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Hot Text, and Web Word Wizardry

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In: Reviews > Book Reviews

By James McNally

Published on April 3, 2002

Hot Text: Web Writing That Works

book cover Husband and wife team Jonathan and Lisa Price are veteran writers and editors with experience in print, television and online journalism. If anyone could write a book about the principles and practices of writing for the web, it would be them. I'm happy to report that the Prices have written what amounts to a textbook for web writers that should be just as relevant five years from now as it is today.

Writing for the web is different from any other kind of writing. The copy found on most web sites is woefully written, usually as an afterthought, or else simply repackaged from corporate brochures or other pre-existing materials.

The web is a unique medium with its own rules and limitations. Unfortunately, due to its evolving nature, these rules aren't codified in one place, nor are they even agreed upon. As the medium evolves, it becomes more important that companies hire specialists who are familiar with writing specifically for the web. Web writers are not HTML jockeys, programmers or designers. They need to be valued for their unique contributions and skill set. The Prices' book aims to define the specialized skills that a web writer or editor must possess.

Such a comprehensive book needs to be well-organized, and Hot Text excels in this respect. The book is divided into five major sections:

  1. Catch the Net Spirit
  2. Write Like a Human Being
  3. Fine-Tune Your Style for the Genres
  4. Become a Pro
  5. Backup

These are helpfully marked across the top of each page, with the current section bolded, giving instant feedback to the reader. Each new chapter begins with a spread showing the titles and page number of all the headings. This sense of organization helps immensely in navigating through such a large amount of information, and is itself a lesson for organizing information on the web. Helpful charts and illustrations are also plentiful, visually reinforcing points as they are made.

Another feature that appears regularly throughout the book is entitled "Audience Fit." Dividing the intended audiences into five categories, the authors then examine how each chapter can be applied to writing for audiences that want:

  1. to have fun
  2. to learn
  3. to act
  4. to be aware
  5. to get close to people

I thought this was a useful way to summarize as well as to help the reader apply the information practically when writing for her particular audience. It also reinforces one of the first points the book makes, to know who you are writing for and to be aware of that at all times.

Each chapter ends with some space for the reader's own reaction, along with email addresses to send feedback, subscribe (or unsubscribe) to a mailing list related to ideas raised in the book, and a link to the web site for the book. Although these could have been mentioned once, at the beginning or end of the book their repetition reminds the reader not to forget that he or she can obtain more information or contribute to a discussion.

The actual content of the book is also incredibly useful, but rather than just a collection of rules or tips, Hot Text delves into the theory and provides the reader with lots of material for follow-up research. The book includes not only a useful glossary, but an extensive bibliography, with numerous citations throughout the text. These authors have done their homework.

Catch the Net Spirit

The book begins with a chapter on getting to know both your audience and yourself. Web visitors are a far different audience than people buying a book. Visitors on the web arrive from many different places, and they won't stay long if they don't feel you're talking to them specifically. So it pays to spend some time thinking about who will be visiting your pages, and addressing their needs, as you perceive them. It also helps to develop a bit of a personal voice for the site. Visitors don't enjoy most web writing because it is bland or insincere. If they sense there is a real person behind the web site, it encourages them not only to stay and read, but also to respond.

The Prices also spend some time talking about markup (HTML and XML) and encouraging us to think more about structure in our writing, both for easy manipulation by machines and easier digestion by readers.

Finally, the section ends with an explanation of sorts of the title. The Prices have experience writing for television, which they describe as a hot medium since it expresses drama and conflict and involves us emotionally. Computers, as a rule, are cold. If we want to warm up our communication on the web, it will involve injecting a healthy dose of personality and attitude. This leads us directly to the next section of the book.

Human Style

Here we move into the meat of the book, and the authors provide lots of practical advice for making web writing clearer and more relevant. This section consists of six "Idea" chapters:

Each of these "guidelines" is backed up by lots and lots of examples, complete with "Before" and "After" paragraphs.

Genres

The "Genres" section of the book is filled with case studies, which go beyond simple before and after paragraphs, focussing instead on real world problems faced by writers and how they were solved. Genres can include every type of focussed writing from press releases to email newsletters to weblogs to resumes.

