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9 rules of web writing that really matter

Dan Brotzel • 6 minutes

Many of the so-called rules of writing don’t really do what you’d want such rules to do – make you a better writer.

There’s nothing really wrong with splitting an infinitive, for example – as linguist Steven Pinker explains, not to do so often ends up betraying your intended meaning, and is a hangover from Latin grammar. There’s nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition, as Language Log explains, and Churchill never actually said as much. And for decades the passive voice has been unfairly maligned and overlooked by so-called writing experts too.

One could go on. There are rich pickings for the experts in debunking these peeves.

Instead, in this post, I want to share 9 useful copywriting principles that will help you write more effective digital copy. These are not rules to be obeyed with extreme prejudice but, taken singly or together, they should help to create a more intuitive and engaging reading experience for your users.

1. Make it all about ‘you’, not ‘we’

When we see a piece of content that is all focused on the brand or the company – all ‘us’, ‘we’ and ‘our’ – the effect is quickly off-putting.

Great digital copywriting puts the user first at every opportunity, in every way. This isn’t easy since, as content guru Gerry McGovern argues, writing for the other person and not for our own ego goes against the grain of millions of years of human behaviour. But that’s how you get to the good stuff.

An obvious way to make the reader feel your content is about them is to use the word ‘you’ or ‘your’ wherever you can. ‘Get’ is another good one. Both pointers will force you as the writer to keep thinking about what the reader needs to get out of your content.

2. Be specific

User testing shows that when titles, labels, links and other signposts are vague or abstract, they become almost invisible to the reader. A link to a piece titled ‘Counting the cost’ will just get looked past – retitling it ‘How to build a business case for migrating your business to the cloud’ will get lots more attention.

The latter may sound prosaic and functional, but that’s not a bad thing online. Scan readers need information cues that make sense out of context and are drenched in specific meaning – that reek of information scent. Specificity, not sizzle, is what sells and engages and influencers users online. (If you can do both in one, of course, even better – but not if personality or humour comes at the expense of usability).

3. Avoid ambiguity

I recently saw some travel copy which said something like, ‘Little Venice is easily missed’. Does this mean that Little Venice is easy to miss but worth seeking out, or does it mean that Little Venice is easily missed off a list of London sights to see because it’s not worth the trip?

In context, it was surely the former, but the ambiguity is likely to give the reader pause, which is something we want to avoid at all costs. Online readers are time-poor scanners: anything that could trip up their processing of your words means a vital message could get missed. In print, ambiguity can spell playfulness and intrigue; online, it just gets in the way.

This principle also applies to dangling modifiers. While the harm they do is much overstated, they can at times cause unnecessary and avoidable confusion. The classic example is the sort of coldish email which begins, ‘As someone with an interest in flooring solutions, we thought you might like to know about our new…’ Is it me or you whose interest you’re talking about here?

4. Front-load with the bit the user cares about – follow the Rule of 2s

Eye-tracking research underlines the importance of getting the first two words right in headings, intro lines, standfirsts and other content elements that are crucial for scan-reading.

‘People read the first few items in a list but read less and less as they continue down the list, eventually passing their eyes down the text’s left side in a fairly straight line,’ found Jakob Nielsen. ‘Users see only the very beginning of the items in lists such as search engine results pages (SERP), news items, FAQs, bulleted or numbered lists, checklists etc.’

So the Rule of 2s means getting the most useful and distinctive bit of info – that could be the topic, the benefit, the context – into the first 2 words of any signposting element.

5. Tap into the power of threes

The classic three-act structure. Three wishes. The Holy Trinity. Three little pigs. Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Faith, hope and charity. Location, location, location. Liberté, egalité, fraternité…

Things that come in threes just seem to have sort of primal power to them that things in twos and even fours can never quite match. There are lots of split tests in which sales copy with four benefits or two gets trumped by the version with the three bullets.

Visually, one is just a dot, two is a mere line, but three is a triangle. The rhetorical deployment of three related elements is known as a tricolon. As Mark Forsyth points out in The Art of Eloquence, this device is so powerful that even when people don’t use it, we like to think they did. So Churchill actually promised ‘blood, toil, sweat and tears’ – a dull foursome – but all anyone ‘remembers’ him saying is ‘blood, sweat and tears’ – an elegant tricolon.

Three benefits. Three simple steps. Three sections to your speech. Whether at the level of an entire campaign or within the syntax of an individual sentence, three is structural gold.

6. Avoid topic seepage – make sure each content item is about just one thing

Writing for online means breaking your thoughts down into modules. Each page, each content item, is a self-contained unit of meaning as much as it is a stand-alone visual element.

But when you’re writing lots of web pages, it’s easy to forget this, and to allow one page’s content to drift into another.

Say you’re writing a site about a new kind of loyalty card. You’ve written pages called ‘How the card works’ and ‘Getting started’.

Now you turn to ‘Why choose our card?’ – and because you’re proud of the card and brimming with knowledge, it’s easy for this benefits overview to slip into a recap of how to get started, how the card works etc.

Don’t. Just add a link instead. This is exactly what hypertext can do for us, neatly bracketing off chunks of related but not-currently-priority information so we don’t have to reiterate them, and allowing the user to make their own way through our content.

7. Be clear about who’s doing what

In his excellent book on technical writing, Style: Toward clarity and grace, Joseph Williams dispenses a very helpful way of making sure that our sentences feel like they have agents.

He proposes seeing each sentence as a story, with characters who carry out actions. To tell the most compelling story, the trick is to make sure that you identify the real characters – and turn them into your subject and object, and also surface the key actions they’re carrying out – and make those your verbs.

‘Readers are likely to feel they are reading clear, direct text,’ Williams writes, ‘when (a) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and (b) the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of.’

Take this sentence: ‘Sorry – system upgrade work could mean extended call wait times.’ The real characters here are ‘we’, ‘our system’ and ‘you’. The real actions are the upgrading work and the waiting, and the implied action of answering calls.

So following Williams’ formula (and tweaking the tone of voice), we might end up with something more like: ‘Sorry, you may have to wait a little longer for us to answer your call at the moment, as we’re upgrading our system.’

8. Avoid heavy punctuation marks

For my money, the best punctuation marks for online copy are stops, commas, dashes, question marks and ellipses. The ones to avoid are semi-colons and brackets, which tend to slow down your sentences and which are also often a sign that your syntax is getting too complex.

9. Go for cat-sat-on-the-mat syntax

In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell makes fun of our need to stop sentences coming down with a bump by bolting on some ready-made bit of waffle at the end.

If a sentence feels a bit too crudely definite to our delicate ears, he writes, we’re tempted to add on a phrase like ‘to a certain extent’ or ‘at least in some ways’ to cushion the blow.

In this way, padding and waffle debase political discourse, Orwell argued. They’re not great in online copy either, where we need everyday English and simple cat-sat-on-the-mat syntax to reduce the user’s processing load.

So have no fear of a short sentence. Just don’t make them all short. Don’t forget tempo and rhythm. Vary sentence length within sensible limits. Read your stuff aloud for rhythm. Too many short sentences together jar. As here.

9 rules of web writing that really matter

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Dan Brotzel

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