a few days, you are unfaithful to the readers who come to visit. Missing an update is a small thing — rudeness, not betrayal — and readers will excuse the occasional lapse.
If you are inconsistent, readers will conclude you are untrustworthy. If you are absent, readers will conclude you are gone. It’s better to keep religiously to a once-a-week, or once-a-fortnight schedule, than to go dark mysteriously.
If you cannot write for a time, and the reason for your absence is interesting, write about it. Your honeymoon, your kidney transplant, your sister’s gubernatorial inauguration — all these can be predicted and worked into the fabric of your writing so that the interruption, when it comes, seems natural. But avoid, if you can, sudden cryptic pronouncements: “I’ll be unable to post for a while” gives us nothing we can use or learn from.
Don’t assume that you will find something to say every morning. The day will come, sooner or later, when you need inspiration and find you have none. Store topics, news items, entire articles for slow times. Carry a notebook or a PDA and jot down reminders. You cannot have too many notes saved up, but you can easily find yourself with too few.
Since you write often, use good tools. Select them to fit your hand and voice. Learn to use them well.
3. Write tight
Omit unnecessary words.
Choose a visual design that fits your voice. Unless the design is the point of your site, select colors and visual elements that support without dominating. Resist the temptation to add features, for it is often best to use only those few technical and design elements that support your mission. Don’t rush to replace a good design: you will grow bored with it long before your readers do.
Read your work. Revise it. Don’t worry about being correct, but take a moment now and then to think about the craft. Can you choose a better word — one that is clearer, richer, more precise? Can you do without a word entirely?
Omit unnecessary words.
4. Make good friends
Read widely and well, on the web and off, and in your web writing take special care to acknowledge the good work and good ideas of other writers. Show them at their best, pointing with grace and respect to issues where you and they differ. Take special care to be generous to good ideas from those who are less well known, less powerful, and less influential than you.
Weblog writers and other participants in the Living Web gain readers by exchanging links and ideas. Seeking to exchange links without ideas is vulgarly known as blogrolling. Begging high-traffic pages or famous writers to mention you is bothersome and unproductive
Instead of begging, find ways to be a good friend. All writers thrive on ideas; distribute them generously and always share the credit. Be generous with links. Be generous, too, with your time and effort; A-list sites may not need your traffic, but everyone can use a hand.
Many prominent web writers travel a lot — to conferences, meetings, trade shows. Sooner or later, they’ll come to your corner of the world. Offer to feed them. Invite them to parties. Offer to introduce them to interesting people. They might be too busy. They might be too shy. But the road can be a lonely place, and it’s always interesting to meet thinking people.
Small, thoughtful gifts are nice. Share books you love, or that you’ve written. If you’re a photographer or an artist, prints and sketches can be unique and memorable. (Include permission to reproduce them on the web.) Join their cause. Donate to their charity.
Friends are vital for business sites as well, but business and friendship can be a volatile mix. Your prospects, customers and vendors are obvious friends, but both they and your readers will understand that your friendship is not disinterested. Unlikely friends, including your competitors, may prove more convincing.
5. Find good enemies
Readers love controversy and learn from debate. Disagreement is exciting. Everyone loves a fight, and by witnessing the contest of competing ideas we can better understand what they imply.
Dramatic conflict is an especially potent tool for illuminating abstract and technical issues, whether in software engineering or business planning. At times, choosing a communications protocol or adopting an employee benefits plan may seem an abstract task, barely related to the human crises that daily confront us. If each alternative has a determined, effective advocate, however, it may reveal the source of the conflict and to remind us of the consequences of the choice.
To make an abstract or difficult point more real, identify and respond to an advocate who holds a different position. Choose your opponent with care. If you choose a rival who is much less powerful than you, readers may see you as a bully. If your rival is a business competitor, you may seem unscrupulous. The best enemy, in fact, is often a friend — a writer you cite frequently and who often cites you, but with whom you disagree on a specific questions.
A handful of individuals seemingly live for controversy and seek out ways to create and inflame disputes. These so-called trolls are chiefly the bane of discussion groups but occasionally find their way into the Living Web. Never engage them; you cannot win. (Trolls, when ignored, will usually retire. If they cause danger or damage that cannot be ignored, the police and the courts will assist you.)
When beginning a debate, always have in mind a plan for ending it. Ill-planned arguments can drag on, lost in a mass of boring detail or irrelevant side-issues. Worse, the personalities of the advocates may become more engaging than the issues, obscuring your purpose entirely. Have in mind, from the outset, an idea of how long you want to engage the issue and how you expect the exercise to end (or reach a resting point). Plan a conclusion before firing the first salvo. You might devise an event — a final meeting, a live debate or online poll — that will provide a sense of closure. Write a joint communique for your readers or your management, summarizing the outstanding issues and highlighting progress. Then archive both sides of the exchange — perhaps with annotation from a neutral authority — so future readers may enjoy and benefit from the conflict.
When it’s over, try to make good friends with good enemies.
6. Let the story unfold
The Living Web unfolds in time, and as we see each daily revelation we experience its growth as a story. Your arguments and rivalries, your ideas and your passions: all of these grow and shift in time, and these changes become the dramatic arc of your website.
