Web Writing Advice, Strategy and Tips for Everyone

Web Writing Advice, Strategy and Tips for Everyone

Posted May 8, 2012

20 comments

Writing, specifically web writing, is a skill you need to have. By “you” I mean managers, executive assistants, students, teachers, developers, zoo keepers, my mom … everyone.

We communicate what we do, what we’re qualified to do and even who we are through the digital medium. Being able to write gives you complete control over how and what you are telling people about your skills and why what you do matters to someone else.

In my role as a Content Strategist and writer with T4G, people frequently say things to me along these lines: “you can write that, you’re the writer not me” and “I can’t write”. Not to write myself out of a job or anything but this, my friends, is nonsense. Let me tell you something: anyone can write. Am I saying anyone can be Hemmingway? Nope. But anyone who can read also has the capacity to clearly convey key messages and opinions with real words. I promise.

So … how do you learn the ins and outs of web writing?

The general guidelines, outlined by a number of gurus are to keep you writing:

People Are Here To Get Things Done, So Help Them

The digital world is an active medium – not a brochure. Your web (or all digital) copy should facilitate action or the transferring of information. Don’t be stagnant. Don’t write once and walk away. Update your information, archive old news and update content when you can. 

Make it clear how readers can achieve their goals by crafting Calls to Action to get the job done. The days of “click here” are long gone. Clearly state what they need to do to achieve their goals: “Download the PDF”, “Contact Our Sales Department”, “Call An Operator For Support”.  

Remember Your Reader

Think about who you are writing for. What are they going to be interested in? How can you position what you’re writing in a way that will serve their needs and answer their questions? You won’t be able to push your own agenda or further your own argument through the written word unless you are serving theirs first.

Think carefully about who your target reader is/will be. You can back your assumptions up by reviewing any analytics you have about the web property you’re writing for. If you’re working on a large-scale project, consider teaming up with a User Experience strategist to create personas of individuals you’ll be writing for. 

For each of your target readers, identify a list of questions he/she will have that you will strive to answer through your content. Identify key interests and online behaviours that will influence what and how you write.

Shorter Is Harder, But Often Better

I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” said Mark Twain.

Keeping your writing focused and concise isn’t easy. The tendency to add adjectives, business jargon or words such as ‘heretofore’ is hard to resist. Getting to the point, however, is the point. So, after you’ve written something, evaluate it against this criteria:

  • Who Cares? – Who will be impacted by what you’re writing?
  • Is It Compelling? – Have you written something that is interesting, informative and important to your target audience?
  • Is It Clear? – Is what you’re writing understandable? Is your point coming through?
  • Is It Complete? – Have you covered all the key information and completed the point you set out to make?
  • Is It Concise? – Did you get straight to the point? Did you avoid flowery language and business jargon?
  • Is It Correct? – Are all your facts and your grammar in check?1

Read “Good” Content

What websites do you spend time on? What tweets do you retweet the most? What passages, turns of phase and books stay with you? Go back to all the writing you enjoy and think about “why” you like it. Examine how it was crafted. Then read some more.

Read newspapers, magazines, novels, web copy, emails, tweets and blogs. The more you read the more you’ll begin understanding how to construct compelling sentences, introduce arguments and draft a clear point of view. 

Tips & Tricks

Here are some examples of common writing faux pas and how cleaning them up can improve your copy2  :

1. Use Short, Common Words

Sure, you might think it sounds formal and professional to say “employ” or “utilize”, but “use” works just fine. Similarly, why say “procedure” when “steps” does the trick?

2. Avoid Words You Don’t Need (intensifiers):

We all do it, but that doesn’t make it right. I’m talking about saying something is “very good” when plain old “good” will do. The same can be said for “more”, “best” and “great”.

3. Avoid Redundancies & Phrasal Verbs

Easy ways to clean up your writing include staying away from phrases such as “close proximity” in favour of “near” and don’t say “still pending”. “Pending” is just fine. Similarly, “add on” and “print out” become simply “print” and “add”. 

4. Be Careful of Introductory Phrases & Colloquialisms

Writing “due to the fact that” is just a long and unnecessary version of “because”, while “at this point in time” should simple morph into “now”. Also drop phrases such as “get a feel for” from your copy in favour of “understand”. 

 

Hopefully now you’re equipped to dash off brilliant digital copy. If you’re still looking for more tips and advice, this is the first article in our User Experience Strategy and Research series. Come back next week for advice on Social Media Channel Strategy. See you then.

1Information from Gerry McGovern's Killer Web Content 
2Courtesy of the Nielsen Norman Usability Week workshop material

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Recent Comments

farhan rauf

3/6/2014 6:10:10 AM

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These tips are very important for the companies offering content writing to business blog, I am pleased to read this article and level of details to covered about about writing is simply awesome.


rédacteur

7/1/2013 3:51:30 AM

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Very useful information. thank you very much. One more tip: it is better if you define your clients profile before you start writing in order to find the right communication style


Christian

5/31/2012 3:31:04 AM

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Hi Stephanie. Great advice! Thanks.


Mark Simko

5/24/2012 9:08:46 AM

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Web copy text should generally be written in the 'inverse pyramid' style.

