By Gerry McGovern
When the tool changes, so too should the skill and the
technique. More and more, hypertext is replacing text and the Web is
“I really don’t know whether we’ll be printing The Times in five years,
and you know what? I don’t care either,” Arthur Sulzberger, owner,
chairman and publisher of The New York Times told Haaretz.com in
According to Sulzberger, The New York Times is on a journey, a journey
that will end on the day The Times prints its last newspaper. Radical
times; a momentous shift is underway.
We who are involved with content are on an exciting journey. At a
certain point, the economics and ease-of-use of the Web will become so
compelling that print will simply not be able to compete.
At this historic juncture, we need to carefully evaluate where we
stand. We need to understand what skills are specifically
print-related. We need to isolate print-thinking, so that a strength in
a previous era does not become a weakness in a new one.
What is print-thinking? Print lends itself to length and to economies
of scale. It’s not that much more expensive to print a 120-page report
than a 100-page one. It’s often not much cheaper to print one copy than
to print 1,000. These economies of print influence how we write in
subtle and various ways.
Is the concept of the annual report a print-specific idea? Why do we
need an annual report when we can get an instant update by visiting the
website of the organization? Often, the content of an annual report is
assembled months before it is published. It can be out-of-date and
irrelevant long before the ink dries.
When an organization prints customer-related content, that content is
nearly always to be consumed outside the organization. Thus, it is
written in a very particular way, with lots of context, and with many
sentences beginning with the name of the organization. It is designed
to go out.
The content on an organization’s website is designed to stay in. The
website itself is the context, and the very fact that the customer has
visited the website implies that they have a certain awareness of the
organization. This crucial difference can change the whole dynamic of
how you write web content.
Print content is often leisurely and flowery. Web content is lean and
pared to the bone. Often, the best web content is not a sentence at
all, but rather a descriptive link.
Linking is the essence of web content, and a good web writer thinks in
webs of links, rather than in series of pages. This is perhaps the
greatest challenge for someone trained in print-to break that linear
mode of thinking and think linking.
Search dominates much of the Web. Search reflects a shift in the
control of the words used away from the organization and towards the
customer. Search is customer language-simple, short, common, clear and
basic words. Not complicated, jargon-filled, marketing-fluff ones.
This is a tremendously exciting time. Make sure you don’t confuse the
tool and the technique. Some say: “But this is simply good writing.”
No. It is good print writing. Learn to embrace the new skills of web
writing, and to lose the old and increasingly archaic skills of print.