Next on the Web: better writing?
Whitney Quesenbery thinks so
By Steve Marshall
The Wild Wild Web — they called it that long before Napster, Phisher, and Denial-of-Service rode into town.
But the Net’s a pretty forgiving place, if you think about it. Where else can so many outrageous and outraged characters shout wildly into the night? That kind of thing got you dead, in Deadwood.
Does the Web forgive poor writing?
“Of course it does,” says Whitney Quesenbery. “All media forgive some weaknesses and punish others.”
Quesenbery was a pioneer in the theory and practice of Web usability, and she’s now a widely-consulted authority. www.wqusability.com
But SL wanted to know: Has the Web been more forgiving of lousy prose than other media? Yes, says Quesenbery — so far.
She remembers old debates about the uniqueness of the Web. She and others stressed the new medium’s continuity with the old, while a new generation of tech-wise young bloods said it was fundamentally new.
The soul of a new medium
Quesenbery’s views have mellowed: Both sides were right, she now thinks. The Internet lets content managers act and change early, quickly, and often. They may not put napkin notes online, but plenty of first drafts go up. Quesenbery quotes Voltaire — the perfect is the enemy of the good — and notes that on the Web, the converse is also true. The good, or the good enough, often wins out.
That’s why the medium is a forgiving one. You just don’t have that flexibility after 50,000 copies have rolled off your printing presses.
The perfect is the enemy of the good — and vice versa.
Will this situation change? It is changing, Quesenbery says, driven by market demand. Users want usability,
For most companies, stage One was simply Get Online! No one knew what the new terrain would be, but everyone knew they had to be there. The first corporate Web sites sounded like a puzzled Fonz on Happy Days: “Hey! Yo! Anybody!”
Stage Two was Lights, Camera, Action. Techs harnessed HTML to huge troves of data, while designers called forth bling — animation, audio, video. The Web became interactive in fact.
Stage Three was the Struggle for Usability. Shiny trinkets were no longer enough, as users wanted a good reason to fire up the box. They demanded tangible, time-saving benefits, and a smooth ride to boot.
Easy reading, said Hawthorne, is damn hard writing. So is a pleasant Internet experience — but the usability crowd has shown that it’s possible.
“For a while it didn’t really matter how bad your content was,” Quesenbery says. “Nobody would ever find it anyway.”
But now the basic principles of site navigation are well established. (That doesn’t mean they’re universally applied, any more than the principles of marketing, customer service, or business ethics.)
Poor writing didn’t matter. No one could find it anyway.
For a Web site to be effective it must solve problems, not create them. It must remove anxieties so users take action — they click Buy Now, they take the next step in manual, they provide information. Sites that succeed, Quesenbery thinks, will be those that take the struggle for usability to a deeper level: to within the page.
In other words, to the text.
She sees a trend among her larger clients toward producing copy that’s clearer, more precise, and more targeted. And she sees it across the board, in marketing as well as corporate communications and technical projects.
The democratization of content
A higher premium on content? To professional writers, that’s trumpet music — their skills will be valued! But it’s more complicated than that.
The Web, Quesenbery explains, has spread the ability to create content far and wide — like Gutenberg did 550 years ago. “Gutenberg is famous for his bible,” she says, “but what changed the world was his broadside.” With Gutenberg’s press, anyone who could buy ink and paper could publish.
The Gutenberg broadside changed the world.
If Gutenberg made it possible to publish, the Web made it free. This economy allows businesses to put out more information than ever, while intensifying demands of production, quality, compliance, marketing, public relations, and so on require them to.
Writing is in the job description
Yet companies don’t necessarily call on professional writers to write all this content. They often reach out to new sources within their ranks. Today, at every level, employees are being asked to write for Web sites, blogs, Intranets, content management systems. You were hired as a tax lawyer? Now you’ve got a Web page to maintain. Administrative assistant? We’ll give you six.
Along with this trend a need arises: to train a broader pool of employees in the fundamentals of written communication.
Quesenbery sees these two broad trends — market demand for usability and the commoditization of writing — intersecting to bring better writing to the Web.
This is different from the higher-level content that companies publish, on the Web or anywhere else. Industry leaders won’t hand over their mission-critical writing to amateurs, whether it’s for purposes of marketing, internal communications, IT, compliance, or investor relations. Microsoft will still rely on skilled writers, not programmers, for its style guides. And high-quality magazines and newspapers will continue to demand the best.
But if Whitney Quesenbery is right, we should see an overall improvement in business Web copy. Don’t expect Dickens quality. Instead, expect modest improvements throughout: better grammar and punctuation, clearer sentences, less blow and more go.
This development — and the notion that everyone can learn to write a little better — is sure to please many who value language.
Find out more about Web usability and Whitney Quesenbery’s work at www.wqusability.com.
First published May 2006.