Content-Writing for Dummies
Content, as I keep repeating, is the heart and soul of any website. Sadly, however, it is also where newbie webmasters often make their greatest fumbles, and thus I have decided to write a little guide for this important aspect of webmastering.
Here I'm not going to be talking about sitely content. Most people get that approximately right, and it's mostly obvious anyway.
Step One: Get an Idea
This is a more important part of the process than you think. Many sites' primary problem is that the webmaster makes a site just to make a site, and then creates flat, uninteresting content seemingly more as an excuse for the site to exist than because they actually have anything to say. Thus, the first rule you should learn is this:
Make a website because there's something in particular you want to put on it, not just because you want to be able to say you have a website.
The same applies to adding sections to an already existing site: make sections because you have an idea for a good section, not because you feel guilty for not updating, look at Serebii.net and decide to make a carbon copy of the first page there you haven't already copied.
The second rule is that this idea you have needs to be something that actually warrants a webpage to itself. With all the zillions of pages out there on the Internet already, you don't get to have a good website unless you have something on it that really draws people in. Most importantly in this regard, if everything you want to put on your site is already on some other site, people have no reason to go to your site; they'll just go to the one that had it all first.
Do not make a website, or add a section to your website, if your idea is...
- "Something like section X on site A."
- No. If it is already on site A, people will go to site A for it. Making a section for your site that is just a carbon copy of something that already exists on another website, especially if that website is bigger and better known than yours, is nothing but a monumental waste of your time. Note that this includes (especially includes) making a Pokédex with information that you painstakingly copied down from Serebii's Pokédex. By definition, this information is already in Serebii's Pokédex, so why would people ever decide to use your Pokédex rather than Serebii's, especially when yours probably only has the first few Pokémon in it yet? (Of course, you should all be going to veekun instead of Serebii, especially since if you really want to make a Pokédex he has his database up for download for free, but for some reason the one that gets copied is usually Serebii.)
- "This section that every Pokémon website should have."
- This is even worse. There are no sections that every Pokémon website should have, save the necessary sitely content. If everybody else seems to have something, it does not mean you are obligated to have it as well; it means there is especially little need for you to have it, since most everyone is sure to have been to at least one site with it already. Again, don't waste your time copying others. This includes pages briefly explaining each generation of Pokémon games.
- "An in-joke between me and my friends/my imaginary friend/my characters."
- Just generally not a good idea. I love in-jokes, and I even find it sort of fun to subtly reference them in my writing, but the key word here is "subtly". The point of in-jokes is that you don't get it unless you're part of the "in", and when you make a website expecting it to be visited by the general public, people will be at best confused and at worst annoyed if there are entire pages dedicated to jokes that mean absolutely nothing to them. If you must reference an in-joke, do it in such a way that somebody who isn't in on it will never know you were referencing anything at all. If your particular in-joke doesn't lend itself to that kind of reference, it's wisest to just resist the temptation.
- "A forum."
- Well, fine, you can have a forum, but forums aren't real content; they're a communication platform, and they can only go with other content. Your site has exactly as little on it after you add a forum as it did before.
- "This fanfic I started the other day."
- More specifically, don't make a special section, much less a whole website, for your fanfic unless you are very, very, very, very, very sure that you won't just get bored with it within a couple of months. Most Pokémon fanfics do not get completed, no matter how awesome their creators think their idea is when they start; unless you are absolutely certain that it's going to get continued and finished, all having your own website or page for it is going to do is hype it up and look silly if you then proceed to abandon it after a few chapters. Most of the value of an incomplete work of fiction lies in its future promise - the assumption that it will get completed one day - and thus, the moment you formally give up on it and acknowledge there won't be any more chapters, it is very rarely of any worth as website content at all. (I've read one fanfic abandoned partway in that is worth every minute even knowing it'll never be finished, but that's a very rare thing.) Don't excitedly put a fanfic on your website until you've been writing it for a while already and have developed the kind of unshatterable resolve that allows you to be certain it will be completed. Until that point, stick to posting it at forums or the like - it's a better venue anyway, since it allows for much greater readership and feedback than sticking it on a personal website.
