Recently, a client asked me to rewrite their existing web content on standardization. They wanted simple language, and a friendlier tone to appeal to a variety of visitors. “Standards?” I thought. “How hard can that be?” I opened their ‘about’ page and started reading.
“Standardization is the development and application of standards - publications that establish accepted practices, technical requirements and terminologies for products, services and systems.”
I shook my head and gulped slowly. I’d zoned out after the first few words. After reading the page, I knew nothing about standards. This was going to be a challenge.
Words matter. Your website is your publication, and it will be one of millions passed by unless you get people interested in what you have to offer. How do you know your content is getting in the way? If the user visits your site and asks “Have I come to the right place? I’m not sure what this site is about.” you know you have some work to do.
Your goal: to keep them interested and engaged. When a reader drowns in paragraphs of fluff-filled information, they are driven to move on the next website. Brush up your content by applying some basic rules of web writing and you’ll be on your way to writing well. The user may just come back for a second look, and keep coming back again and again.
There’s an abundance of information pulsing the internet. Some basic differences between online and paper publishing:
Before you begin, it’s important to identify who your target audience is. If your website profiles the Top 40 on the music charts, it should look and sound different than the copy for a market research company.
How do you identify your target audience? As yourself questions like ‘Is the website geared to business professionals?’ ‘Is the information directed to novices or experts?’ If your writing is directed to the correct target audience, you’ll be able to write in a voice they can identify and relate to.
Determine the reasons users will visit your site, and what information they expect to find there. Then, test out the content with target audience members. Feedback will let you know you’ve used the right approach. Remember the website on standardization? I wrote that content and tested it by having other professionals and web users read it. Good copy engaged them, and I used their responses as a guideline to proceed.
When building any website, a few key components for content need to be considered and included:
Does the website have a clearly identified theme/purpose? Does it fulfill the purpose?
Be clear about who is responsible for the content on your website.
You want to maintain objectivity when developing content for your website. If your pages provide accurate information and limit advertising you’ve done a good job on presenting your website objectively. A good way of ensuring objectivity: make sure your information or claim is supported by evidence. If you have to have advertising copy on your pages, make sure to separate it from informational copy. It will appear more credible.
What do readers want?
Traditionally, when you write, you start with a foundation, expand with supporting information and build to a conclusion. This is pyramid style writing. For example, a typical essay is structured as follows:
When writing for the web, inverted pyramid style writing is more effective, as it helps users scan text. By placing the most important information first, the reader can find essential information quickly and decide whether or not to continue reading. Follow with additional details for users that choose to continue reading.
When writing, we tend to gum up the text with a lot of complicated words and jargon because it appears more academic. We’re afraid of simplicity because we think it will make us look stupid. The result? A block of text that looks like this:
“The challenges of the position surround ensuring the provision of the delivery of the program and carry out the objective in the most efficient manner possible due to the fact that the ever changing profile is subject to the adjustments….”
We read that and think huh? Write in plain language. Keep your information factual and straightforward. Long rambles make you appear less credible and the user leaves feeling frustrated and confused.
A good rule to follow: Write the way you speak. We rarely struggle for the right words when we’re having a casual conversation. If you approach your writing the same way, you’ll find the words flow quickly and sound more sincere. Of course, there are exceptions. Some industries still need to apply a certain amount of technical or industry-related jargon to maintain credibility with their readers, but it can be done so that both industry related users and casual visitors read and feel comfortable with the information on your website.
Stay away from marketing style writing. Boasting that your product or service is the ‘hottest thing ever’ sounds fake and insincere and the user loses attention, fast. Tell them what they want, and tell them quickly, before they go.
A conversational, friendly voice appeals and engages online readers. Your writing style should create the impression that you are confident, energetic, and authority on what you are writing about.
Remember, readers appreciate good writing, regardless of the platform. Here are some ways to maximize the effectiveness in your writing, both online and in print.
Eliminate wordiness. It weakens the overall message and makes you, the writer, appear less credible.
Check out the following phrases and their simple substitutes.
Change your nouns to verbs. Nouns slow the reader down by increasing the sentence length. This is a major distraction, especially to online readers.
An active voice puts your words in motion and gains credibility. The passive voice is confusing and unclear.
Active: He ran the juice bar at the mall.
Passive: The juice bar at the mall was run by him.
An active voice is often more concise than passive voice. Expressing the same idea in passive voice takes 30% to 40% more words:
Active: In the last generation, the family built a new house and raised a new brood of children. (17 words)
Passive: In the last generation, a new house was built by the family, and a new brood of children was raised by them. (25 words)
Expletives are expressions such as “it is” or “there is” or “it was.” It is better to omit expletives from your writing wherever possible.
Before: It was discovered that one hour lunch breaks were not acceptable by the manager.
After: We discovered that the manager did not want one hour lunch breaks.
Clichés are overused and should be avoided in all writing. Some examples of clichés:
The most emphatic parts of a sentence are the beginning and end.
Before: The Monster contract will be a money-maker, despite our early concerns.