Become a Pro

This welcome section explains the process of how someone writing for the web can expect to make a living, or go on to edit for the web. There is some good information here, from veterans working in the field. The functions of web writers and web editors are compared, the advantages of working freelance are compared to those of working for a corporation, and there is even a list of resources for freelance writers and editors (which I might use myself!).

Backup

This is simply a short section of links to web sites that might be useful to a web writer or editor. The resources include freelance markets, job boards, email discussion lists, and links to research sites.

Conclusion

This is an exhaustive, well-researched, well-organized, and well-written book. For that reason, it's not a quick read. Someone looking for "quick tips" would not appreciate this book's depth. It would be a highly appropriate text for training teams of web writers, and although indispensable for the individual freelancer also, one might need to take a week or so to fully digest its contents. For that reason, there will always be a place on bookshelves for the shorter, more immediately-focused books, such as Rachel McAlpine's "Web Word Wizardry."

Hot Text: Web Writing That Works
by Jonathan and Lisa Price

New Riders, 2002, 507pp.
US$40.00, CDN$62.99

 

Web Word Wizardry

book cover Web Word Wizardry is practically sleek in comparison with the Prices' volume. Slightly larger than a paperback novel, and about half as long as Hot Text, this could appeal to the web writer in a hurry. McAlpine wastes little time, jumping right into checklists and guidelines and writing in a breezy, matter-of-fact tone.

After making the case for the importance of high-quality content, McAlpine jumps right in by giving us a list of things to think about in the chapter called "Think Web":

  1. Think web culture
  2. Think context
  3. Think screen
  4. Think skim-reading
  5. Think fluid format
  6. Think keywords
  7. Think search engines
  8. Think links
  9. Think interaction
  10. Think international

Each of these points is unpacked in a helpful manner over the course of the rest of the book, although not in separate chapters. For example, McAlpine advises us how to "Write for Skim-reading" in Chapter 5 and how to "Write for the world" in Chapter 6. But there is no chapter specifically addressing search engines; the material is spread over several non-continuous chapters. In addition, the above list addresses issues in a different sequence than the rest of the chapters in the book. Compared with the precise organization of Hot Text, this is especially grating.

McAlpine includes separate chapters on writing for corporate intranets and for email newsletters. These are helpful and concise, but again, they are placed right in the middle of the book for no apparent reason. She also includes a chapter entitled "The Fine Art of Writing Alt-Text," which addresses an area of particular neglect among web writers.

Both books cite Jakob Nielsen just a few too many times for my liking. Especially egregious is this example from McAlpine:

"For a company with 10,000 employees, the cost of a single poorly written headline on an intranet home page is almost $5,000." (Alertbox, www.useit.com, April 1999)

Just how anyone can put a dollar value on bad or good writing is beyond me, but more disturbing is the author's willingness to use Nielsen as a source of sound bites. Nielsen's work has value, but when used in this way, it insults her readers' intelligence.

Overall, I found McAlpine's content useful but poorly organized. Although she also includes a glossary and a resource listing, she only lists four URLs, claiming "so many promising web sites fizzle and fail [and] one good web site links to another," which I found a bit of a cheat. Perhaps the most useful part of Web Word Wizardry is the section of check lists, where McAlpine condenses and clarifies all her points into a handy list that a writer can apply to their work in just a few minutes.

Recommendation

It's nice to have both of these books, but if I had to recommend just one, it would be Jonathan and Lisa Price's Hot Text. The time invested in reading will pay off in the long term. It's also more satisfying to have access to the research behind some of the guidelines and not just be spoon-fed dictums from on high. The addition of some printable check lists would make Hot Text just about the perfect text on web writing. At least until someone writes Hotter Text.

Web Word Wizardry: A Guide to Writing for the Web and Intranet
by Rachel McAlpine

Ten Speed Press, 2001, 264pp.
US$11.95

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James McNally is a Toronto based freelance writer and web designer. He is desperately clawing his way back into a new media career. His personal weblog is at http://www.consolationchamps.com/

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