Olde word charm

The ephemeral nature of the Web, and its focus on technology at the expense of the literary, mean online writing will never win many awards, says Jim Davies

I was lucky enough to be judging the Writing for Design category at a creative awards the other week. Giving nothing away, this particular one begins and ends with a ‘D’. Our quarry was laid out on two long white trestle tables stretching out into infinity – the lovingly crafted words and sentences, paragraphs and pages that represented the year’s finest commercial writing. There were books and wedding invitations, cereal packets and Christmas cards, leaflets, letterheads and posters. But something was conspicuous by its absence… there was not a single online entry.

The assembled men of letters (no women, but that’s another story) were nonplussed. The Internet, it almost goes without saying, occupies an ever-increasing part of our lives – feeding us a sea of news and information, getting us together with friends old and new, bringing the shops to our homes. As a writer for design, I find the proportion of online commissions creeps up each year, and yet there was no reflection of this trend here.

But then I thought about it. Would I have entered a website I’d worked on in an awards? Probably not. The problem (or advantage, depending on how you look at it) is that a website or a blog is always a work in progress.

By their very nature, they are constantly being added to and updated. Your finely honed ‘about us’ section and page intros may stay the course, but everything else around them is constantly tampered and tinkered with by people whose writing skills are… of varying ability. You may feel some sense of ownership for the first couple of weeks, but after that, you can barely recognise your own progeny.

In general, websites that do well at awards aren’t ones that are well written. The nicely honed phrase isn’t preferred currency in the online world.

Rather, it tends to be the creative use of the medium that gets rewarded – like Orange’s Balloonacy, in which customers’ balloons race across cyberspace, or HBO’s Voyeur site, a cityscape where you home in behind the net curtains to view different scenarios. They push the possibilities of the technology rather than the wit, wealth and warmth of the words.

And, of course, there’s the old chestnut of whether writing on the Web can ever be as exciting, ambitious or effective as writing for what’s so cuttingly come to be called ‘heritage’ media. OK, you’re usually pushed for space, but then brevity is never a bad idea. However, when you add search engine optimisation and keywords into the mix, the chances of rustling up something tasty diminish exponentially. The whole exercise becomes like doing the crossword, trying to find ingenious ways to squeeze in words where they don’t really have a natural home. Up to a point you can use repetition for emphasis, but the writer’s natural inclination is to find expression with a broad palette of words. Using the same ones over and over implies a lack of vocabulary and imagination.

With a piece of print, there are no such constraints or imperatives. You write as appropriate to the job, not the medium. And once the ink’s hit the paper, that’s it. Your efforts are captured in a moment in time, complete and final – a finished product that stands or falls on the ideas and graft that have gone before. That’s why we’re still waiting for the great online novel. And until that day arrives, I’ll read the book.

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