Once upon a time long long ago (1995), I looked at a web site for the very first time and thought, "Boy, this changes everything. We will all have to write a different way for the web." To me, web writing was hot — but not to others. A leading web designer told me, "Good writing is good writing. There's nothing special about writing for the web."
Since then our concept of web writing has been transformed many times. And what's hot in web writing usually lags at least five years behind reality.
Business writing, writing on the web, writing for the intranet, blogging, web content, SEO writing, content marketing, mobile content, accessible content, digital communication ... what will be the next hot phrase?
Warning: this is not a history lesson. All dates are rough guesses.
First I made my own primitive web site called (what else?) Writing on the Web. That site still hangs around, a hand-coded museum piece vaguely devoted to my literary life. I perceived web writing as literary writing in a new context. (Actually, I visualised the internet as the noosphere of Pierre de Taillard Chardin's vision. Elevated and esoteric.)
Then I tangled with the implications for business people and wrote a book called Web Word Wizardry. I advised writing clearly, putting the main message first, using keywords in key places, and writing to please both readers and search engines.
At the Chamber of Commerce I taught business people how to write for the web. They all saw the web as a quick route to riches, and their only interest was in higher search results. (SEO writing was sexy.)
Government agencies had joined the rush to online services. Specialist web editors learned the basics of web writing. In theory, a handful of web editors or web managers edited every sentence on every web page; in fact the rise of the CMS meant that most subject experts and managers were publishing their own stuff on the organisation's web site. The officially designated web writers were called content authors. More courses in writing for the web appeared until today there are thousands available.
Organisations arranged web writing workshops for their specialist content authors, blind to the fact that most of their staff couldn't communicate clearly even on paper. The obvious need for web writing (sexy) was a way to wrangle a the budget to train general staff in plain language business writing (not sexy).
I could see live courses would never fill the true need for training, and decided to focus exclusively on quick, affordable online courses. Alice and I established Contented.com.
Blogging became all the rage, and people began talking about content marketing. Quality web content has value: it's a thing-in-itself, you can sell it, and it raises your prestige.
Content strategists emerge, perceiving the key role that content plays in every digital project. Content goes far beyond mere written words: it includes video, audio, forms, apps and more, more, more. But hey, clear communication is still required in whatever format.
Today almost everyone is writing stuff for a web site. You have a Facebook page? You have accounts with Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or Google+? You use your intranet's wikis and discussion tools? You contribute to online forums? You're a teacher? You're in journalism or PR or marketing? Then you are writing for the web. But you don't think of yourself as a web writer or a content author, and publishing tools make writing so very, very easy that you don't imagine any special skills are required.
Now the world has gone mobile. Organisations are aware that their content that works on mobile phones. So they send a few staff to seminars about adaptive content or mobile content (sexy). Meantime the enterprise is still overloaded with people who cannot write a short, clear sentence that says what it means and means what it says (not sexy).
Government is concerned that official communication should be accessible (not sexy).
In today's workplace, all communication is digital. We all use information technology, every day. Yet most people who write at work think that IT (not sexy) has nothing to do with them.
Now the ebook phenomenon (sexy) has brought us full circle. At last the web's promise for literary writers has been fulfilled, and we can all be published authors with the flick of a wrist.
Who knows what pixie dust will influence our communication next year? Whatever: it'll be fun. And plain language is where it all begins.