This document is a supplement to
Editing for Clear Communication
Copyright 1996-1999,
Thom Lieb

No portion may be reused without the author's permission.

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Further Reading:
Thom Lieb, "Where Do You Think You're Going Today?"
Journal of Electronic Publishing, December 1998

Amy Gahran, Interview: Jakob Nielsen, Contentious, 14 August 1998

Brooke Shelby Biggs, "Making News Work on the Web," Hotwired

Katherine Fulton, "A Tour of Our Uncertain Future," Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 1996

Jutta Degener, Writing Hypertext Copy

Joshua Quitner, "Way New Journalism," Hotwired

Jakob Nielsen, "Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles and Subject Lines," Alertbox, 6 September 1998

Steve Outing, "Surprising Trends in News Web Site Design," Editor & Publisher Interactive, 22 June 1998

To learn more about this college editing textbook or to order
an educational review copy, please visit
McGraw Hill.

Editing for the Web

Creating Compelling Hypertexts

In the mood for a good story? Then you've come to the right place. In many ways, the Web is the best medium ever for telling a story. It combines the immediacy and visual power of television, the depth of print, and the ability of the oral storyteller to branch off in various directions.

But at the heart of the Web, words are still king. Even internationally renowned designer Mario Garcia acknowledges as much. He told Editor & Publisher Interactive, "I believe that words are what are going to grab you; words will bring you back."

Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen agrees. As he told Contentious online magazine,

Whenever I had users in the lab for usability tests, I found they were highly focused on the articles or other content on the site. users were very concerned with whether the content was something they liked, something they thought was useful. That was what they kept commenting on — not the design, layout or navigation. (In other words, all the things we were trying to test!)
Nielsen added, "I think writers and editors will play a more central role [in online media of the future]. In particular, editors will play an extremely central role."

For editors, that's nothing new. But helping writers tell their stories on the Web is much different from doing the same job in print. Different rules apply — and in many cases those rules are being made up daily. Nevertheless, there are some starting points that an editor can follow in helping writers be all that they can be on the Web.

Consider every story on its own terms: Working in print, editors often develop formulas for different types of stories. When dealing with breaking news, that's not so bad, but it sucks the life out of feature articles.

Trying to force online stories into boxes is an even worse idea. An editor should start with no preconceptions, carefully considering how a story should be structured and what multimedia tools would most benefit it. One good starting point in determining structure is to think in terms of metaphors: Could the information be best presented as a novel? a magazine? a series of "baseball" cards? One particularly novel approach to storytelling was used in a Word article on Russian prison tattoos: An image map of a composite body serves as the outline of the article. Input from the writer, designer and programmer is essential to this process.

Plan carefully: Whatever structure you decide upon, careful planning is critical. Many Web producers use the television producer's storyboard technique for planning, drawing a sketch of each "scene" to get an idea of how the story will unfold.

Go deep: Web designer Mario Garcia reports that his research shows that Web readers "tend to be fanatic and obsessive." Fortunately, the Web offers unlimited space for stories. That's not to say that producers should merely dump thousands of words onto a site indiscriminately, however. Neil Postman of New York University told Columbia Journalism Review that journalists need to realize that the main problem readers face in this age of information glut "is how to decide what is significant, relevant information and how to get rid of the clutter." In large part, editors can do this if they have a clear focus on the goals and audience of their Web sites. More than ever before, a good editor is a good guide.

A useful concept in going deep is layering. The top layer of a story could present the basics, with lower levels providing more specifics, different viewpoints, etc. A good example of the second use can be seen in a Chicago Tribune story that let readers look at the events surrounding a murder from different viewpoints.

Layering can be applied even to breaking news. One online editor has suggested a structure in which a top layer provides the traditional who, what, when, where and why. The next layer would offer a historical context. Additional layers would offer analysis, expert commentary, and reader discussion and feedback. The limitless storage of computers allows Web producers to archive all previous material, making such layering an easy task to accomplish.

Help writers find their voices: While the bland style of journalism that's come to be known as "objective" still finds a home in print, Web visitors expect writers to have distinct voices. Compare some of the writing in the online edition of the Philadelphia Daily News with what you find in most print newspapers. Follow that example, and don't edit the life out of Web writers' work — help them find their own voices to add life to their writing.

Build in means for reader reaction: The old model worked like this: Writer spent days, weeks or months researching, wrote an article, it was published, and that was that. Maybe a letter to the editor would show up in print a few weeks later. The Web doesn't work that way. Readers expect to have immediate means to respond to what they read, to take part in a discussion that lives long after the story is published. Giving readers the chance to do that is a great way to build community.

Catch readers quickly: Web surfers are as bad as — if not worse than — couch potatoes who keep one finger poised on the channel changer. In that environment, it's important to catch readers as quickly as possible. Kathy McAdams, a University of Maryland professor who has worked at the online edition of the Washington Post, notes: "In the space of one screen, the reader must quickly decide whether to participate. Leads are more important than ever." Writing good headlines, too, becomes even more vital on the Web. Just as in print, headlines are important in giving readers a quick idea of what's on a page. But on the Web, headlines also have another role: They often appear out of context, in lists of articles, email subjects, bookmarks and search engine results. Therefore, headlines not only have to support connected articles, they also have to make sense when they are presented in isolation.

Choose links carefully: Hypertext links are the basis of the Web. But they need to be used with caution. Three points to keep in mind:

  • Links can change the tone or feeling of a text. As Jutta Degener writes, links "stress their anchor text ... and they force readers to think about the anchor text and decide whether to follow the link or not."

  • Links need to be compelling. Don't tell readers "Click here for more information on poodles." Instead, choose your words carefully to give the reader a sense of what's around the corner should he or she choose to go there: "The National Association of Poodle Breeders offers 10 suggestions on choosing a pet."

  • Links can disrupt the flow of the text. If you're trying to tell a story, you need to be careful about peppering it with links. In this document, the only links in the text are references to other parts of the document (for explanation, expansion, etc.) and links to external sites for examples. Some producers go even farther, eliminating internal text links and placing them elsewhere on the page.

Help keep readers from jumping ship: Once you've got readers, you want to keep them. In the early days of the Web, some producers decided the best way to do that was to avoid placing links anywhere on their pages. Here's a better idea: Do everything you can to make your writers' stories so compelling that a reader who links away will be eager to return.

Let readers take control: Michelle Slatalla, who has written several hypertext stories for Discovery Channel Online and other sites, notes that "a story is more a journey than an endpoint." Writers and editors have to realize that different readers are going to conduct their journeys in different manners — and be able to live with that. The producers cannot control readers as they can in print, and that's what the readers love about the Web.

Make each page a self-contained entity: Not every reader comes in at the front door — search engines and links from other sites can plop a visitor down in the middle of a story. So make sure each page can be read on its own. It needs to have a strong beginning, good navigational links to other parts of the story and site, and a clear ending — like this.

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