This article covers some technical and formatting aspects of presenting your content online to make it easier to digest and more appealing for your visitors.
When writing on your own website, one of the most important starting points is considering how your text will work in the context of the page. It sounds obvious, but the layout and look of the page will affect a) whether people read and browse or just leave and b) how they choose to take your words. If you have garish colours and tiny text, they may well leave. If your page is littered with inappropriate or broken images and lots of errors, they may not take you seriously and it definitely won’t look professional. This is more of an issue on large sites, particularly when there is one than one person making changes, and potentially on heavily interactional sites such as forums where content is generally not as controlled.
However, balance is a two-way concept. You can have the best coded, human friendly, colour-balanced website in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to necessarily be of interest to your visitors. Bland sites that lack imagination and creativity are not going to capture attention instantly, so you’d better hope that your visitor is more interested in the first impressions of your writing or content! Of course, this may be something to aim for if you want the focus to only be on your writing itself, but be aware you’re in danger of alienating people. Changing your site’s layout and colours is also a good way to say ‘Hi! Look at me! I’ve done something new with my website! Why not have a look around and see what else is new??’ It’s easy to get complacent and stick with the safety net of what’s already working, only occasionally changing the banner, but it’s important to show forward thinking and a different skill set. Not only are you creative as a writer, you’re creative as a visual artist. It’s just a case of developing your skills and experimenting.
One problem with formatting websites in terms of text is that people have completely different ideas of what they like to see, and you have to resign yourself to the fact that you aren’t going to please everyone no matter what you do. Bob may like strict, valid XHTML, minimal images and easy-to-read text, whereas Betty may swoon over a beautiful Flash banner and cute little icons. Whichever way you prefer to aim your site, as long as you are satisfied and it is physically user-friendly, it shouldn’t really be an issue as long as you are willing to accept criticism.
Paragraph length depends on what you’re writing about, what linked points you’re making, and how you want to use the space. If your paragraphs are shorter, people are more likely to read them, but you also risk losing a sense of continuity. Line lengths are another general rule; humans tend to like reading up to about 12-14 words on a line – any more than that and it usually becomes an awkward process (try reading a line of 20-25 words to see why). It might sound a lot to take on, but generally it’s mostly common sense that you probably do subconsciously anyway.
Finally, make use of your screen space. Again, it’s a matter of preference, but generally anything you do that makes your website easier to read will make your writing more successful. It’s easy to get carried away with design and do something impractical such as make a tiny text column that only has space across it for a handful of words. This is especially bad if the rest of the page is just blank space, as everything above the ‘fold’ (the part of the page you can see without scrolling down) should be geared towards getting your visitor to stay. Additionally, you will get visitors using widescreen monitors and laptops, and it will look absolutely tiny to them. It’s probably viewable, but it doesn’t make for an easy reading experience. And this is what web visitors want – convenience. If they are looking for something and can’t find it in three clicks, they’ll probably be gone. If they have to scroll for ten seconds to get to your text or continue scrolling every couple of seconds because your line lengths are really short, they’ll probably be gone.
Making Space Work for You
Alternatively, you may be in the less favourable position of only having control over content, either because this is your area of responsibility or because you are using a template based site or free hosted blog or similar. In this case, you have the slightly tougher challenge of making whatever space you’re presented with work for you. You may have a brief to stick to, you may have simple text and image options, or you may have nothing at all. The key thing to remember is consistency in style and formatting for easy readability. Of course, that’s not to say you can’t deviate and make a change for impact or to hold your reader’s attention, but, for example, you probably won’t want to randomly capitalise all your text for no apparent reason. Keeping your line lengths at 10-12 words or so and creating concise paragraphs will make your readers feel more comfortable.
Having limited control of the layout and imaging surrounding your text can be incredibly frustrating, and if you can, have a search around to see if you can teach yourself anything about customisation or web design, or talk to the person/people in charge of it if you really feel something’s not working. It’s not the end of the world if your text has to stay on its neutral background and consistent colours, and if it’s in a commercial setting, it’s probably like that for a reason!
The background to your text is the thing people will initially focus on and analyse in a nanosecond to reach the conclusion of how they feel about it. On the web more than anywhere, first impressions count and you only get one chance! Make sure your styling is neat so your website can balance adequately between creative flair and usability as the perfect setting to your text.