- "This fangame I have rough plans for that I want to recruit people to help me actually make."
- The sad truth is that there are thousands of Pokémon fangame projects out there, and about half of them want to recruit staff. In order to convince people with real talent to join your project out of all the projects out there, your game needs to really stand out from the crowd. Ways to do that include already having some other visibly talented people working on it and being pretty far along already so that it seems likely to actually get finished one day. If all you have is a basic storyline idea, on the other hand, and you need to recruit people to design the Pokémon, sprite the Pokémon and program the game, your storyline idea had better be something really mindblowing if you expect to generate enough interest to get said talented people to join you, and even then, just a storyline idea for a fangame that doesn't yet exist is not worth making a whole website about; it's just a call for potential contributors. Until you have something to show for it that is of interest to people who won't and would never join the project, keep it to forums.
- "Free splashes/avatars/layouts! Everybody loves free stuff, right?"
- These don't actually get used that much - occasionally, sure, but to build a whole website around free utility graphics is hard because there are so many sites offering it and so few people looking for it. Sites that use the painstakingly made free layouts or splash pages offered at smallish Pokémon websites, for instance, barely even exist - largely because if somebody is making their own site, they usually want to make it their own, not just grab somebody's free layout. If you're into graphic design, you're probably better off making your own graphics your own - i.e. using your own layouts, avatars and so on - rather than giving them out for others to use; meanwhile, if you're into offering free stuff for people, you're better off making more generalized resources that people can take and implement into their own otherwise-original work (e.g. free transparent-background Pokémon artwork that can be used in graphics, free very basic templates for something that are made to be easily personalized, etc.).
- "A contest!"
- Only make competitions of any sort if you have the visitor base to support them. This scales based on the effort required to create a valid contest entry: the more effort, the less the chance each visitor who sees it will actually bother, and thus the fewer entries. Fanfic contests are especially unlikely to generate any real interest, since writing a (good) fanfic generally takes quite a while and is dependent on the writer having a stroke of inspiration at the right time. Leave these alone until you know you have a decently large following. If you in fact already do, of course, go ahead.
Okay, you say, I get it, none of that, but then what does make for good content?
Generally, the key to worthwhile content is to have something unique to your site that makes it worth the bother for people to choose specifically to go to your site rather than any of their current favorite websites. Remember the second bit: just being unique to your site doesn't mean squat if it's not something interesting or useful enough to make people notice it and want more.
Some potentially viable content ideas (with reservations) include...
- "Like section X on site A, except improved in ways K, L and M."
- This differs from the first item of the above list by the intent to improve something. You don't just want to do the same thing that's already on site A; you want to do it better. This is a valid service to the community and does indeed give potential visitors a motive to visit your site instead of site A. For example, my Gen IV Locations and its predecessors were created because I found the simplified presentation of encounter data on other sites frustratingly ambiguous and wanted to make something showing in detail exactly what happens when the various conditions apply, to give the viewer a precise idea of exactly what Pokémon they're going to encounter right now and why. Be careful here, however, to have a specific idea of what's wrong with site A's take on section X and how you're going to fix that; just expecting it to automatically be better when you do it is not a recipe for success.
- "This information I was looking for the other day but couldn't find anywhere."
- One of the very best reasons to create content: to provide something useful that doesn't seem to exist at all at present. This is a very convenient way to get ideas; all you need is to remember to take note of the times when you fail to find what you want on the Internet and then make the effort required to rectify the problem yourself. My evolution list, for instance, was created because I wanted to find all Pokémon evolutions by evolution method (i.e. all the Pokémon that evolve at each particular level, with each particular item and so on), because I was playing Pokémon XD, leveling all my Pokémon equally, and wanted to have a quick overview of which of my Pokémon were close to evolution. Because my search turned up nothing, I went through all 386 (at the time) Pokémon and compiled such a list myself, which I then put on my site so that others who needed something like that for whatever reason might benefit. This only works, however, if you are actually able and willing to put in the time and effort to dig up the information you wanted the hard way.
- "This information that complements the sections I already have."
