Writing for the Internet

Written by Eric Brad

The Internet has offered us a wonderful means of communicating with each other. Whether you want to write for pet dog owners or other dog trainers, or even produce more scholarly articles to explore the frontiers of science as it relates to dogs and behaviour, the Internet offers a wealth of opportunities and methods to publish your thoughts and ideas to potentially thousands of readers. I’ve been publishing articles regularly for six years now, and I’ve learned that while it’s great having the opportunity to put my thoughts out to others, there are some challenges to being a good communicator in the changing world of the Internet.

I have had the good fortune to have my writing hosted by an online magazine, Life As a Human. That solved a few problems for me, such as deciding how to publish and distribute my work and also how to monetize my articles. They also provided me with an editor who has helped me to refine my writing to better suit and better target the audience I want to reach. It has been a very valuable learning experience. I have found that there is more to writing for the Internet than just having great information to share. Understanding how to write, how to format, how to publish, and how to promote your ideas can make the difference between publishing an effective article and getting lost in the ocean of information on the Internet.

Composition matters

The first thing I try to do in coming up with a new article is to decide on a target audience. It is important to know who you want to read your articles. Doing a little research can help you know how to communicate effectively at that level. I generally try to target my articles at advanced pet dog owners, and also to provide information to other trainers that they can pass on to students. It is important to manage my use of language and my presentation of concepts so that it matches the people who will read my article. I know from teaching classes and working with pet dog owners that, although they may have some experience with the concepts I’m bringing up, it is likely that I will introduce a new term perspective. So I try to explain technical concepts in understandable language, avoid technical jargon unless it’s necessary, and limit the scope of what I’m talking about so that my point is both clear and memorable. Those who are unfamiliar with these new concepts seem to appreciate the clarifications, and those who are familiar usually appreciate the straightforward presentation of the topic.

One important consideration in writing for the Internet is length. Studies have shown that attention spans for Internet browsing can be pretty short. Ideally, whatever you write should be readable by your average audience member in 10 minutes or less. The average Internet user can read about 250 words per minute with a comprehension rate of about 60 percent. I tend to err on the side of caution and keep my writing to 1,500 words or fewer. Having a target word count in mind helps me to define the scope of what I want to talk about and to make sure that I adequately cover all of the relevant points I want to make within that 1,500-word limit.

There are many ways to approach the “voice” used when writing. For my own work, I have chosen to speak from a personal point of view: this is what I do, this is what I have experienced, this is what I have read, this is what I have learned, etc. My reason for this is to keep the writing approach open and not shut down discussion. It is a way of saying “this is what I do/think” without suggesting that differing approaches or viewpoints are incorrect or wrong in some way. I prefer to present what I have found and tell my readers how it worked for me. This allows them to make their own decisions about the material without feeling judged. But that’s just one way to approach this.

Other authors prefer a more instructive approach in order to provide more step-by-step detail to help readers accomplish a task. Still others prefer a more prescriptive approach, telling readers what they should be considering, what they should be doing, or what is most important in their work with their dogs. Another alternative is to use a more academic or debating style to present a point-counterpoint on a topic or series of topics. All of these approaches have their place and can be effective or challenging depending on the subject and the audience. I have found that choosing a voice that is compatible (rather than confrontational) works best for my audience. Depending on your goals, the voice you write in can produce very different results.

How you say it

As a writer, one of the earliest lessons I was taught was how to pace my writing. If you have ever encountered a lengthy run-on sentence, you know what I mean by pacing. Writing has a rhythm. If you put out sentences that are either too long or too short, it can be fatiguing for the reader to follow what you are saying. This is one of the places I have found that editing after I write can be very valuable. Those of us who write are also readers. Walking away from something I have written for an hour or two and then coming back to read it with fresher eyes often helps me get a feel for the rhythm and pace of the text. Do I bog the reader down in over-long, complicated sentences, or bombard them with staccato strings of short, less informative sentences? The pace of the writing really gets to how easy it will be for the reader to get past the words to the ideas you are trying to present. I work hard to make that as easy for my readers as I can.

Just as sentences can affect the pace of an article, paragraphs also play an important role. Overly long or too-short paragraphs can feel disruptive to readers in different ways. One aspect of paragraphs that is sometimes overlooked is their visual impact. Very long paragraphs can be intimidating to readers. They look like a wall of text and subtly signal that it has taken the writer some time to explain what they want to say. That might indicate that the idea is complicated. If something looks “hard,” it can put the reader off. Similarly, if paragraphs appear too short, the content can look trivial and invite the reader to skim rather than read.

One frequently overlooked aspect of writing for the Internet is organization. It can be all too easy to just start writing in much the same way one would talk to a class or a colleague. That kind of conversational style may work well in face-to-face meetings, but it doesn’t translate well to the written medium. After all, people need some guides to know what you are trying to cover, what you have to say about that topic, and what you think it all means. I use the Basic Essay Format taught by many colleges as a structural guideline to help me present my thoughts clearly. You can get everything else right, but if you aren’t presenting your thoughts in an understandable order, you might not have the impact you were hoping for.

The Internet offers us some unique tools as a medium that I try to take advantage of as often as I can. First, I like to break up my writing into sections as I’ve done in this article. It is a practice that seems to have evolved out of magazine writing. It is a way to tease the reader about what is coming up as well as providing a “resting place” in the rhythm of the article. These sections can make for convenient places for readers to pause if they need to and return to the article and pick up where they left off. The second tool I try to make use of is hyperlinking. The ability to embed links to additional information right inside my text can be a time saver (i.e., I don’t have explain something, I can just link if the reader needs more info) and a way to let my readers dive even deeper into important points that I’m making in the article.

So that is a quick look at putting together effective writing to publish online. Getting your thoughts out onto the Internet may seem easy, but doing it effectively may take a little extra care and some work. Believe me when I tell you that the extra effort is worth it! Next time we’ll look at the different challenges and options for publishing your work online.