How to Write for Web Pages - Part 4 - Do the Writing
Posted by Bill Anderton
In the third installment of this series, I wrote about the very important process of preparing to write. We begin this installment assuming that you have completed all of your preparations.
With all of your givens of your story researched, information collected and confirmed and with your field reporting completed, and quotes gathered, you are now ready to start writing your story.
The writing phase is where you bring everything together and compose the text of your story. It is the payoff of all of the past preparatory work.
In this installment of the series, we will discuss the process of writing your story.
Imploring you to use a computer for your writing almost goes without saying, but I feel I should state it: use a computer to write your story!
Yes, you can write on a table or any other computing device that produces machine-readable text files that can be transmitted to the webmaster upon completion of your assignment.
Use your favorite word processing program so you can use all of its tools and applications like spelling and grammar checkers. However, before you start writing make sure that your webmaster and the website’s editorial team can work with the file you produce.
Don’t embed any photo into your word processing file as a method to transfer your pictures. Send all of your images separately to the webmaster in full resolution when you submit your story. Most word processing programs will do various conversions or transformations of all images embedded into a word processing file. None of these modifications is desirable!
I have met several webmasters who have old-school writers on their web teams that still submit their stories via typewriter-written paper manuscripts. I have even talked to one webmaster that has a writer than hand-writes stories in longhand on legal pads. In all cases, the webmasters accept these non-machine-readable physical manuscripts because these particular people are very good writers. Such paper manuscripts do cause a lot of extra work for the webmaster, but they feel it is worth it to have the participation of such good writers working on their websites.
Make the work of your webmaster easier; use word processing software and computers.
For an important long-form story, I might make an outline the story before I begin to write the full text of the story. Long in-depth stories with lots of details often require an outline to keep everything straight.
Also, I’ll develop an outline if the story has to be very short and I need to be very economical with my words. In these cases, if I have to synthesize a lot of concepts and information into very few words so have to prioritize the information I include, I will work everything out in my outline.
In both of these cases, very long and very short stories, outlining my story helps my writing.
I use mind-mapping techniques and a mind-mapping software tool on my PC to develop these outlines. These are highly-efficient tools and well worth the effort. However, nothing more complicated than a legal pad and a pencil can be great outlining tools as well.
For typical short-form stories (a few hundred words), I rarely bother with making an outline first.
Many writers don’t outline before they write. They work their stories out in their head. If you have this ability and it works for you, skip the developing the outline.
The full text of your story contains the full and complete set of words for the story you have to tell. The full text of your story is what most people think of when asked to write a story. Indeed it is the most important part of the assignment but as you see from this series, the full text of the story is just one of several aspects of the full assignment.
The full text of the story is your opportunity to tell a complete and interesting story to your readers.
If appropriate to your assignment, write the full text of your story should in the following structured format. This structure was specifically developed to give you guidance about how you can communicate the full details about the news you are reporting and supply your readers with the information they need. The proffered structure shown below isn’t the only way to structure a story, but it is a good one and you won’t go wrong using it.
The full text of your story will have several important components written in a certain order. From the top to bottom, we recommend that you follow the format shown below:
Your main headline should be brief, clear and direct summary of the key point of your story. Headlines should attract readers. Pay very serious attention to your headline. Also, your main headline on the page (the text within the <h1> tag) carries a lot of weight with the search engines and how they index your page so pay a lot of attention to how you craft the main headline of the story.
Headlines will typically be displayed in bold face and slightly larger than the body text, typically the largest text on the page.
With your story written, go back and review all of the subheads you have written. If you haven’t written any, add some to your story, particularly if it is a long block of text. The use of subheads will help the readability of your story.
Your subheads should amplify your story as it unfolds. Subheads support and summarize the section of your story below each. Each subhead should capture the essence, the main idea, of its section of the story.
Also, if possible, use important keywords that are targeted for the search engines in your subheads. Subheads typically are encoded with <h2> to <h4> tags and provide readable signals to search engines as they crawl your web page.
Subhead will be displayed in boldface and typical slightly smaller than your main headline.
It is often a good idea to include one- or two-paragraphs as a summary, or abstract, of your story.
You can use an abstract in various places and is useful for adding to the home page of your website to interest people and for getting them to jump to the story’s web page to read it.
Typically, your webmaster or web editor will write an abstract, but it will help them if you write it as the author of the story. If you write an abstract, it will help them understand what you consider important within the story.
The brief abstract is also VERY important for getting the full text of your story if it is going to be a long feature.
If your brief abstract, supported by your headline, doesn’t interest your reader enough to click to read your full item, you will reduce the effectiveness and visibility of your full story.