- Usually, the only good reason to have a section that really is pretty much just like section X on site A is if it would be handy for the people already using your site (they would be using it because you already have some good sections that aren't carbon copies of sections on other sites, of course) to be able to access the information in section X without having to go to a different site for it. For instance, veekun has the best Pokédex on the Internet, and because the sorts of people who are using a Pokédex often have use for an IV calculator, veekun has a legitimate reason to contain one as well, even though it's not necessarily the best stat calculator on the Internet. Don't use this as an excuse to make a bunch of carbon-copy sections, however: this is only for when you make something to complement other sections with a more legitimate reason to exist.
- "This creative effort of mine."
- Awesome, as long as it's not a probably-to-be-abandoned fanfic or a not-yet-existent fangame as explained above. Can be artwork, stories, fake Pokémon, articles, theories - your creative efforts of course don't become less valid purely because other people's websites contain their creative efforts. However, be aware that creative work on a website tends to be a bit hit-and-miss. The more focus your website gives to your creative work, the better or more remarkable it needs to be in order to be able to carry the site - if you have a whole site about your fake Pokémon, people will like it in direct proportion to how much they like the actual fake Pokémon, and you will learn the hard way if your confidence in your Pokémon-designing abilities is misplaced. This applies especially to sprites: if you're going to make your own sprite work a major attraction on your site, it had better be more than just a bunch of ordinary recolors and splices, even if they're mechanically perfect, simply because mechanically perfect (or just about) splices and recolors can be found pretty much everywhere and sadly, people aren't very likely to care about yours in particular enough to start frequenting your site for them.
- "This awesome thing I thought of that's extremely interesting/useful and that I've never seen anywhere else before."
- More power to you! Of course, if you have these regularly, you probably don't need me to tell you how to get good content ideas, so you can just move on to part two already.
Step Two: Write the Content
Here I will not be addressing creative work where putting it on your website doesn't require any significant additional writing (such as artwork or a fanfic). If that is the case, you're done. When it comes to something like articles about fanmade theories, however, while the actual creative work (the theory itself) is presumably fully formed, the article explaining the theory needs to be written, and of course all information needs to be written down somehow. That's where learning to write your content effectively is vital.
Good writing isn't just for fiction. Writing, fundamentally, is simply the art of communicating ideas and concepts from one brain to another through the use of written language, and the same principles apply no matter what these ideas actually are.
In particular, some absolute essentials in writing content for your website that apply equally to all other serious writing in general are...
- Spelling and grammar.
- Unfortunately for everyone who flunked English class, websites are not exempt from the laws of the language, even if it's a Pokémon website you created as a hobby specifically because you hate school, or if you think nobody cares, or if you're eleven years old. Poor spelling and grammar will not only make your visitors dramatically less likely to take you seriously and give an unreliable impression of your information (no matter how unfair that assumption is), but also simply result in your content being annoying and difficult to read. Spellcheck your work, and have someone else proofread it if your own grasp of grammar and punctuation usage isn't stellar. (Hint! The possessive form of "it" is "its", no apostrophe, whereas "it's" always stands for "it is". If this surprises or confuses you, you should probably get a beta-reader.) By the way, a lot of new webmasters have picked up Serebii's extremely annoying habit of capitalizing random words in the middle of sentences. Please don't; capitalize proper nouns (such as the names of characters and regions), most words in titles, and possibly the various Pokémon-related vocabulary that's capitalized in the games, but don't capitalize anything else unless you have a very specific stylistic purpose in mind.
- No unnecessary shorthand.
- Even aside from all general grammatical concerns, gratuitous shorthanding is not to be used in serious writing. You have plenty of time to write your content, and at least certainly time enough to type out full words. Shorthand that isn't appropriate for website content includes chatspeak (u, 2, etc. instead of "you", "to", etc.), random ampersands (&) instead of "and", writing "OK" rather than "okay", and (take note of this part) writing small quantities with digits. Diamond and Pearl are two games, not 2; the trainers you face before the champion are called the Elite Four, not Elite 4; and trainers carry six Pokémon, not 6. Digits are okay when you're dealing with numbers as symbols or variables rather than quantities per se (for example, when referring to a Pokémon's level, Pokédex number or stats), when the digits are explicitly part of a name (so Route 22 rather than Route Twenty-Two) or when it's a relatively large number. Depending on who you ask, digits are okay for numbers over ten or over one hundred. Personally I lean more towards ten in nonfiction writing, but it's largely a matter of taste.
