Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Websites and Writing: The Have-Nots

Wanna kill your readership? Make a website they hate. OK, well, it's sort of an exaggeration, but not by much. Some train-wreck-gogglers will visit a bad website to see just how ugly it is--and believe me, there are websites devoted to a worst-of-the-worst listing (pray you're never on one)--but most people will avoid such monstrosities. Fear not, for below I will clarify some major items to avoid on your website. Brace yourself, 'cause I've got lots to complain about on these.

1. Too Much Junk - In web design, as in life, people appreciate neatness. Don't add lots of graphics and videos and audio (I prefer no audio, unless you are a musician, which most writers are not. Even then, a smart singer makes the audio optional, and does not force it on the web surfer automatically upon page load). A few classy, well-placed, relevant graphics will do (a page of text-only gets real dull, real fast). Don't clutter your reader up with all that extra junk, because that's what it is: junk. That, and it slows down page load time. The average reader is only going to wait a matter of seconds for your page to load before they go elsewhere. This is the single most important deterrent to a web visitor. FYI, some of us still have dialup.

2. Unreadable - We. Hate. Unreadable websites. Stick to a base font that isn't cutesy, curly, tiny, or enormous. Don't blind us with day-glo colors. Give us painless colors, and high-contrast fonts in two, maybe three sizes for base text, headings, and subheadings. Stick to one or two fonts, and be consistent in where and how you use them from page to page. Don't drive us nuts with a frou-frou background image that makes text impossible to read.

3. Bad Graphics - You may as well have no graphics, if your graphics are choppy, blurry, or overbearing. A bad picture is worse than no picture at all, no matter what they think on eBay. Personally, I hate cutesy graphics, too. Unless you're writing about angels or kittens, please avoid the angels and kittens. Instead of adding pictures just to add pictures, make your graphics count. If they aren't doing a job, they don't belong on your site.

4. Poor Layout - My personal pet peeve is a website that shows obvious lack of attention to layout. Good layout conveys an organized mind. Organized mind equals organized writer, equals someone who knows how to organize a good story. I know. Silly of us to think that. Don't cram your text up against the sides of a window, or against the sides of your graphics. Learn to use margins! Don't throw graphics willy-nilly all around your page. Lay it out so that the most important factors of your website have prominence. We will pay the most attention to things you show us have importance. Check the front page of any decent newspaper, if you don't believe me.

5. Poor Navigation - This is a sub-peeve of poor layout. Give your readers a menu, in the same place on each of your pages, so that we can easily find where we are, and how to get somewhere else.

6. Broken Links/Graphics - Your website should always be updated and sanity checked. Correct or delete broken links. People hate getting excited about finding what they're looking for, and then getting a 404 File Not Found page when they try to click that link. This also goes for graphics that don't appear because the reference to them is incorrect or broken. That red X is just as annoying, so fix it! You want your page to display right - right? Show us you care about us, and keep your site up to date!

7. Scrollbars and Frames - I hate frames. I will, nearly always, leave a website that has frames and internal scrollbars. They make navigation annoying, and sometimes impossible. Sometimes, you get trapped on a page that has frames, even when you hit the Back button on your browser. The only scrollbar I want to see is the one on the right that lets me scroll down a long page. Also, do not (did I mention DO NOT?) make your reader scroll sideways. Many readers still have 800x600 resolution, which means that pretty page you designed in 1024x768 resolution is going to make them scroll sideways to see an extra slice of page on your right margin. When in doubt, make your page layout fluid, so that it adjusts within reason to whatever display resolution your reader chooses. See an HTML/CSS book for details, if that's unclear.

8. Pop-Up Windows - They have their place, but don't abuse them. Most readers don't want a million different windows open at the same time, and if you force a new one every time they click a link, they'll stop a-clickin', and just leave. They're happy to let the browser re-use the same window to get to a different page on your site. Keep these to a minimum, and only where they are most useful. Not sure where that is? Don't use them.

9. Ads (and Sometimes Links) - Thou shalt not ad-plaster, nor allow to be ad-plastered, your website. It's unprofessional. You are a writer. The only thing you should be plugging is yourself. Do you really want an ad for Brylcreem to be flashing at the top of your page? If you do want to plug your pal John Q. Writer, or anything else, do it voluntarily, in your blog, or even a Links page. Just remember, the more links to outside sites you add, the more suggestions you give your reader to leave your website for other pastures. (There is a certain amount of reciprocation among writers, though. When you link to them, they often link to you.)

Next Time: Public Domain and Open Source Info

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