The 4 essential web writing tips

A website without words would be like Jonathon Ross – entirely pointless and a total waste of money. So it’s crucial to get those words right.

Here are the 4 most important tips for writing good web copy.

1. Write and edit specifically for the web

Don’t lift text off a printed brochure and stick it straight on a website, especially if it’s meaningless. We call this McContent because it fills a space but ultimately doesn’t give you anything except a vague sense of unpleasantness.

Here’s an example from a holiday cottage company website:

Lose yourself. Find yourself. Discover who you are again.

I have no idea what that means, or if I need to bring towels. A better sentence might tell me why the place is so relaxing – it’s in a National Park and has a spa, if you’re interested.

How to do this: As a general rule, cut the copy in half and get rid of anything you don’t understand.

2. Break it up

Look at The Sun. It has a reading age of 12, which is what you usually need to aim for on a website. The sentences and paragraphs are short. Subheadings are used a lot. They avoid any long or difficult words (an exception being this recent headline: ‘Sex with Jordan? That is out of the equestrian.’).

How to do this: Have a look at your copy and see where you can break it. Where can you start a new sentence? Could you split that paragraph into two? Could you substitute a shorter word?

3. Try to make your copy about the reader

I think this is quite hard, because my own thoughts and opinions are so much more interesting than anyone else’s. I’m proving this point in these sentences, talking about me instead of you. A better way of putting it would be:

You might find it difficult to talk about others, instead of yourself. Your thoughts and opinions are so much more interesting than anyone else’s.

How to do this: Use the We-We monitor to see much you ramble on about yourself, and how much you talk about your customer. Then turn your ‘me’ sentences into ‘you’ sentences.

4. Relax

Chill out. Being informal is fine on the web. It’s actually easier for your reader to extract the information they need from informal copy.

Here’s copy from the O2 website:

We provide mobile, fixed and broadband services in the UK…. [blah blah] … customers know us as O2.

Compare it with this from Virgin Mobile:

As a Virgin Mobile customer, you’re entitled to a whole list of privileges and special treatment that your mates would give their right arm for.

How to do this: When you write, imagine you’re chatting to your best mate’s mum or your favourite uncle. You have to be polite still, but you don’t have to talk like a government policy statement.

  • http://www.turnerink.co.uk Sarah Turner

    Hey Rachel

    Totally agree with all the above. I also go for 13 – 16 word sentences; 3 sentences per paragraph; and a good few headings. i.e. make it as easy as possible to scan.

    I always say to my clients ‘you’re at a PTA meeting and your kid’s best pal’s mum turns to you and says “so, what do you do?” that’s what you need to have on your home page. Not some jumped up corporate rubbish’.

    This technique works most of the time :-)

  • http://www.safsal-multimedia.com/ Shira

    Great advice AND quite amusing. Definitely got my money’s worth ;)

  • http://www.raymondselda.com/ Raymond Selda

    Very nice tips here. I usually get writing tips over at CopyBlogger but this one is really worth reading. Thank you Rachel.

  • http://www.splintered.co.uk patrick h. lauke

    and as ever, my usual exclamation: these rules do not just apply to writing for the web. good writing is good writing, regardless of the medium.

    “Don’t lift text off a printed brochure and stick it straight on a website, especially if it’s meaningless”

    a more sustainable model would be: don’t write meaningless text. not on your website, not on your brochure…it’s not that in print readers are more forgiving of crap copy. there is no “writing for the web”. good copywriting is medium-agnostic.

  • http://www.sugarcat.co.uk Rachel Morgan-Trimmer

    Patrick – you are absolutely right in your comments about meaningless text. I was thinking more of the situation where a developer gets a shiny brochure dropped on their desk with the words ‘stick that on a website will you?’.

  • http://www.sejwritingservices.co.uk Sandy Eifion-Jones

    Couldn’t agree more, Rachel – I wish I could play a tape to my clients repeating these points.

    I’d like to emphasize this one, definitely: don’t try to make your webcopy read like a corporate brochure.

  • http://twitter.com/ethicalstudios ethicalstudios

    Hey Rachel,

    Firstly, great article! A perfect example of how to write for the web. Your style made me laugh! But in a good way. Something I could definitely learn from. One thing I’ve found useful is to write to be scanned. Using clear headers, bulleted lists and hyperlinks helps users to find what they want quickly. More on this in our article: http://www.ethicalstudios.com/en/blog/five-ways-effective-web-writing

    Cheers!

    Andrew

    Websites for NGOs, charities and ethical companies

    http://www.ethicalstudios.com

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