Understand the storyteller’s art and use the technique of narrative to shape the emerging structure of your living site. Foreshadowing hints at future events and expected interests: your vacation, the election campaign, the endless midnight hours at work in the days before the new product ships. Surprise, an unexpected flash of humor or a sudden change of direction, refreshes and delights. Use links within your work to build depth, for today’s update will someday be your own back story.
People are endlessly fascinating. Write about them with care and feeling and precision. Invented characters, long a staple of newspaper columnists, are rarely seen on the Living Web; creating a fascinating (but imaginary) friend could balance your own character on your site.
When the star of the site is a product or an organization, temper the temptation to reduce the narrative to a series of triumphs. Although you don’t usually want to advertise bad news, your readers know that every enterprise faces challenges and obstacles. Consider sharing a glimpse of your organization’s problems: having seen the challenge, your readers will experience your success more vividly.
Interweave topics and find ways to vary your pacing and tone. Piling tension on tension, anger on rage, is ultimately self-defeating; sooner or later, the writing will demand more from you than you can give and the whole edifice will collapse in boredom or farce. When one topic, however important, overshadows everything else in your site, stop. Change the subject; go somewhere new, if only for a moment. When you return, you and your reader will be fresher and better prepared.
7. Stand up, speak out
If you know your facts and have done your homework, you have a right to your opinion. State it clearly. Never waffle, whine, or weasel.
If you are not sure you are right, ask yourself why you are writing. If you are seeking information or guidance from your readers, ask them. Don’t bore them (and discredit yourself) with a hesitant, unformed opinion. If you are writing in order to discover your mind or to try out a new stance, continue by all means— but file the note in your desk drawer, not on your website.
If you believe you are right, say so. Explain why. It doesn’t matter that you are young, or unknown, or lack credentials, or that crowds of famous people disagree. Don’t hesitate or muddy the water. The truth matters; show us the right answer, and get out of the way.
Never lie about your competitors, and never exult in your rival’s bad news.
Try, if you can, to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain and humiliation on those who have the misfortune to be mistaken. People err, and you too will be wrong tomorrow. Civility is not mere stuffiness; it can be the glue that lets us fight for our ideas and, once we recognize the right answer, sit down together for drinks and dinner.
8. Be sexy
You are a sexual being. So are all of your readers (except the Google robot). Sex is interesting. Sex is life, and life is interesting. The more of yourself you put into your writing, the more human and engaging your work will be.
If your writing is a personal journal, and if it is honest, you will have to write about things that you find embarrassing to describe, feelings you might not want to share, events that you wouldn’t mention to strangers (or, perhaps, to anyone). Decide now what you will do, before it happens.
Undressing, literally, figuratively, or emotionally, has always been a powerful force in personal sites and web logs. Pictures don’t matter in the long run; what matters is the trajectory of your relationship with the reader, the gradual growth of intimacy and knowledge between you.
9. Use your archives
When you add something to the Living Web and invite others to link to your ideas, you promise to keep your words available online, in their appointed place, indefinitely. Always provide a permanent location (a “permalink”) where each item can be found. Do your best to ensure that these locations don’t change, breaking links in other people’s websites and disrupting the community of ideas.
The promise to keep your words available need not mean that you must preserve them unchanged. In time, you may find errors you want to correct. The world changes, and things that once seemed clear may require explanation.
Today, this permanent location is often a chronological archive, a long list of entries for a particular week or month. These archives are useful and easy to make. Many popular tools build chronological archives automatically. But chronological archives are limited: you might someday want to know what you wrote in May of 1999, but why would anyone else care? Topical summaries and overviews are much more helpful to new readers and to regulars alike, and if they require a modest additional effort every day, that effort pays dividends that grow as your archives expand.
New tools like Six Degrees and Eastgate’s Tinderbox can make it easier to keep track of categories, to find where new things fit and to find old things that need new links. Topical archives are Google’s natural friend. Remember that your old pages will often be read by visitors from search engines; introduce yourself on every page, and be sure that every page, however obscure, has links to tell people:
- who you are, what you want, and why you’re writing
- your email address
- where to find your latest writing
Link to work you’ve already written — especially to good work that you wrote long ago. Don’t be shy about linking to yourself: linking to your own work is a service, not self-promotion.
Don’t worry too much about correctness: Find a voice and use it. Most readers will overlook, and nearly all will forgive, errors in punctuation and spelling. Leave Fowler and Roget on the shelf, unless they’re your old friends. Write clearly and simply and write quickly, for if you are to write often you must neither hesitate or quibble.
Don’t worry about the size of your audience. If you write with energy and wit about things that matter, your audience will find you. Do tell people about your writing, through short personal email notes and through postcards and business cards and search engines. Enjoy the audience you have, and don’t try to figure out why some people aren’t reading your work.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Do let your work on the Living Web flow from your passion and your play, your work life and your life at home. Establish a rhythm, so your writing comes naturally and your readers experience it as a natural part of their day or their week. But if the rhythm grows onerous, if you find yourself dreading your next update or resenting the demands of your readers, if you no longer relish your morning web routine or your evening note-taking, find a new rhythm or try something else. Change the schedule, or voice, or tone. Switch topics. Try, if you can, to resist the temptation to drop things entirely, to simply stop.
Don’t worry about those who disagree with you, and don’t take bad reviews to heart. The web is filled with caring and kindness, but thoughtless cruelty can and does cloud every writer’s spirit from time to time. Ideas matter, but name-calling doesn’t, and petulant critics wrap tomorrow’s virtual fish.