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