The pros and cons of Web writing.

Anyone who ever wanted a public soapbox knows that the Web is a huge temptation. But with the appeal of a (potentially) global audience comes the anxiety… am I interesting enough? Because on the Web, if no one browses you, you barely exist.

The most interesting and compelling home pages have some original, creative work of some kind–a slice of life from the writer’s world. But pages like that aren’t easy!


First off is the technical aspects. How do I write my pages? Do I need colored buttons? I have to count how many people have read my page, right? You can spend an infinite amount of time learning how to tweak your pages, but none of that knowledge will help you actually get something original up. If you are an HTML whiz, that’s cool, but what else do you do well or care about?

Next is the old cold-feet syndrome. What if I write it and everyone laughs? Or no one comes at all? Well, then, the hell with them. If what you are creating isn’t satisfying for its own sake, then you are risking big depression if you have a small audience. Let the authoring be the reward, not the fan mail. And besides, if you put something of yourself up there, people will notice… it’s still not that common on the Web.

Then there’s discretion. What if someone sees my page who I don’t want to see it? There are two kinds of someones: people who don’t want to see any of that sort of material (use disclaimer pages to deal with them), and people who know you and would be surprised and/or repulsed by your pages. Should you worry about those people? If what you want to say could get you fired or divorced, probably. Otherwise, the cardinal rule of the Net applies to them: they shouldn’t read it if they don’t want to know about it. Just keep your personal writings in your personal pages, and your explicit writings clearly labeled, and let your readers take responsibility for themselves.

Of course, there is so much netsurfing to be done, there’s hardly any time to write your own pages… and after all, everyone already has pages, so what’s the point? What could I have to say that’s new? This one stopped me cold for years. But in the end, almost everything has been said before anyway. If you believe in it, say it again, yourself, and talk about why you believe it.

Once you’ve started, and you realize how many possibilities there are, you can get stalled… there’s so much to do, how can I ever make progress? The simple answer is to do a little bit, put it up on the Web, and then do more when you next have time. The nice thing about Web publishing is you can publish new editions instantly! And who knows? A page that is three paragraphs today could someday become a book….

Finally, of course, is the cobweb problem. The Web is stacked with home pages which were last touched months ago and whose links are slowly fraying. How can anyone make the time to do this home page stuff? Well, how important is it to you to express yourself creatively? A couple of hours a week, or perhaps even less, can be enough to keep your site alive. (Just do one thing: remove the “Under Construction” notices. Of COURSE it’s under construction. The whole Web is under construction! I made this mistake, and for two months had a lame little “More cool stuff coming real soon, I promise!” note on my page. Embarrassing.)

So why even bother?


For me, doing these pages has been a protracted exercise in introspection. What is life about? What pieces of sense have I come up with? Why not figure it out by writing it down? Already I’ve gotten a lot out of this process… even if these pages never see daylight I’ll be content. That’s the first reward: if you make meaningful pages, just authoring them is fun.

The effort you put into the process pays off when bored netsurfers come across your pages. Some people will find themselves reorienting to the worldview you present, making connections they’d never thought of. Tell it like you see it, and you will find your readers resonating with you. You don’t so much find your audience as create your audience, since it all starts with your creativity.

Once you do find an audience, you may discover that what you say has an occasional profound impact on one of your readers. It’s sublimely gratifying to get email thanking you for speaking out, or describing some major life change that came about as a result of reading something you wrote. Your own voice is a powerful thing–more powerful than you might yet realize.

The larger your site grows, the more attention you will likely receive… large original Web sites are still pretty rare. Collateral benefits can come with that kind of exposure: meeting new potential colleagues or friends, possibly reaching new employers, possibly discovering new careers! As your web becomes more entangled with the rest of the web, you will find yourself in touch with a lot of good people.

The flip side of “it’s all been said” is that no one can ever learn everything there is to know. No matter how obvious you may think something is, there are people out there to whom it’s news. Novelty, and interest, are in the eye of the beholder.

And finally, if nothing else, you can at least feel good that you struck a blow for truth and creativity on the Web. There are too many unadorned hotlists, and electronic shops, and not enough rabble-rousers and uppity talkers. Put some spark into the Web!

My hunches

Some of the premises of my page writing style:

Layout is secondary to content. Don’t shape your pages based on what you can do in HTML. Figure out what you want to say then learn only what you need to write it!

Don’t stop writing. Most of my notes for these pages are in a five-page Ecco outline. Often an idea for a page starts as a single line in this outline… later each line becomes a subhead with detail underneath, then finally a new page. Capture those ideas and let them mature!

Record tidbits. If you run across something that makes you go “Wow!”, remember it. Mention it in your pages and provide a link to it if possible. Hotlists are generally too empty… a link is more meaningful if your reader knows why you think it’s important or cool. But links with real context, links which provide geniune depth about something you’re interested in, are one of the joys of the Web.

Get enough pages together that you can stand to point people at them without an “Under Construction” disclaimer. Let your work stand on its own. Your good intentions (to finish your site) aren’t a good reason for people to be happy with what you published.

Use this handy image: noconstr

My favorite Web tool at the moment is Microsoft’s Internet Assistant. A variety of other WYSIWYG HTML editors (NaviPress, Live Markup, WebEdit) all had nonstandard basic behavior–stuff like shift-click, page scrolling, insert/delete just didn’t work properly! Internet Assistant does only HTML 2.0, but it does it right.

I use Netscape 1.2b3 for Websurfing, Ewan 1.052 for Telnet, and Free Agent 0.55 (haven’t updated yet) for news. Schaft’s FTP area is the place to look. Windows NT is ungodly stable next to Windows 3.11, thankfully.

Many people doing their own sites seem to have chosen a magazine metaphor, with discrete issues whose topics vary widely from issue to issue. This site takes a different approach; the goal here is to present a complex and interlinked set of ideas. These pages will grow and split organically, and hopefully the site as a whole will become deeper and more useful with time. This kind of incremental evolution isn’t really possible with paper, and seems more promising to me than the issue-by-issue technique.

Enough said…

…by me, at least. Many others have written about the whys and wherefores of home pages. If you want more info than you could believe about making your own home pages, check out Boba’s Web Tips.