After: The Monster contract, despite our early concerns, will be a money maker.
Underline, italicize, and bold are effective ways to highlight information. Also, organize a long list of thoughts by using headings and bullets. An example of readability from Jacob Nielson:
Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).
In 1996, some of the most-visited places in Nebraska were:
*Example taken from Jakob Nielsen's book Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity (105).
“Startac connects you with people all over the world. Startac is made to handle today’s advanced networking technologies. With Startac, you can easily connect with friends and family, and tap into information all over the world. “
So what product did you just read about? Hard to forget, isn’t it? Repetition is a successful technique to get your message across. It captures the reader’s attention and keeps the focus on the main idea. By repeating key words or phases, you’re also assisting search engine optimization, which we’ll talk about a little later.
Get to the point quickly and clearly and your reader will thank you. Write the message simply and you leave little room for interpretation.
Resist the urge to slip back into using formal language and consider the following simple alternatives:
Readers don’t have the time or patience to get lost in large blocks of text. When text is scannable, they find what they’re looking for quickly and easily.
A good title makes it easy to determine the goal of the page content. Here are some dos and don’ts for writing a good title or headline:
DO keep titles short. Six to ten words is more than enough.
DON’T use irony. The title is there to label your content. If the title is out of context, you run a higher risk of having users miss your point or your page altogether.
DO write a title that stands alone. A title that stands on its own instantly tells the user what the webpage contains.
DO use words that represent common web searches. This will drive traffic to your pages and get users interested.
DON’T assume you have it right the first time. Write your titles and then let them sit for a while before coming back to them. This will help you make sure they make sense and fit with the content.
DON’T underline. The use of underlined text is confusing because underlining is associated with hyperlinks.
Some examples of a good title:
You may or may not have heard the term Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Search engine optimization improves the number of visitors to your website from search engine listings, such as Google. How do you optimize to increase traffic to your website? Writing a good title or subtitle is one way. Badly written titles get missed during web searches, because they miss the keywords users use most often when searching on the internet.
Take the following example: ‘Welcome to Optimal Insurance Company’. The user will never start a search with the word ‘welcome’ or the word ‘optimal’, though they may find you by searching ‘insurance’.
Now let’s change it: “Insurance: Home, life, and health packages for your business or personal insurance needs.” A lot more key words have been added to increase the chances of being found on the internet.
How do you know if you’ve chosen the right key words? Conduct your own searches of similar companies or interests and take a look at what they’re using as a guide for your own website.
Remember to optimize every page of your website. Copy the keywords you use on one page to other pages to make them equally competitive.
Write so that your page stands alone. What does this mean? A user may not stumble on the first page of your website. Create each page to clearly reflect who you are and the message you are trying to send. A book is read cover to cover with each page leading to the next one. On the web, each page must stand alone so the written information is recognized and understood. As the web writer, you have to assume that each individual page may be the only part of the website your user sees. One way to make sure your pages stand alone is to print them and look at each one individually. If you still get a good sense of what your product or service is offering, then you’ve done a great job of creating stand alone pages.
In the old days of the gold rush, towns boomed overnight, expanded quickly, and then eventually became abandoned. Many websites fall to the same fate when the content becomes tired and stale.
Keep information current. It’s a great way to let web readers know you are credible. How can you keep the copy moving? Check your website regularly. Freshen up the copy with new stories and information. Remove old content and update headlines so they reflect new developments.
After you’ve perfected the page content, consider writing links that are relevant and compelling. When users encounter hyperlinks, they don’t want to click unless they know where they’re going to end up. If a page loads and the user feels ambushed or mislead, you’re going to have a very unhappy visitor. As a writer, consider where the reader wants to go next, and use the links to get them there.
When you write hyperlinks, don’t use the old method of injecting ‘click here’ into your text. Instead, use short, meaningful sentences to move the reader into action.
Take a look at the following sentence: The Smith Text Editor is current and effective.
Now, try to add some hypertext: The Smith Editor is current and effective.
The sample is ok, but adding the hypertext at the beginning of the sentence cuts the reader off and sends them clicking before they finish the sentence and get a full idea of the subject.
To edit it further: For an informative look at a great text editor, see The Smith Editor
With the last version, the user can read the full sentence and then decide if they’d like to follow the hyperlink to read more.
If the user clicks on a link, reassure them. Try to include the text from your hyperlink in the next page heading so they’ll know they’ve arrived in the right place.
Unless it compromises your page design, it’s best to stick with conventional link colors, so use blue for links, and purple for visited links. Stay away from crazy color schemes and fancy text effects. The familiarity of the standard web colors will add to the user’s level of comfort.
What should be linked?
Check your copy for mistakes. When you’re done, check again. A good writer is also a good reader. Learning to read and identify weaknesses in your writing will make the text stronger every time you do it. Correcting your mistakes is just as important with online text as it is with print. Some good reasons to check your work:
Above all, remember that you won’t learn to write well by talking about it. You’ll learn to write well by doing it over and over. Give yourself time and practice and you’ll begin to see great results.