How the Web Made Me a Better Copywriter
In 1999, when I left a staff job at a newspaper to start my own copywriting business, I never even thought about writing for the web. A decade later, most of my work consists of web projects. It struck me recently that this medium has led me to develop a different way of writing—tighter, simpler, more transparent. The results, I believe, are greater clarity and persuasiveness, and a speedier, more user-friendly read.
A different mindset
In my journalism days, newspapers were still thick with ads. There was plenty of room for long stories that “jumped” from page to page. Like any writer who wants to be read, I took pains to craft a compelling opening sentence (the “lede”). But I wasn't terribly concerned with the mechanics of keeping readers interested throughout the story.
The novelty of the web, on the other hand, made me question every move. During my first few years, I treasured the free online advice offered by Jakob Nielsen and other pioneering web specialists. I became fascinated by theories about how users absorb information online. Everyone seemed to agree that the web user was, above all, impatient.
Everybody's a scanner
It's one thing if you're writing a blog with a devoted following. But a corporate, nonprofit or e-commerce website doesn't come with a readymade group of friends. If users can't immediately find what they're looking for, they move on.
Web users tend to scan information rather than reading it closely. One reason is physiological. Research—by Nielsen, Stanford University/The Poynter Institute and others—has shown that reading pixels on a screen makes eyes work harder than reading ink on paper.
Another impetus for scanning, I believe, is the web's seemingly limitless content. It's like being unable to enjoy yourself at a party because you might be having a better time at someone else's house. Add the growing mania for speed (“This #%&* site is taking 20 seconds to load!”), and it's clear that web writing has to pick up the pace.
Subheads built for speed
To make copy easier to scan, I break it up with multiple subheads. They act as visual skipping stones—an eye-friendly break from blocks of copy.
Ideally, the subheads can also convey the main points of the story all by themselves, so they can't be too cute. And they must speak to the general reader, with no insider terminology that would cut the conversation short.
The em-dash is my friend
That little horizontal line is probably the most useful form of punctuation on the web. Commas, semicolons and colons don't do a good job of visually breaking up information, and they're hard to see on the screen. Parentheses have to be used carefully, because the words they enclose are understood to be less important than the rest of the sentence.
But the mighty em-dash is easy to see, and democratic in the way it treats words on either side of it. As with everything, you don't want to overuse Mr. Em. (You'll note that he doesn't make an appearance in these two paragraphs.) But he is the strongman of the longer web sentence.
Bullet points have their limits
When I founded my business, Crawford Kilian had just published the first edition of his indispensable guide, Writing for the Web (1999, Self-Counsel Press). One of his virtually unbreakable rules is that no paragraph should be longer than 60 words. But I've parted ways with him on the issue of bullet points.
Kilian saw them as the standard eye-friendly solution for sentences that contain multiple statistics, goals, activities and so forth. Up to a point, I agree. But bullet points that march down the page like buttons on a jacket are tiring to read. Back-to-back bulleted lists are visually numbing.
When I bullet information, I try to organize it so that there are no more than seven points. (Graphic designers have taught me that odd numbers are more reader-friendly.) Often, though, I prefer to write sentences that group the items into logical clusters. Topped with a subhead, these “chunks” are easier to read because their rhythm is flowing, not staccato.
Simple words for the average reader
My first newspaper editor told me that I should pitch my writing to someone with eighth-grade reading skills. But as a lifelong bookworm, I was proud of my extensive vocabulary. With the assurance of youth, I protested that I didn't want my ideas dumbed down.
Years later, a piece I wrote for an early information portal (about how to seek a second medical opinion) was rejected because it wasn't written for the “average” user. I still hadn't learned.
Writing simply is a skill
Eventually, it dawned on me that conveying complex ideas in simple terms is actually a skill—one that I was proud to finally master.
Today, I'm comfortable with the idea that writing for the web generally means using only words that are widely understood. It's not only a question of education. Many websites are intended to reach an international audience unfamiliar with typically American expressions.
Transparency is powerful
Voice is another big issue. As many commentators have noted, writing for the web works best when it speaks directly to the user. That's why websites are ideally written in the first (“we”) and second person (“you”).
This approach has made my writing much friendlier. Stripped of big words, complex phrases and unnecessary adjectives, copy becomes increasingly transparent—spare and frill-free. Lacking the distracting imposition of a writer's ego, copy becomes a more powerful tool of persuasion.
Polishing every word
As my web writing grew more compact, it felt as though a spotlight shone on every word. I started reading my copy out loud to catch unintended repetition and awkward phrases. I also began using a larger font to keep my eyes from skating mindlessly over the words I'd written on the screen.
Even so, I've always found it necessary to print out every page. Whether due to my near-sightedness or sheer force of habit, editing copy with any degree of precision requires the crisp contrast and tactile immediacy of a hard copy.
Helping refine web architecture
Writing a news story or essay involves placing facts or opinions in a logical sequence. But a reader-friendly website is organized in a visually logical way. This concept was new to me.
“Think like a user” may be a web cliché, but it is the key to producing effective writing in any medium. Much of what I learned about hierarchy came from paying attention to my own navigation—bumpy or smooth—through content-heavy websites written by other people.
Eventually, I took issue with the expectation that a web writer's role was simply to add content to predetermined slots. From the outset of a web project, I began suggesting that illogical or unwieldy aspects of the site's architecture be modified. The resulting back-and-forth with designers and developers has led to an increased awareness of how people process information.
I also learned that turf battles can be reduced by making a sincere effort to understand and accommodate the technical issues faced by other web specialists—another version of “thinking like a user.”
Sex, lies and plain talk
By now it might seem that everyone can see the benefits of a plain-spoken, streamlined approach. Unfortunately that's not true.
Some clients expect a swirl of adjectives around each product. Others believe in perpetuating the empty boasts and vague promises of the traditional “mission statement.” People in certain fields tend to worry about leaving out the less important details of a complex program or procedure.
Trying to effectively counter these objections and explain how the web works best has been a challenge. But—as with all the other aspects of writing for the web—it has made me better at what I do.
Photo credit:72 Pencils, George W. Hart