Elements of Quality Writing for the Web, Part 4: What Shakespeare Can Teach Us about Web Writing
You may think that Elizabethan theater is about as far removed from the Internet as you can get, but Shakespeare shared one important problem with the modern web writer. In Elizabethan England, everyone came to the theater. The audience for one of Shakespeare's plays would include practically all levels of society from the uneducated masses to the nobility. Even Queen Elizabeth I herself enjoyed the plays, though she generally commissioned private performances. In fact, some estimate that as much as a third of the population of London went to the theater every week. That's not quite the same as the estimated 55% of Americans that use the Internet every day, but it's enough to guarantee you have basically the same problem: how to write content for an audience that includes the literate and illiterate, the cultured and the crass, the engaged and the bored?
Shakespeare came up with a number of strategies for engaging his diverse audience, and it would be unwise to dismiss them. Although we currently think of him as high culture and suitable only for reading in school, Shakespeare was considered by his contemporaries and near-contemporaries as a writer for the people. The editors of the First Folio of his work, published seven years after his death, addressed their dedication, "To the Great Variety of Readers." John Dryden, writing about 50 years after Shakespeare's death in his "Essay of Dramatick Poesie," described him as the poet with "the largest and most comprehensive soul." In response to criticism that Shakespeare was uneducated, Dryden replied, "he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature; he look'd inwards and found her there." And despite his lack of education, we know he had patrons among the highest levels of society, including Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. So what were Shakespeare's strategies, and how can we employ them?
Don't Write to the "Average" Reader
I know this seems counterintuitive, but writing to the average reader is exactly what you don't want to do. If you have a large and diverse audience, the "average" reader is nothing but a statistical artifact. When you are writing to the average reader, you are essentially writing to nobody. What I'm saying is clearer if you think of it this way: how many households do you know with 2.59 children?
We often talk about the average reader on the Internet as reading at the 8th grade level, but the truth is that most of them read somewhere significantly above or below that mark. About 43% of web readers have low literacy, well below the 8th grade reading level, and these readers have very different reading behaviors than more literate web readers, and trying to use the same strategies for both types of readers can lead to missing them entirely. The average reader is a useful reference point, but instead of writing to the reference point, you should think of the people who are actually in your audience, and write to them.
Use Variable Diction and Structure
By most standards, consistency is a hallmark of quality writing, but when you're writing for a diverse audience, it's important to vary it up considerably. Shakespeare knew this, and that's why his characters speak with such diverse voices: houseservants, porters, laborers all show up in Shakespeare's plays, speaking a coarse and unrefined English that was very accessible to much of his audience. These were often used comedically, but they serve the purpose of engaging parts of the audience that might not otherwise have been reached.
In a similar way, web content should be diverse in its diction. It should have parts that are written at a 6th grade level and parts that are written at a 10th grade level. Because of the way low-literacy readers tend to "plow" through content rather than scanning, it's crucial that most every page begin with a low-literacy targeted summary that uses simple sentences and diction to target these readers, giving them the basic information they need in an actionable context. After this point, the diction and syntax can become more sophisticated to target both more advanced readers and search engines.
Flag Your Content
Elizabethan theaters would advertise their plays by putting up flags on the day of the performance. The flags were color-coded by content type so people knew whether they were going to see a tragedy, comedy, or history, and make decisions about which theater they wanted to go to accordingly.
We are aided in this by search engines, which will help users find the content they're looking for, but it's important that optimization and writing match to properly target the right readers for your content. People searching car wreck, car accident, and motor vehicle accident are likely readers at different levels, and the content on a lawyer's website that is optimized for these terms should be written accordingly. The contrast is even more striking for searchers of boob job, breast implant, and breast augmentation, making it hard to write a single level of content for plastic surgeons. Instead, pages will be very different in writing. Some pages may be entirely targeted at low-level readers, while others completely at higher-level readers or those who are interested in conducting research.
Managing the "Quality Content Paradox"
One of the problems that comes up frequently when Google talks about what it wants from quality content is the disparity between search engines' demand for longer pages, more authoritative content, and the like, while many web users want short pages that are simple and easy-to-read. Using these Shakespearean tools, we can manage the paradox. By properly organizing content and writing inhomogeneously, it's possible to give both audiences what they want. If search engines are doing their job, users will find the right level of content they're looking for, as long as we make sure there's something written specifically for them.
If this be error and upon me proved
I never writ nor no man ever loved.