The art of writing for the web: how to craft purposeful, bullshit-free copy that gets results
In the first of a four part series, we consider how we typically interact with the internet, what that means for the way we need to craft our content for the web (and why this probably runs counter-intuitive to everything we were ever taught at school).
The internet is a distraction machine.
We spend our days wrestling an infinite stream of incoming information across multiple browser tabs and screens: a relentless flow of incoming email, a torrent of social media feeds, and countless smartphone push notifications bombard us from all angles, at all times of the day.
So what does this mean for our companies and their websites? Well, if you’re an organisation that’s spent hour upon painstaking hour, fine-tuning that amazing sounding copy for the corporate website — I have some news. And advance warning, it’s going to be a bit deflating (it may even sting a little).
You may want to sit down for this. Ready? Okay, here goes…
No one is reading your website.
Wow. Ouch. Okay, so that’s the bad news.
And the good news? The good news is that once we accept the fact that the vast majority of our website visitors simply don’t have the time nor the inclination to pore over our information in great detail, it paves the way for us to adapt our writing so that it’s easy for key details to be digested and understood — even when little cognitive effort is being spent on it.
There’s an art and science to good writing for the web, defined by principles distinct from those that define good writing for print.
In this series, I want to share some of the key principles that define great writing for the web. Starting with understanding what it is about the internet and the way we behave on it, that makes writing for the web… a thing.
I’ll then run through the 3 key steps to producing clean, purposeful and bullshit-free web copy that gets results.
Want to learn how to write web copy that actually sinks in with the people we seek to reach and connect with? Read on…
How people read on the web
Are you still with me, dear reader? Statistically, actually, probably not.
“On average, a web user will read only 20% of every web page they interact with.”
– Nielson Norman group, how users read on the web
How do people read on the web? They don’t.
At least not in the traditional sense — such as when we settle down with a book or newspaper.
No, when we’re in ‘online browse mode’ — when we interact with a new website, say — our brains are in a completely different processing setting to what could be described as ‘deep reading mode’.
We skim the surface: pick out keywords of interest, inevitably get distracted by the next competing piece of incoming information within a matter of seconds, and move on.
And that, dear reader (still with me?), is where the so-called discipline of writing for the web — the oh-so distracted, pull-you-in-a-million-directions, web — comes from.
So, what defines ‘good’ writing for the web? Glad you asked. Let’s have a go at defining it…
Writing for the web: a definition
Writing for the web describes writing that’s adapted to the reading habits of people when they’re online: to scan, to pick out keywords, and not read everything word-for-word.
Good writing for the web is:
- Concise (not convoluted)
- Simple (not complex)
- Logical (not meandering)
- Attention-grabbing (not generic)
- Well-structured (not amorphous)
- Meaningful (not forgettable)
Question: is writing for the web ‘dumbing things down’?
No. Good writing for the web is writing with the bullshit removed — so that only clean and direct meaning remains.
In many cases, it takes far more effort and skill to craft this type of communication, compared to ‘dressed up’ writing.
As E.F. Schumacher (apparently) once said:
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
Research has scientifically backed this idea up. One study (with one hilariously ironic title) shows that writers who use plain and simple language are perceived as more intelligent than those that needlessly use complex sentences and big words.
That’s right… trying too hard to sound intelligent can actually signify a lack of confidence and ability from the writer to actually say what they mean, and mean what the say.
“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.“
– William Strunk Jr, The Elements of Style (published in 1918)
Writing for the web, is about making every word tell.
Clear writing, reflects clear thinking — a far greater signal of intelligence than needlessly showy and complex language.
Which probably runs counterintuitively to everything we were taught at school…
How school taught us everything we needed… to write terrible web copy
Traditional education rewards the ability to sound intelligent over the ability to communicate clearly and directly.
Consider the classic formula for an academic essay. A typical essay structure goes something like:
- Introduction: rich in contextual background to really demonstrate to teachers that we’ve done our research and read lots of sources.
- Middle section: multiple paragraphs laying out a range of opposing arguments, demonstrating our skill in critical thinking and to tie together multiple perspectives into a cohesive critique of a particular topic.
- Conclusion: where all balanced ideas are tied up neatly in a bow.
The whole point, is to not get to the point — to instead drag out our argument, not revealing our conclusions until the end of an essay.
To be clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with this style of writing. It isn’t bad writing, per se. It just isn’t the style of communication that’s called for in contexts where we need to quickly and effectively make ourselves understood — in the workplace, in our external communications with customers. And yes, on our websites.
“By the time your essay-writing ability has gotten you into college, you’ve internalized a few lessons. One is that a longer paper will probably get a better grade. You read academic writing, which is full of passive voice and jargon, and learn to imitate it to sound smart. In a survey of Stanford undergraduates, 86% admitted that they used complicated language in papers to sound more sophisticated.
“If you’re lucky, soon after you graduate you get a job. The first thing they do is show you the employee manual, which is full of legalese and jargon. Your colleagues are writing long cover-your-ass bullshit in the reports and emails you read. So you take those skills you learned in school and become part of the corporate bullshit machine.
“We write the way we do because the educational system trained us to do so. But it has failed us. In the WOBS Writing Survey, only 38% of writing professionals said that their high school and college writing teachers had prepared them well for writing at work.“
– Josh Bernoff, Writing Without Bullshit
So, to start writing better web copy for our businesses and non-profits — copy that actually communicates meaning and adds value — we need to undo everything we were taught at school.
We need to break the habit of hiding clear meaning behind academic or corporate jargonese and retrain our brains to communicate in a way that makes every word tell.
Good web copy: 3 steps to making every word tell
These 3 steps are key to creating clear, usable and compelling web copy that gets results:
- Understand who your audience is and what they need from you
- Adopt style techniques that optimise language clarity and directness
- Structuring and formatting content for online scanning and readability
In the next three posts, we’ll cover each of these steps in a little more detail.
See you there.