Writing for the internet has its own challenges. There is a warmth to a piece of paper that the glow of a CRT screen will never match. Eyes often become tired or easily distracted before the words have had a chance to get into the reader’s head.
At the same time, there is a unique power in the web’s organization. The ability to connect texts with links and make complicated layouts with pictures can be intoxicating. Understanding this power and its pitfalls is the key to quality writing for the internet itself. Below are some specific practices that can make all the difference.
Length: I will start with my own heresy – most internet writing is too short. 200 words may do well to introduce a link or to tell people what you had for breakfast. If you want to say something substantial, it’s probably going to take 400 words or more. I usually aim for 600-800 words in short, complete paragraphs that can be digested at a glance. Anything over about 1,000 words is going to be pretty long and better have a lot of things to keep people reading.
Images and Graphics: It is possible to cover a topic well with only a few words if you have the right pictures. Most of the time, however, a picture is used only to illustrate a point that you want to make. First of all, your graphics should be relevant to the text. Pictures work well if they are on the left, no more than half the column width. If you need to have a great big graph in the middle, make sure that you explain all the items in it carefully for the part of your audience that just isn’t into graphs.
Be careful with copyrights as well. “Fair use” gives you wide latitude if you aren’t making any money off of what you are writing, but it’s best to avoid ripping off graphics that aren’t in the public domain no matter what. It’s just considerate to give credit where you can as well, usually in a caption.
Links: Whenever possible, link what you are saying to a useful backup. This can be either a source or your own work with more detail. People do not usually follow links, however, unless you tell them to. You can use this to sneak in connections and make them as powerful as you want to. A general guide is that no more than two per sentence, no more than about five per paragraph unless you want to emphasize links themselves very heavily.
Color: Note that this is black on white, like a printed page. The contrast is high. That’s enough said about that. If you want your text to scan into people’s heads easily, resist the temptation to use exotic colors, period. The higher the contrast, the easier it is to read.
SEO: There is a lot written about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Most of it is out of date, based on supposition, or simply wrong. Keep in mind that anything that someone has put on a website has probably been read by someone at google, so they haven’t been fooled. What we do know is that if you have a key phrase, the best you can do it to put it in the title, put it in the meta tags, and make sure it appears once per paragraph. A piece titled “Austin Real Estate” might start with “If you are buying Austin real estate you should …” and continue in the next paragraph with “Austin real estate is a great investment …” and so on.
It is important to be sure to include the related words and phrases that a good article on the topic would include. That’s what is referred to as “authority”. Simply be sure you have done your research and hit all the relevant topics and you will be fine – nothing beats quality.
Linking has its own tricks in SEO. A series of pages linked together tightly will distribute the pagerank, and thus the search engine’s position, evenly among the pages. If you link only to the top or main page, the pagerank will concentrate at the top. Decide where you want people to come into your work if there is more than one page involved as you decide how to link it together.
These are the unique properties of writing on the internet. None of them are all that hard to master, and the medium is still young enough that this is generally still up for grabs. The key to internet writing is to pay attention to how things work on a screen through the mechanics of a browser.
Your biggest enemy is eyestrain, but your greatest power is the ability to devise a tree structure. Generally, this leads to shorter pages, but if they are too short they are not substantial enough to be serious. It’s a balance each writer has to find for themselves.