U3A Site Builder: Writing for the Web

U3A Site Builder: Writing for the Web

Even a small web site can act as a useful "shop-window" and notice-board for a U3A, supplementing other forms of publicity and communication. But, as with any form of writing, producing content for a web site requires one to think about its potential readers. It is different from writing, say, a U3A newsletter, for several reasons.

Reading from the Screen

Research has shown that it is more difficult to read from a screen than from paper. Usually less of the text is immediately visible, so readers must use the scroll bar to see it all, and are more easily distracted by other elements on the page, like menus and links. The standard advice to writers is to keep it simple, split long stretches of text into short paragraphs, and use headings and lists to clarify its structure. To that end, the U3A Site Builder provides some simple formatting options, built-in facilities for creating and displaying lists of study groups and forthcoming events, which readers can scan through easily.

Differences in User Requirements

When you print and distribute a paper document, you know that everyone who receives it will see it in exactly the same form. That is not the case on the Web. Your readers will be running different hardware and software (in particular screens of different sizes and resolutions), and may choose different fonts and style options to suit their own eyesight and other preferences. Current web browsers are flexible enough to deal with differences of this kind, so do not worry if you cannot control every aspect of the site's appearance on your own screen — concentrate on providing content with a clear structure and it will still be readable in a wide variety of different contexts, even if it does not always look exactly the same!

The Time Dimension

A paper document like a newsletter is printed once and circulated at a particular time. Its readers know that eventually it will be superseded by a complete new issue. By contrast a web site is a permanent fixture which can be viewed at any time, and which should therefore always look reasonably up to date. Advertising events which took place several months or years ago does not inspire confidence! So it is necessary to distinguish between general descriptive content likely to be valid over a long time, and more specific date-dependent information.

To support that distinction, the U3A Site Builder allows dates to be attached to notices, events and links, and will display publicly only those with a date in the future. Making use of this feature will help you to keep your site looking up-to-date with less effort, and is strongly recommended.

Security: Naming Names

The circulation of a paper newsletter is probably limited to current and potential U3A members, many of them known personally to its writers. So it is common to include references to individuals, along with telephone numbers and addresses. In principle, a web site can be seen by anybody, so it is appropriate to adopt a slightly more impersonal (though still friendly) tone, and to exercise caution with respect to personal identification. It is clear that some U3As are happy to publish names and telephone numbers of committee members and group leaders on the Web, while others have a more conservative policy.

Nevertheless, a U3A web site for actual and potential members should display some means for readers to get in touch. The U3A Site Builder creates a "Contact" page on which you may say how to get in touch, by post, telephone and e-mail. It is your decision what details to show, and whether to use real names or role-names like "Membership Secretary". Obviously the permission of anyone whose details are published in this way should be sought beforehand.

Unfortunately, putting e-mail addresses on web sites can lead to an increase in "spam": automatically-generated junk mail. So avoid entering email addresses in plain text — instead register them on the site using the "Add email" option. Visitors will then be presented with an online form to enter a message, which is then automatically sent to the nominated contact address via the web server.