- No extravagant punctuation.
- Exclamation marks are for placing a very special emphasis on a sentence, not for tacking onto every other one. As a general rule, all your sentences should end in a period (or a question mark, if they're questions). There are occasional exceptions - primarily, like character dialogue is exempt from this rule in fiction-writing provided the line is actually being exclaimed, you can relax on this guideline when you take on a less formal, more personal tone, such as in your updates or other places where you briefly speak directly to the reader and need to emphasize something important (e.g. "Remember not to save at this point in the Mew trick!"), or when you are in fact quoting exclaimed dialogue. Similar principles apply to text smilies: it's okay to use them very sparingly when writing in a personal tone, but throwing them around in every other sentence or in semi-formal writing is a no-no. Finally, don't repeat punctuation marks. An ellipsis is exactly three periods (by the way, some people - me included - go through a phase of ending half of their sentences in ellipses; in retrospect it just gives a disturbing impression that you're high, so I recommend you try to avoid it), and outside of that, never have two of the same punctuation mark in a row: no matter how much you want to shout, ending a sentence in "!!" or "????" will just make you sound overexcited and immature.
- Use paragraphing.
- Remember the
pelement? (If you don't, you should learn proper HTML.) If that isn't your most frequently used element during a typical session of content-writing, you're probably doing it wrong; paragraphing is essential to organize your text and make it easy to read. Roughly, each paragraph concerns one particular subject and usually contains several sentences on that subject, with a logical connection bridging the subjects of adjacent paragraphs. To make an example of a texty page on this site, my Legend of Thunder review's first paragraph is about how usually (but not now) my reviews start with a note about using English names despite watching the movie in Japanese; the next paragraph details the reasons why this is usually so; the third explains why these reasons don't apply to this particular special; and the fourth explains what I am going to use in the way of naming conventions. You can hopefully see the logical progression between these topics.
- Don't repeat yourself.
- If you have already said something, you don't need to say it again. This is of course not to say you can't ever bring up anything you've brought up before: primarily, it's perfectly fine to briefly mention something and explain it in more detail later when that seems necessary, or to remind the reader of something you said a while before to reemphasize it or make it easier to understand what comes later. Just don't explain the same thing in detail multiple times.
Finally, some extra principles that apply particularly to writing informative content:
- Be consistent.
- When formatting information, consistency is important. Decide how you're going to do it when you start and then make sure to stick with it exactly to the end. Inconsistency is unprofessional, messy and often confusing. Plus, if your reader has any obsessive-compulsive tendencies at all, it will drive them nuts.
- Be specific.
- It happens all too often that informative sections on smaller sites are terribly vague about their information, even when there is no reason to be. For instance, I've lost count of all the fansites that proclaim the number of new Pokémon in a particular generation to be "over 100". It's not "over 100"; it's exactly 100/135/107/156, and since the exact number is well known, there is no excuse for choosing the vague figure instead. All relevant information should be given in the most specific terms possible, by which I mean "the most specific terms available to the best of the collective fandom's knowledge", not "the most specific terms that pop up in your head when you're writing the page". If there are exact figures and you don't know or remember them, look them up. People who don't need the specifics won't be hurt if they're there, but it is endlessly annoying when one actually is trying to find specifics to find only site after site with the same vague "this has a chance to..." or "this boosts your..."
- Be unambiguous.
- Sometimes when you don't really know what you're talking about, it's tempting to just phrase things in a vague enough way to allow two possible interpretations. Sometimes you just word things clumsily by accident. But either way the end result can have a similar problem to the above: people often want to know details, and then it is only frustrating when the websites they find are all phrased in an ambiguous way. If all the information you can find is similarly ambiguous, it is often simple enough to test that you can just do it yourself (such as if it concerns the effects of a move or something of the like). When it isn't, it is probably more helpful to note the ambiguity and ask for information if anyone else has it than to just leave it worded unclearly.
