From the Trenches

Writing for the Web: Basics You Should Know

Right Source | July 20, 2011
Writing for the web

Most website design and redesign projects focus on technology and aesthetics to the detriment of an extremely important element: written content. Depending on the website, written content can be more or less prominent, but concise and catchy writing is important whether you have two or twenty lines of copy.

This Monday night, I participated in a lightning round style WordPress Meetup here in Baltimore. With an audience of interactive designers, developers and business people who all use WordPress to build and manage websites, I thought I’d talk about what you need to put on your website after you’ve built it.

My slides are below, but to fill in the gaps, here’s what I covered:

1. Why you should care: I was speaking to an audience of designers and developers, who probably aren’t responsible for writing their clients’ content. But designers and developers need their own websites, and they also need to make sure their clients’ websites are written well enough to help their clients’ business and include in their own portfolios. A website you design or build won’t mean much if there’s nothing on it.

2.  Don’t over-SEO. Too often, I hear people talk about putting content on their website because it will draw search engine traffic. However, that traffic consists of humans—not robots. If humans can’t easily understand your content because it’s a giant mess of keywords, any amount of traffic you generate will be meaningless.

3. Know your audience. I preach about this a lot, but you simply cannot write effective web content without knowing your audience.  You need to know what technical level your audience is on so you don’t go over (or under) their heads, but you also have to know what they want, so you can keep their attention.

4. Call to action. Your content should be pushing your visitors to do something. This “something” should both help you achieve your goals and be realistic. You wouldn’t ask a visitor to hire your consulting firm for $100,000 without talking to you offline, but you could definitely ask them to make a $10 donation to your non-profit.

5.  Make it quick. People are busy—help them get what they need out of your content quickly.

6. Make it scan. Using lists (like this one!) and visual aids helps your visitors digest your content.

7. Be consistent. Just as you would have a style guide for the design of your website, you should have an editorial guide for your written content.

8. Please, please, proofread. My insistence on proofreading actually brought up some controversy. Some people felt that, especially when you’re blogging, it’s more important to create a lot of good content quickly than to create content that is mistake and typo free. Others held that typos were a huge turn off—”I will judge you” said one audience member of typos on websites. My take? It depends. A typo on a professional writing and editing firm’s homepage would never be acceptable. But I might let a few mistakes slide on a web developer’s personal blog.  At the very least, you should write your content in Word first or use a browser (like Google Chrome) with a built in spellchecker.

9. Have no fear. Write first, edit later—it’s my main fix for writer’s block.

10. Get help. If at all possible, get a fresh pair of eyes on your work. Even if it’s just a friend taking a quick look, someone from the outside will catch mistakes you never would.

11. You’re never done. The great and horrible thing about writing for the web is you’re never done. This means that if you decide you don’t like something, you can easily change it. Unfortunately, it also means that if you’re a perfectionist like me, you might spend too much time maintaining and refining web content that is better left alone.

Have anything to add? Agree/disagree? Comment and let me know.

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