I was recently asked what I thought the ideal length was for an article on the web. It reminded me of a quip a previous boss would routinely trot out when giving prospective clients the red carpet treatment around our offices. To the question “How many people do you have working for you?” he would casually respond: “Oh, about half of them.” The point of his joke, and one answer to the question, is that efficacy is not a simple numbers game; if an article is good enough it is long enough.
Of course, it is rarely as straightforward as that and a writer for the web needs should be conscious of the way people read online. According to MediaCo’s David Mill most readers ‘skim’ and ‘jump’ online articles, enter via different points in the text, don’t like deep scrolling and find reading on screen more difficult than reading print. The corporate writer needs to be aware of all these considerations and additionally weave a business narrative that draws in and engages with a reader who is “already 10 minutes late for my next appointment, so if you could kindly get on with it and tell me what your point is…” Well, you get the idea.
It is a truism that writing for the web and for print is different. Michael Kinsley, reflecting on the differences in The Atlantic, argues that one reason seekers of news are abandoning the printed word in favour of the internet is not the convenience of technology but is a consequence of style. Printed news is, he says, too long and is filled with unnecessary verbiage, opinion and scene setting that correspond with a series of outmoded conventions that are “traditional, even mandatory”. These conventions have implications for online writers (avoid them at all costs) and publishers who when they recycle long articles from print to the web may be improving their bottom line but are doing very little for user readability. And when web publishing begins to resemble a Ford production line – you can have any sort of news you want so long as it’s cut a paste job from our morning edition – readers can rightly feel short changed.
It is impossible to talk about writing for the web without also considering how technology is challenging and shaping readers’ expectations. (And than you to those Twitter-conditioned readers who would normally drift away after 140 characters but have generously stuck with me this far). The launch this year of next-generation mobile communication devices, including the new Google phone and Apple’s keenly-anticipated iTablet, could change the rules again for how we want to receive and view news.
Emily Bell, writing in the MediaGuardian, says the emergence of such technologies could move us so far away from the page-centric world we grew up reading and writing for that “it raises the question of how long it will be before even the concept of a website becomes old hat”. Writers will need to acknowledge and adapt to these innovations so they have the answer to the next big question, whatever it is.