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Writing for the Web transforms our old ideas of audience, structure, and style. When we immerse ourselves in the Internet, we see concepts that we have inherited from years of writing on paper begin to dissolve.

On the Web, for instance, the audience is no longer just a passive recipient of documents that we publish. Instead, in many cases, the audience starts the communication, asking pointed questions, lodging lengthy complaints, bugging us for a response. We can no longer think of ourselves as “authors.” We are instead participants in a conversation, swapping ideas across the Net, exchanging e-mail, Web pages, discussion postings with these other folks, many of whom have better ideas, more experience, and deeper wisdom than we do. What a comedown! And how much more fun! Our relationship becomes more sociable.

In a blitz of flames, rants, and instant messages, this new, active audience suggests topics to discuss, problems to resolve, and entertainment they would like to experience. They are guiding the conversation. And, in response, we can no longer simply dish out entire documents, with the answers buried in there somewhere. Sometimes the answer to a particular question lies in one paragraph—and that is all the person wants to read.

So we are beginning to abandon whole documents, turning our attention to the components that make up those documents—the informative objects within. Responding to the demand for pinpoint information while producing content in an object-oriented environment, we must write carefully following a standard organization, so that the software can skim right to the relevant objects, displaying them and manipulating them at the command of the user. We are learning to think structurally as we write.

And the way that our text appears on the computer screen constrains the way people perceive, use, interpret, understand, and recall whatever we write. Because the screen resolution is so much worse than that of a printed page, our Web text is harder to read, more difficult to grasp as a whole, and more blurry in memory. Visitors to our sites resist reading to the last moment, using text to navigate, postponing actual reading as long as possible; and when they do settle down to read, they often ask for short chunks of prose—abrupt talk. To move our ideas through this medium, adapting to the situation in which our text will appear, we adopt a tighter, tougher, and smarter tone. Web style grows naturally out of the electronic medium we use for this extended conversation.

Our aim is to help you write Web text that works for your guests. We want a visitor to your site to send you e-mail describing your text in terms like these:

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