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Book reviews

Writing for the Web and
Writing for the Web, Geeks' Edition, Crawford Kilian

Writing for the Web, Self-Counsel Press, 1999, ISBN 1551802074

Writing for the Web, Geeks' Edition, Self-Counsel Press, 2000, ISBN 1551803038

Reviewed by Jean Weber

These books are good companions to Yale University's Web Style Guide, because they focus on writing style. They are written as study guides, so would serve nicely in a writing course, for in-house training of junior technical writers, or as self-study for anyone making the switch into writing for the Web.

The two books differ in the level of detail. The first edition was primarily for people with good writing skills and often some technical skills, but little or no experience writing for the Web, which requires changes in many writers' style. (Many aspects of Web writing - chunking, lists and headings, for example - are more familiar to technical writers than they are to other writers.)

The intended audience for the Geeks' Edition includes "technically skilled people who design websites, but who also have the job of writing content. With relatively little writing experience, these people face a real challenge - especially if their bosses think that "content development" means uploading news releases and annual reports, and nothing more." Another audience includes "content developers who write in English learned as a second or third language." The Geeks' Edition includes more examples and a "Webwriter's Style Guide" but is otherwise much the same as the original edition. If you've got the first edition, you probably don't need the Geeks' Edition, unless you are teaching novice writers; in that case it's probably a good investment.

Kilian emphasises (in Chapter 1) the need for reader-centred sites and (in Chapter 2) discusses structuring a website (including chunking and scrolling) and introduces the "three principles" of web text: orientation, information and action. Chapter 3 covers these principles in more detail: orientation includes navigation cues and how to write headlines; information includes audience analysis, organising material, and using bulleted lists; and action involves two-way (interactive) communication.

Chapter 4 addresses specific writing issues. Many of the principles covered are (or should be) well known to technical writers, but writers from other backgrounds (and inexperienced writers) may be less familiar with them; for example, using active voice, simple sentences and strong verbs, and avoiding common writing errors.

Chapter 5 covers editing, including cutting out extra words and editing for international audiences.

Chapter 6 looks at corporate web writing, including some of the political issues involved, and how to handle some types of material such as mission statements, policies and archives.

Chapter 7 covers personal pages, resumes, and self-marketing, including the use of personal websites as portfolios. Questions on those issues come up frequently on the technical writers' list and others, so they're clearly appropriate for this type of book.

Chapter 8 looks further at advocacy and marketing on the web: elements of persuasion, constructing persuasive web text, and what's a legitimate appeal and what isn't (logical fallacies).

Chapter 9 asweres frequently asked questions and includes numerous references to useful websites, at least one of which is already out of date.

Several chapters include case studies (rewriting an existing website) and practical writing exercises. Appendix 1 presents the answers to the writing exercises.

Appendix 2 is an abridged version of Gareth Rees' Hypertext Style Guide, which is no longer available on the web; this material is intended to supplement the CERN Style Guide. It covers presenting coherent articles as a whole (part of the long pages versus short pages debate) and making sure the deep structure of a site is accessible to readers.

There is a useful glossary but no index.

Overall I think this volume is a useful addition to the bookshelf of inexperienced web writers and editors, anyone who teaches or trains writers, or anyone who consults or negotiates with clients or non-writer team members over the content of a website.