As I’ve been reading and researching information about writing for the web, I realised that it will save me time to find a book on the topic by someone who already knows about it. After a bit of indecision and largely based on reviews on Amazon, I have chosen the book Writing for the Web by Crawford Kilian.
The author of this book spent 40 years teaching at community colleges and from what I’ve read so far appears to know what he is on about. In fact, just reading the introduction I learned a new concept for me, the difference between hypotaxis and parataxis, and the idea that hypertext relies more on parataxis in which ideas stand alone without being linked to the previous idea.
I’m wanting to learn without my existing biases getting in the way so it makes sense to carefully read through this book (and possibly others), putting what I learn into practise and also following through with further reading and research where I can.
More information about hypotaxis and parataxis:
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned wanting to learn how to write better and the idea of a self-directed writing course. I hadn’t forgotten and have been piecing together ideas on what I would want in such a course. I have decided that a good starting place is the subject of ‘writing for the web’. This site could no doubt benefit from better writing and it provides a base to build upon. At the bottom of this post I’m also listing some things I will not be covering in my exploration of this subject.
Writing for the Web
Goal: To understand what is unique about writing for readers of the internet and how to best communicate through written web content.
My approach to this ‘course of study’ will be to research each topic and produce a blog post with what I learn. I may try to tackle some sort of special project in order to apply what I learn also, but I don’t currently know the form this would take.
This is a preliminary list of topics that I want to at least touch upon over the next fifteen weeks or so. As I write posts about topics I will link to them here. The list is sure to grow and change as I learn, and I may not tackle topics in the order listed.
How is web writing different?
- Reading on the web
- What does web writing aim to achieve?
- Various types of web writing
- Engaging your audience
- What do they want?
- Content structure
- the inverted pyramid
- Creative nonfiction
- Finding a story
- Guiding the reader
- Influencing readers
- Keeping it brief
- Point of view
- Reconstruction of events
- Use of imagination
- Is there a ‘perfect’ blog post?
- Editorial planning
- Writing well is thinking well
- What is story?
- Why is storytelling important?
- What can story do that facts can’t?
- How to use storytelling
- What sort of research is necessary?
- Pulling research together into a story
- Where to start?
- Fact or fiction
- Avoiding plagiarism
- Acknowledgment of sources
- Defamation and libel
What I will not cover:
- Content forms that are primarily audio or visual such as podcasts and videos. I will consider how visual elements affect written web content.
- How to increase traffic
- Making money
- Website design
This is a bit of a geeky post. I thought I would start keeping tabs on the notebooks and writing sticks I use. I already have reasonably strong preferences in what I like to write on and with, but over time it could be interesting to see what I actually use most as opposed to what I think I like to use. My guess is that non-aesthetic factors such as price and availability could play a bigger role than I presently account for.
The notebook currently in my back pocket is from Story Supply Co. It is one from a pack of three that I ordered from the US in 2016 when I was placing an order for a few other items. I’ve already used one of them and found it a good notebook with nice paper for pencil (hence the pencil in the photo).
The pencil I’m using is a General’s Cedar Pointe HB (or #2 for Americans). It actually seems a bit soft for an HB but is an OK pencil. I like the natural wood finish and the eraser on the end is handy when carrying it around in my pocket. Because the point wears down reasonably quickly (and I prefer a sharp point), I often also have a small brass bullet sharpener in my pocket too. The plastic pencil cap is by Tombow and keeps the lead point from snapping off while doubling as a pencil extender by sticking it on the eraser end when I’m using the pencil. Another centimetre or so and I will retire this pencil to use in my bullet pencil.
Note: These notebook posts won’t be particularly frequent as I take a while to get through each notebook (from 3 months to almost a year in some cases).
I had been hopeful that this year I might be able to study a course in science communication at university, but due to an already stretched income and now added financial constraints (I need a root canal), I’m having to postpone that idea.
However, I still want to become a better writer so intend to use this blog as an outlet and accountability for this task. In reality the real learning from tertiary study comes from practise rather than attending lectures so my intention is to continue with my goal of writing something every day. I will also read around the topic and find ways to put that reading into practise and try forms of writing I’m less comfortable with. So much material is available online now that I am sure it won’t be difficult to cobble together a curriculum which will train me in what I need to learn.
An advantage of publishing my own website is my progress (or lack of) will become clear as the year ticks by, and it is a public record so I cannot fool myself into thinking I’m doing better than I really am by keeping my work hidden. To help me learn, comments and feedback will be much appreciated because it is difficult to spot my own mistakes, especially when something I’ve written is hard to follow or too technical. I already know that one of my weaknesses is understanding a topic in my head but not getting the full story into writing so that the text does not flow and skips crucial concepts for the reader to know.
Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.
From “Getting Into Print,” by Jack London
This is the notebook I have been carrying around for most of this year. It is by Clairefontaine, made in France. With high quality paper for fountain pen use it has been a really good notebook to use, the paper is smooth and takes ink well without smudging. Initially I was worried that it might take too long for ink to dry for quick notes, but I find that by the time I’ve written something and capped my pen the ink is dry so have had no issues. There are 48 sheets of paper in this book (i.e., 96 pages) so it lasts a long time – hence the beaten up appearance of this notebook. I bought this notebook from the University Bookshop in Dunedin for less than $5.
The pen is a Platinum Preppy extra fine nib. For a cheap plastic fountain pen I think these are fantastic value and really nice to write with. You can buy these in NZ for just under $10 which makes them excellent for carrying around because even if it were to get dropped and broken or lost the loss is not catastrophic. I’ve had this particular pen for two years now and often carry it around in my pocket. There have been no leaks, it always starts well without skipping, and writes nicely. I’m cheap and refill the empty cartridges from a bottle of ink, so it’s economical writing.
I am very slowly sifting through the posts from my old blog with a view to collating the better material into some sort of eBook eventually. In that process I came across an off-topic post that I wrote about my blog-writing workflow, which at the time (written in 2010) was distinctly paper based:
Blog content comes out of your head, and unless you happen to have Dumbledore’s penseive you need a reliable way to get that stuff from your head to your blog.
For this capture process I use a small notebook and pen. I cross-out, scrawl messily, doodle and tear pages out – this is a scruffy notebook because I cart it everywhere and am just scribbling down rough ideas.
The next step towards a blog post that does not resemble keyboard vomit is to take one of those ideas and work it into sentences and paragraphs. For this I also prefer to use pen and paper because it is quicker to access (no startup time), helps me see the flow of thought best and it is easier to concentrate on writing without gadgetry to distract me. Only once I’m happy with what I’ve written on paper do I type it into WordPress and add formatting, hyperlinks, images, headings, tags and category metadata (often I indicate on my paper version what formatting or tags is required).
Then comes editing to fix all the typos and etc. I know some folks don’t edit posts after publishing them, and it shows! Others care about the quality of their writing and take time to fix errors.
What intrigues me is that the process described was actually a lot more productive in terms of finished blog posts than the much more digital workflow that I currently use (also this blog is hosted on Squarespace rather than WordPress). Part of my recent dearth of writing has been due to lack of motivation and needing to focus on other things in life. However, I think having an easy, no-real-thought-required workflow does help a lot. For this, pen and paper wins with ease of use, rapidly accessible, and minimal distractions.
My current workflow relies on Evernote as a central hub and I am able to input stuff from my home or work computers or through my smartphone. This is really good for collecting ideas, but seems to clog up at the crucial writing stage where the initial idea is crafted into something worth reading (I hope!).
Two styles of writer
In an essay which pre-dates web 2.0 and blogging, Daniel Chandler discusses two different styles of writer; those for whom writing is primarily a communication medium for the thoughts they already have formulated in their mind, and those for whom the act of writing is a process of discovering what they are thinking.
Hemingway wrote initial drafts in pencil: ‘You have to work over what you write. If you use a pencil… it keeps it fluid longer so that you can improve it easier’ (Strickland, 1989). Many writers, of course, experience a similar fluidity with the word processor. The word processor extends the malleability of the written word. Paper ‘sets’ text, but text on disc and screen is ‘wet’ and workable. Some writers enjoy this sense of fluidity. However, some report that the ease with which they can edit encourages them to be ‘sloppier’ or less critical than they feel they are with the pen or the typewriter (where words must be pre-considered). Some feel that the word processor encourages them to do too much editing, and leads to a loss of spontaneity. (Daniel Chandler, The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand, 1992)
Chandler also makes the point that, “writing done with a word processor obscures its own evolution” compared to pen and paper in which, “the handwritten text maps paths not taken in a way that enables them to be re-explored if necessary”. He discusses at length the sense of intimacy a writer can achieve when handwriting on paper in contrast to separation between writer and pixels on a screen.
Not only is the writing process different between paper and keyboard, the resulting media has different characteristics which influence how writer, editor and reader interact with it. Paper has an inherent tangibility and weight with which we are very familiar. Bits and pixels have no physical weight, their size and flow can be manipulated and are fluid – dependant upon the device rather than the document. Composing text on a screen is a different experience to composing on paper in ways which are rooted deep within our worldview.
Although I personally like the tactile experience of writing on paper with a pen, a digital workflow works well for me during the editing phase because I can easily move text around, inserting a thought where it fits better in the flow of an argument or cutting a section out and saving it in draft form as the seed of another post.