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How Writing for the Web Is Different, and How It Isn’t

There’s no shortage of advice on how to write for the Web. People don’t read – they only skim. You have to write short. You should use lots of bullets. Make lists – but not long lists, because people don’t read. (Here’s a typical example — in list form, of course.)

Take stuff like this with a boulder of salt. Such well-meaning advice oversimplifies our craft, and makes the mistake of assuming Web readers are all alike.

I started thinking about this in earnest last summer, when I read a Jim Romensko post including two takes on long-form journalism that seemed hopelessly contradictory. In this video, Josh Tyrangiel, managing editor of Time.com, said that “long-form journalism online, much as I wish it were thriving, is not.” In this chat, Gerald Marzorati, editor of the New York Times Magazine, said that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic.”

Huh?

Actually they were both right. They serve very different audiences, and what works for one would fall flat for the other.

Tyrangiel’s default reader is at work in the middle of the day, and Tyrangiel’s goal is “to make people smarter by saving them time.” It would be hard to get those readers to settle in for 10,000 words about Haiti. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to be reading on Friday night or the weekend, and are familiar with and receptive to the Times magazine’s unhurried examinations of things. Bulleted lists would feel like thin gruel to them.

Long-form sportswriting doesn’t work online? Read this Tommy Craggs evisceration of Joe Morgan and tell me that. Or David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer. Or ESPN’s Eric Adelson on The ChaseOr this famous piece that predates the Web by more than a generation.

These pieces kill online– in the right setting and for the right readers. Understanding that context and fitting the writing to it is a job for both the sportswriter and his or her editor.

First, what kind of story are you writing? A profile of a retiring athlete or an investigative piece about steroids probably won’t work as a list. A primer on how to figure out VORP or UZR will probably be deadly as an extended narrative.

Second, who are your typical readers? Are they impatient scanners for fantasy-sports tips, or people who love to reflect on the deeper meaning of sports? Generally speaking, the audience is more important than the medium.

Now, let’s get back to the gurus. Are there ways in which writing for a Web audience is different than writing for a print one? Yes, there are – but it’s a short list, and the principles aren’t too hard to swallow.

1. People Are Busy. This is what motivates all the fear of writing long, and with good reason. Your Web reader is not settled in an armchair or lingering over breakfast, but a mouse click away from looking at one of thousands of other sites clamoring for his or her attention. (It will be interesting to see if the iPad changes this – we’ll talk in a year or so.) Grab the reader by the throat, and don’t let go.

But this was good advice in the days of cuneiform. The dirty secret of long-form journalism is that most of it doesn’t work in any medium. The difference is online you can watch page views erode as the page numbers rise, while in print you probably have no idea anything’s wrong. That has less to do with the Web than it does with the ability to measure readership. Long form will always be risky. Make sure it serves the subject and you can deliver on it.

2. Show Your Work. Online you have two jobs – to entertain the reader, and to be a guide pointing the reader to other good stuff they ought to read. If you’re writing a column in response to someone else’s argument, you owe it to the reader (and your adversary) to link to that argument. If you’re writing about a player’s rant that was caught on video, embed the video or link to it. If you’ve found a great sabermetrics primer, point the way.

Linking to something is not a sign of approval, though the reader should never feel blindsided or misled by what they find when they follow a link. If there’s profanity or something worse on the other side of that link, warn the reader but trust them to make an adult decision. And you should absolutely link to your rivals’ good stuff if it’s helping drive the news or debate – you’ll build trust for yourself and your organization by acknowledging their work.

3. Think Topics. I wouldn’t call this one an iron-clad rule, but it’s still a very good idea: Think about how an article will be passed around through social media and discovered days or months later through search. Ask yourself if it would work better for all concerned as a package of pieces than as a single article that covers a lot of ground.

Those individual items will look more impressive as a package of links on a front page or section page. They’ll serve readers better by letting them zero in on specifics now or much later. And they’ll serve you better as a writer by letting you stretch out – what might feel like a digression within a single article could work well as a sidebar that’s its own link. For examples, think of a sport’s season preview, or an appreciation of Ted Williams that pauses to marvel at his gifts as a pilot and fisherman.

That’s it. Three things — two iron-clad rules and one format to strongly consider. And a reminder to always think of the audience.

(Thanks to Dan Shanoff for reactions, counterarguments and wise counsel.)

Jason Fry is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing (www.faithandfearinflushing.com), and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom (www.reinventingthenewsroom.com). Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.
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