- Be complete.
- Making a section about honey trees? Well, it's going to be mighty useless if you just list the Pokémon that can be found in the trees. Why? Because there is a hell of a lot more to it than that. If your information is grievously incomplete - technically correct and relevant, but only includes a fraction of what the kind of person reading the section would want or need to know about the subject - you will only frustrate the reader, and if they own a website, you will be a prime candidate for a site A whose section X they want to improve in ways K, L and M.
- Be right.
- This really, really ought to go without saying, but unfortunately it seems it doesn't - often when I reply to affiliation or site rating requests, half of my reply is just correcting all the incorrect or misleading information on the site. This is of course more egregious the more fundamental that information is - sure, I get why you'd think the Dusk Ball has a 4x catch rate at night and in caves (it's 3.5) because that's what all the sites used to say, but there is really no excuse for having a type chart on your site if you merrily list Fighting as resistant to Grass and Bug as super effective on Ghost. If you don't know exactly what you're talking about, don't make a section about it - or, better, go find out and then make a section about it. And, by the way, the "finding out" bit should either involve your own research (meaning to find out something about the games, you personally try it on an actual game) or more reliable fansites than Serebii.net, which is so frequently wrong that you should honestly take everything on it with a grain of salt unless confirmed elsewhere. To point you in the general direction of a more reliable source, Smogon is for instance pretty much universally accurate for anything related to battling, such as the effects of moves, abilities and items, formulas and battle/stat mechanics, since they have been making an admirable effort at doing actual research on actual games to confirm how things really work.
So how do you go about writing your page while applying all these principles?
Step 2-1: Know Your Stuff
I may have listed it last in the guidelines, but making sure your information is correct is the first thing you should do - otherwise you might just end up having to rewrite it later when you find out you've been wrong all along. If your section idea involves any factual information whatsoever, either by being intended to explain it or depending on it (e.g. a theory about the "real-life" basis for some game mechanic depends on the facts of how that game mechanic works), double-check that you have it right before you write anything. Everything I said above about reliable sources and so on still applies. Basically, do your research until you are absolutely confident that you know exactly how it works. In particular, if it's some complex game mechanic, don't try to make a section about it if anything about it still strikes you as confusing, because if you're confused about it, it's likely you're missing something vital or have some fundamental fact wrong, and that would show in your section.
Step 2-2: Know Your Audience
So now you know everything, but how much are you going to assume your audience knows prior to reading your section? This is a very important question to consider before you start writing, because sections containing perfectly good information can turn out heartbreakingly useless if they're just a little confused about their audience.
Usually, articles aiming specifically to explain some concept X should assume the reader has virtually no prior knowledge of concept X. However, what background knowledge you assume is an important question to consider. On this site, for instance, I usually assume that my reader knows all the Pokémon, the main series Pokémon games and which games were in which generation, and is pretty familiar with the mechanics of the games. The stat mechanics and battle mechanics pages, however, since they aim to explain stat/battle mechanics, assume considerably less prior knowledge, and the Battling Basics section, since it's explaining basic battling concepts, doesn't assume the reader has necessarily even played a Pokémon game before. Generally I wouldn't recommend writing most of your sections to be at quite that basic a level; it's better to assume by default that people going to your Pokémon website have probably played the games. However, when you're explaining something like game mechanics, it won't do to assume the reader already knows much more than what they'd be expected to intuit purely from casually playing the games, because somebody looking to learn about game mechanics probably doesn't know a lot about them thus far. Assuming too much prior knowledge may leave awfully few people who know enough to follow the explanation but still little enough to have any use for an explanation to begin with.
Meanwhile, more technical sections, tackling specific, less commonly known subjects, can get away with assuming a lot more. If you're doing a competitive analysis of a Pokémon, you don't need to explain what STAB is or what Thunder Wave does; if somebody's reading competitive analyses, it's a pretty safe bet they know this stuff, and if they don't they should find a more general explanation before reading specific stuff like analyses.