Inverse pyramid is the style that was taught to journalists. It presents major points first. Details are filled in later. In this way, you can get your major points across quickly and the reader can decide to continue on with the paragraph for more detail.

Copy should have frequent section breaks with bold header text. Readers can then scan the header and decide to read the section or skip to sections that interest them. Be sure your section copy is about the headline. Organize your article and keep the promise of the headline.

Logical flow is important. Don't skip all over the place. Nobody wants to think too hard to read your article. Easy to read gets read. Dont make reading your copy like slog through a swamp.

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Great article. Thanks for the pointers


Patti Ellis

5/24/2012 9:07:54 AM

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Great tips, Steph!!!


Furore

5/23/2012 5:46:52 AM

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In Holland we have a saying thta goes like this (litteraly translated):

writing is letting things out ( in Dutch "schrijven is schrappen").

Writing for the web is a specialism!


Fletch

5/23/2012 4:09:53 AM

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I liked your first few points, especially the "Shorter is better" principle. I wish more people practiced this principle. I am however adamantly against your idea of "Use Short, Common Words". I wholeheartedly agree that the use of long words out of place in order to appear intelligent is ridiculous. Nevertheless, when an advanced (not necessarily long) word fits, it is perfectly acceptable to use it, nay, it is recommendable for the good of society! "Utilize", "employ" and "procedure" are fantastic words. A few years ago I heard the Australian foreign minister use the word "schardenfreude" on the news and I thought that was great!

How do you expect people to expand their vocabulary if not by seeing unfamiliar words a number of times and learning them by context (or looking them up in the dictionary)? Please do not encourage people to reduce us to a two-syllable society. Have a look at the King James Bible and the writings of Shakespeare - generally considered cornerstones of the English language. I understand that writing drama is different from online copy, but nevertheless I implore (:-)) you to work towards increasing our intelligence level, not reducing it.


Shelc

5/23/2012 2:20:26 AM

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Great article, love the obvious points - thanks!


Sreejesh

5/22/2012 4:44:55 PM

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Right now I was training few of my buddies to start blogging, it was worth ready right at this time. I reached this page from SEOmoz newsletter. The post was very simple and straight to the point, this is how we need to blog.


Jenny Schappaugh

5/22/2012 2:20:49 PM

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You misspelled Hemingway as Hemmingway; it should be spelled with only one M.


Deane Alban

5/22/2012 2:10:21 PM

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This post reminds me of George Orwell's 5 Rules of Writing. In summary they are:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, do.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

These rules are simple, but they aren't easy to follow!


Matt Stephenson

5/22/2012 12:45:55 PM

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Nice article that is a great best practices refresher for anyone blogging, editing, or writing content online. I'm sending it over to the writing team at my company. Thanks for sharing.


Around Claremont

5/22/2012 11:27:39 AM

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This is very helpful, since I'm pushing myself to keep fresh content on my site and have reviewed and tweaked my content every day. Thanks for the tips, it's so hard to avoid redundancy in writing content!


Emily Priddy

5/20/2012 6:40:04 PM

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Thanks for all of the information and for reminding me of information I had somehow forgotten!


Pattie Kettle

5/19/2012 10:14:22 AM

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Great article! I think many digital writers forget that there is actually an audience, and a very specific audience at that, which will read the work.

Love the idea about creating different reader personas and thinking through questions they will have. However, how do you charge for the time spent creating and crafting strategy?

This was an excellent reminder of why K- keep I- it S- simple S-stupd works!

Thank you.


Esther Martinez

5/18/2012 5:22:23 PM

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I think an important tip in good, effective writing that this author has missed is proofreading.
-Hemingway is spelled with one m
-Turns of phase should have been corrected to Turns of phrase

Grammar is also important and should not be taken lightly when wanting to appear professional and competent.
-Punctuation marks go inside of quotation marks. Always.
ex. "utilize," "still pending."

I agree with the author's points but it would be a more effective article if these errors weren't so glaring.


Aran

5/18/2012 3:36:14 AM

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If we all followed the advice above wouldn't the internet be full of dull flavorless content all written without flair??

The above reads like government brand guideline!


Phil hayslett

5/17/2012 8:33:24 PM

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This is great advice for the would be writer. It makes me wonder why all my college papers call for a page or word count? Too often I'm adding all the above just to get that magic number. Is it safe to say that this method of instruction is doing more harm than good?


Anthony Trollope

5/17/2012 6:34:49 PM

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Good tips here, Stephanie.

I think a stumbling block for a lot of part time writers is being afraid to make mistakes or for the content to be judged because it isn't grammatically 100% correct. But honestly, who cares? If you have a valid point, a good argument or interesting point of view that already ranks you way and above most content on the web. I think readers resonate with genuine rather than contrived content.

PS: found this through SEOMoz.org who linked to it in their email newsletter

Cheers
Anthony


David Ross

5/11/2012 8:00:10 AM

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Timely and excellent guidance - well done! Thanks Stephanie!


 

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About the Author

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Stephanie McGrath

Stephanie, a Content Strategist and writer, loves to reel readers in with straightforward killer content.

EMAIL

stephanie.mcgrath@t4g.com

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