Book Review
Hot Text – Web Writing That Works

Hot Text – Web Writing That Works
Jonathan and Lisa Price

New Riders
ISBN 9-7357-1151-8
US $40.00 CA $62.99 UK £30.99
492 pages not including index

Dear professional web authors: please read this book! And you, who aspire to write professionally for the web, whether or not you write professionally for other venues, get this book and consume it!

I admit that I was a little surprised when the book arrived to see how hefty it was. Since the title seemed to indicate a rather narrow scope compared to many other web-authoring texts covering the whole range of web content from graphics to interactive code generation, I somehow expected this book to be a light weight work of ‘dos and don’ts’ with regard to writing content for the web.

How shall I describe this book? It’s a textbook, really. It’s an advanced, graduate level textbook, similar to what you might use for a senior level or above college course in Advanced Composition 801 or Editorial Journalism 790, but with a decidedly new millennium flare in the style and format. It’s definitely a ‘how-to’ and sometimes a ‘how-not-to’ manual for web composition.

I’d venture to say it’s also a philosophy book and a sociology book intertwined with practical purpose of taking today’s techno-savvy web compositor with a decidedly narrow view of the world and give them [me!] both an older, wiser perspective and also some insight into the future. It will equip the reader with some much needed breadth of understanding in order to appreciate the tools and skills discussed within this book.

Here’s the short and long of it; literally, from two advance quotes I picked from among two pages of blurbs in small print found near the front of the book:

“This is one exhaustive and erudite look at Web writing.” —Doug Lavender, e-Copy Specialist

“Jonathan and Lisa Price have written a truly useful book–graceful, engaging, and compellingly intelligent. The Web has changed how communication occurs, and Jonathan and Lisa illuminate successful approaches to creating Web documents of all kinds, including customer assistance, FAQ’s, resumes, and XML documents. Hot Text treats the people who use the Web as real people, with actual brains and real selves. From such a point of departure, Jonathan and Lisa’s idea of communication is deeply humane. This is a key book for anyone composing information for the Web.” –Mick Renner, Ph.D., MR Communications, Berkeley, CA

So, what is Hot Text about? The title may give you a clue. Imagine you are driving down the highway, heading someplace you’ve never been before, when you spy alongside the road a billboard indicating a spot up ahead that specializes in local cuisine. You are hungry and decide to take a chance and stop by to consume a good hot meal as the sign had indicated would be readily available. If, indeed, the service is good, the meal is brought out promptly, and the food is tasty, hot, and delectable, you’ll probably make this a regular routine whenever you head this way again. You may even make it a point to come this far even if you don’t intend to continue the journey further, just to experience the good food. But, if the service is poor, or the food unappetizingly cold or ill prepared, then you may even choose to take a different route altogether the next time you head this way.

Now, imagine you are the chef! Hot Text is about creating text for your readers; those who literally consume the words you write. It’s designed specifically for those who “cook up” content for the web because the web has transformed the way that users approach the whole process of looking for news, information, help, entertainment, and the like.

As I noted earlier, Jonathan and Lisa intertwine philosophy and sociology throughout the book in a very helpful manner, in the form of quotations from a wide variety of sources placed in the left-hand margin of the pages. The first two pages include quotes from John Steinbeck and Walt Whitman. The ensuing pages are filled with quotes from a veritable Who’s Who in communication of the written word:

“They call TV a medium because it is so rarely well done.” — Goodman Ace, TV writer

“Each of us literally chooses, by his way of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.” — William James, The Principles of Psychology

“The shotest and best way to make your fortune is to let people see that it is in their interests to promote yours.” — La Bruyere, Characters
And perhaps my favorite…

“When I ask for a kiss, I do not want a piece of paper with “A kiss” written on it. — Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Although the brief introduction validates the authors’ credibility, I felt after reading only a few pages into chapter one that I had stumbled upon two people who had moved to another level of understanding when it came to this topic of communicating. After all, web visitors can literally move thousands of miles at light speed with a simple click of a button, either at our behest, or to escape from us if we aren’t proving ourselves worthy of their time and interest.

More to the point, Hot Text covers four main topics in exquisite detail. Net Spirit is the underlying character and nature of web communication; what makes it unique, and what makes it comprehendible. Here the first time reader will find themselves becoming much more aware of why some features of sites make them want to come back again and again and also why some other sites, even very well known ones, seem to leave them feeling as if there is something missing.

Human Style delves into the ways a writer can and must get to know the consumer of her or his text, not as a set of statistics, but as a real person. It shows the writer how to interact and how to relate to the reader, including detailed discussions of how XML is being used and will be used in order to move beyond the limitations of classic HTML. Hundreds of ideas with examples and detailed descriptions are given here. This is the main course of the meal, and it’s presented very well. There should be a warning sign at the beginning of this section: Rich Food ahead, consume in a leisurely but careful manner!

Genres fills out the plate, giving the web writer an advanced course in creating content along various lines suitable to differing styles and needs. As sites grow in size, the pressure to become more generic in style grows with too. How not to succumb to the temptation while still providing the needed words for this growing and broader range of tastes is critical to managing the transition successfully. The ideas here are extremely practical like vegetables. Eat them, they are good for you.

Become a Pro discusses the job market for web writing, whether as a freelancer or as part of team creating a large corporate web site. How to you build your portfolio, and what kinds of experience help you to become skilled in the art.

There is one more section that deserves mention, Backup, because it contains an extensive list of what the authors’ refer to as “writerly sites” which will take you beyond the book’s many examples into the larger world of web writing. Many of the sites are actually mentioned throughout the book, but it’s nice to have the list in one place. In addition, there’s a bibliography that will make your eyes hurt!

When you get to the end of a book of this sort, you feel you want to discuss its ideas with other like-minded individuals, and to sort out some of the more complex examples with those who have meandered similar paths and bogs. To that end, the authors have created their own site. They offer short courses and there’s even a yahoogroups discussion. If you are an aspiring or professional writer who has been, is now, or intends to be writing for a web site, this book should be considered mandatory.

MacMice Rating: 5 out of 5

Jeffrey McPheeters

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