The Page Title is the information that appears in the <head> section in the HTML coding of the web page and appears in the <title> tag. Page Titles appear in the very top of web browsers.
The page title is not necessarily the main headline of the story, but it could be.
Often overlooked, Page Titles are very important in how (and if) your page gets indexed into the search engines. All pages in your website should have a unique page title. Always populate this tag.
After you have finished writing your story, write a great “description” of the content and furnish the description so your webmaster or web editor can include them in the <meta> tag in the metadata of the web page. In the <meta> tag, you can add a descriptor to include your description that tells search engines what your page or site is about. If it is a good description, search engines will show it verbatim in the search engine results pages (SERPs.)
You should write a good description for each page. However, if search engines determines through their algorithms that a description is badly written or inaccurate when compared with the actual text of the page, the search engines will replace your description with one of its own.
Your hand-written customized description can be much better that what the algorithms make.
The description can greatly improve the click-through rates to your site. Getting your page indexed and made relevant enough to display in the SERPs are just the first steps; the actual payoff only comes when people click on your link in the SERPs and arrive in your web page. A good description helps get more people to click through to your site. It both describes the content of the page and entices them to click.
Click-through rates are very important because they are also signals that the search engines use in ranking your page. Sites with poor descriptions will get fewer clicks which, in turn, will cause search engines to demote your site in favor of other sites with higher click-through rates.
Your description should be no longer than 155 characters including spaces, which is the rule of thumb for most search engines. Some are longer, and some are shorter, which is why this limit is only a rule of thumb.
When you finish your story, make a list of the important keywords you are actually using in the text of your story, in its headlines and the page title. Furnish this list with your story when you submit it to your webmaster or web editor. Your staff can include these keywords in the <meta> tag in the metadata of the web page when it gets encoded into HTML.
Keywords in the metadata allow you to make suggestions about indexing the story. Web spiders will crawl your pages, and index every word in your story. The keywords listed in the keywords tag doesn’t have to contain everything, only your strongest keywords. Reserve the metadata for only your best keywords.
In the <meta> tag, you are only suggesting to the search engines the way the story indexing. Some search engines, including Google, ignore these suggestions, but it is the best practice still to include them.
Don’t go overboard by making too many keywords. Excessive use of keywords just for the purpose of generating signals for the search engines is called “keyword stuffing” and will have a negative on ranking. There are no hard and fast rules for how many keywords you can optimize for on each page. Only one to three keywords or phrases are a good idea.
Here are some general tips for developing a good story:
Here, I am using the term “scanability” to describe how the page scans when someone lightly skims the web page when reading. I’m not talking about making a digital photocopy of your page!
People read web pages differently than other media like books. It is imported to understand how your writing and its layout on the page will best make visible your relevant topics.
Granted, the scanability of a page involves more than just the writer because the way the page is presented to the user is also a product of how the webmaster encodes the page in HTML. However, how the page scans to a reader certainly begins with the writer of the raw text. Keeping scanability in mind when you write your story, it is very important to the success of the resulting web page.
Reading the content of the website is much like reading a newspaper. When typical readers pickup a newspaper to read, they don't start with the first sentence in the upper right-hand corner on the front page and read sequentially all the way through the newspaper to the last sentence on its last page. In other words, you don’t read a newspaper like you do a book. It is not a sequential media; people jump around and read things that catch their attention.
When reading newspapers, readers scan the front page for headlines and subheads that standout and then stop on the headlines that catch their attention. With their attention captured, they read the related article attached to the headline.
Also, it is possible that readers first see an interesting sub-headline for a story on its “jump-page” on page 6, and immediately turn back to the front page to read that story in its entirety. Readers often jump back and forth. Newspapers, by design, are “relational” rather than “sequential.” They are not ready just one story but of many different stories. People jump around and read only those things that catch their attention and interest. Rarely does anyone read an entire newspaper; only those things that they find that engage them.
People read websites much the same way. No matter what page they use to enter the site, they scan the web page for those things that capture their interest. Typically, these people scan for things that easily stand out; like headlines, bullet items, links and navigation aids. In other words, both text and its formatting will enhance the scanability of your web page.
Commonly, visitors to websites might come into the site looking for something specific but find something else in their scan of the page that is entirely different from what they came in to see. Instinctively, website visitors on the lookout for information they are interested in after the fact of landing in the web page. The quick click-in and click-out behavior is typical “web surfing” common to most visitors to a web site.
It is wise to exploit this fact. Make sure all pages can be scanned by providing obvious cues for important information so your visitor can quickly spot them.
Scanability is important for all website visitors, but particularly important for visitors who land in your website from search engine referrals. If your pages scan well, you will capture their attention before they click out to go to another search result. The content on your page only has a few seconds to accomplish the initial capture. A story that has good scanability will not only help the capture visitor initially, but also will hold them for a longer time and increase the visitors’ dwell time of within your story.