Other kinds of sections warrant different expected audiences; you need to apply some judgement. The most important thing is to realize exactly what assumptions you're making about the audience and keep them consistent in your mind throughout. Your assumptions also need to make internal sense: if you're explaining IVs (and thus assuming the reader doesn't already know about them), you can't at the same time invisibly assume that they know all about EVs. Finally, you have to keep in mind what your expected reader wants to know or understand or accomplish by reading your section, and try to be sure that this goal is indeed accomplished by your page.
Step 2-3: Choose Your Approach
How are you going to approach the subject? This especially requires some thought if you're trying to improve on section X on site A, because frequently the approach is the main area where it can be improved. When it comes to straightforward information, it's mostly a matter of presentation; sometimes the most useful presentation of some information is obvious (for instance, listing Gym leaders in the order in which they appear in the game), while other times it's not so obvious, or the obvious presentation isn't necessarily the most useful in every situation (as was the case with my evolution list). In any case, decide exactly how you're going to present it and then stick with that: remember the consistency principle.
For more text-heavy pages, you'll want to decide where to start and generally in what order to tackle the subject. This should be chosen on the basis of what parts of your page depend on others: the more basic stuff should usually come first, with the more intricate parts (if any) coming after whatever the reader needs to understand first. Occasionally this results in a sort of circular referencing or clashes with the next thing to take into consideration, namely to group the text logically into subsections if necessary, and then it's a matter of taste and individual judgement how best to resolve each case while maintaining the greatest amount of clarity. For instance, in my stat mechanics section, I chose to start with the formula before explaining all the factors in depth and then return to actual calculations from the formula. This is because even though the formula isn't very meaningful without knowing what all the factors in it are and the logical grouping of calculations with the actual formula is sacrificed, I feel the explanation would seem a lot more jumbled and aimless if I went through explaining all those concepts first and only afterwards explained exactly why and how they matter, while including the calculations immediately would make them meaningless since the numbers being inserted into the formula haven't been explained.
Step 2-4: Write!
Time to start typing up your page. Of course, if you're a little impatient and disorganized like me, you cheated and started typing sometime during the last three steps, and that's okay, as long as it doesn't interfere with the carrying out of those steps - don't be afraid of mercilessly starting from scratch if you suddenly realize you're approaching the subject from the wrong angle. In any case, now you should be confident that you know what you're talking about, who you expect to be reading it and how you're going to make your content accessible to them, so by this point the actual writing is a fairly straightforward process.
While you write, try to keep all of the above guidelines in mind. In particular, write for your audience: explain everything you can't very reasonably expect all your readers to know beforehand. Of course, if you briefly bring up technical subjects that are only tangentially related to the actual topic of the section, it would be silly to waste time explaining them in detail even if you don't expect your audience to know it already. If you have a good explanation handy (either your own or on some other site) it would, however, be useful to link to it when you mention it, and for the benefit of the reader, you should always quickly recap the bits that are relevant to your section if it's something the reader won't necessarily know.
Once you've written the whole page, you're not done. It is often best at this point to leave your page alone for a few hours, however, since when you've just been writing it, the page will feel familiar in your mind and mistakes will be more likely to slip through than if you take a little break to let it bury itself a little deeper in your memory.
Step 2-5: Proofread
This step is at least as important as the previous four, so don't underestimate it. Return to your page, look at it properly in a browser and give it a thorough read-over, fixing mistakes, reconsidering confusing sentences and so on.
As you read, keep asking yourself, if I knew nothing but the minimum of what my audience can be assumed to know beforehand, would I understand and be able to follow this? You'd be surprised by the number of Pokémon websites on which the answer for most of the pages is a flat no. If you've been writing carefully for your audience, you should get through okay, but it's still good to keep it in mind when proofreading. If you have a hard time discerning what you would understand if you knew much less than you actually do, try getting somebody who actually doesn't know anything to read over it and tell you if something confuses them.
If you need a beta-reader for spelling/grammar issues, get them in at this point.
Step 2-6: Now You're Done
Go put your section up on your site and feel accomplished!
Page last modified February 22 2013 at 02:26 GMT