Further, upon additional scanning, your newly-captured visitor might click on another one of your pages. Typically, if you can get them to click once, they will click a lot. If you apply this technique to a whole website, your website visitors might stay and ready ten pages or more and come away with a deeper look at your church.
Never approach developing web pages with the assumption that just because you are a church or ministry that what you say is trusted or believed.
Any website, even those of churches and ministries, operates in an environment of low initial trust among visitors, particularly among those visitors who do not belong to your church. After all, we’re talking about the Internet, and your outside visitors don’t know you.
You only have limited opportunities to build trust, but many opportunities to lose it. Never take trust for granted or put your trust in danger by overselling your story with hype or incorrect information.
It is okay to be enthusiastic but don’t be too pushy. Present your story in a way to build trust.
In short, never plagiarize; not even for a little bit of your story!
Plagiarism is not only bad form; it can damage your credibility and the trust your visitors place in your website as a source of information.
With so many sources on the web, copying text from an outside source is a big temptation. There are a lot of good sources on the web. You may sometimes wish that you had said what they said and be tempted to copy. Don’t yield to this temptation!
Please understand that copying open-source material like Wikipedia (and others) is still plagiarism even if copyright isn’t an issue. Copying any third-party source without attribution and proper citation of the source is still plagiarism.
Merriam-Webster.com defines “plagiarize” as “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your words or ideas.” In this example, I copied the Merriam-Webster definition exactly, but I cited the source and put the copied information in quotations. I did not claim the words or ideas as my own. By citing the source, I avoided plagiarism.
Plagiarism can also happen accidentally. Your might copy something into your note, typically a short paragraph from some source and then forget that you copied it. When you start writing your story, you can then copy from your notes and end up plagiarizing the source accidentally. Be careful, even in your notes.
Plagiarism is very easy to avoid. When using any copy of any source material, always accurately cite the source. Citations turn plagiarism into a perfectly valid third party source.
Check with your webmaster about any standards your website has and about the style of citations to be use.
Assemble all of the components of your finished story for submission to your webmaster.
Be sure that you use a good naming convention for all of your various files that you will be sending to your webmaster. What is clear and obvious to you might not be so obvious to an outside third party looking at your files for the first time. Remember, webmasters have to work with lots of files so using clear and intuitive naming convention will be very much appreciated.
Some webmasters may make a file-naming standard for use by the entire web team. If so, be sure to comply with the furnished standard.
Your submission should include all of the various files you make including the main story, metadata and any other files with important information including any photos you are submitting.
If you think submitting your notes and other background information that you didn’t include in your story will help, submit these things too if you wish. Be sure to label the files appropriately. In addition to making a page(s) for your story, often webmasters will also make promotional material like blurbs and paragraphs that appear on other pages in the site. Some of the information in your notes might help making this material.
Also, if your story is very complex with lots of details that need fact checking, your notes might help the fact checker.
On large stories with many files in their submissions, some writers bundle all of their files into a single ZIP file. This technique is used not necessarily to compress the files for faster transmission but to put all of the files into a single ZIP archive to aid logistics by putting all of the files in one place.
Submitting completed assignments by e-mail is pretty much the standard convention although some people pass files in USB drive in physical meetings. Some webmasters setup FTP (file transfer protocol) services on their web servers specifically for the purposes of transferring files among the members of their web teams. Since FTP does not have an upper limit of the size of the file that it can handle, this is particularly effective for the files that are too large to attach to e-mail messages. Also, some webmasters are setting up DropBox services for the same reasons.
Some churches and ministries use advanced content management systems (CMS) for the production, operations and management of their websites. I strongly recommend this approach for all ministries, even small ones. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a provider of a proprietary CMS for churches and ministries. I am naturally biased toward the use of CMS in any website. When CMS are used, each writer and contributor may be given access to the CMS to post their content (text, pictures and metadata) directly into web pages.
Work-in-progress stories are supported by most CMS systems through workflow management processes; stories can be embargoed and not published until you have completed the editorial process. Workflow management allows checking and editing the story privately before it gets published and made available to the public.
CMS-based websites have a major advantage that results from abstracting all of the designs, coding and technical operations from content authors. Authors only have to focus on creating their content and posting their work product into purpose-built form fields (including drag-and-drop or copy-and-paste methods.) When finished entering the content, the author clicks the “Submit” button. Submission triggers sophisticated and automated process that yields a properly formatted web page only awaiting the editorial process. The bifurcation of authoring from the complex coding and formatting of web pages means authors can almost solely focus on the creation process rather than technology ones.
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