Home  › Marketing › Strategies

The Seven Qualities of Highly Successful Web Writing

  |  December 12, 2000   |  Comments

Kathy Henning addresses the seven qualities of highly successful web writing: clarity, relevance, brevity, scanability and readability, consistency, free of errors, and good integration with the site design.

Last week I promised to address the seven qualities of highly successful web writing. In future articles I'll write about each one separately, but here's the list in brief:

1. Clarity

Clarity is in the eye of the beholder, not of the writer. No matter how clear your words seem to you, never assume they're clear to your readers.

Here's an example:

Recently I wrote an email invitation to a site launch party for Vertebrae. The invitation linked to an online R.S.V.P. form with four fields:

    First name
    Last name
    Email address
    Number of guests

To me it was perfectly clear "Number of guests" meant "Number of guests I'm bringing." But when we tested it, some people weren't sure whether it meant "Number I'm bringing" or "Total number in my party."

Why couldn't I see the ambiguity? Simple: I was too close to the words.

In this case the stakes weren't high, but often they are. Readers have an extremely low tolerance for unclear text, so test everything.

2. Relevance

Readers expect relevant content online. If they don't find it quickly, they'll leave.

How do you write relevant text? My friend and mentor Nick Usborne says, "Don't write about the thing you're selling. Write about the people to whom you're selling it."

How do you do that? First you must get into readers' heads. Here are some ways I do that:

  • I watch focus groups live, then again on tape.

  • I talk to people who represent the target audience.

  • I attend industry trade shows.

  • I read emails that readers have sent to customer service -- hundreds of them -- and respond when appropriate.

  • I listen in on customer service calls.

Second, talk to your readers, not at them. Engage them; don't corner them. Readers hate "marketese," Jakob Nielsen found in a 1998 study.

But how do you avoid "marketese" and still convince readers that what the site offers has value for them?

"Look for the emotional lever," says veteran web writer and teacher Larry Asher. "People don't buy beer, elect candidates, or order stock photos for rational reasons. Figure out what emotional fuse your product lights and talk about that -- whether the topic is fine French perfume or used dump trucks."

3. Brevity

As a general rule, online text should have half as many words as print text, but often one-quarter or even one-tenth is called for.

But shorter isn't always better. Writing succinctly is a juggling act. Cut every unnecessary word, but never sacrifice clarity for brevity.

And test after you've cut.

4. Scanability and readability

Online, readers tend to scan, looking for something to act on. Make it easy for them. Whenever possible, break up text by using headlines, bullets, and frequent paragraph breaks.

5. Consistency

Navigation, terminology, tone, and style should be consistent throughout the site. Inconsistency tends to confuse and annoy readers.

Choose a style guide, such as "The Chicago Manual of Style," and stick with it. Or write your own.

6. Freedom from errors

Grammatical mistakes, typos, and misspellings can spoil or even ruin a reader's experience. Not all readers notice, but plenty do. And chances are a few will be outraged, especially if you're writing about writing.

In my last article, I used "compliment" for "complement." Though I've corrected it scores of times in others' writing, I didn't notice it because I was too close to it and up against a midnight deadline. I caught hell for it from two readers. Ouch! (It's fixed now -- that's the beauty of the web.)

And factual errors can be disastrous.

Never be the sole proofreader of your writing. Have someone else -- ideally a professional proofreader or editor -- proof it both before and after coding. (Proofing it before coding isn't enough. Text can be dropped, put in the wrong place, retyped incorrectly, or miscoded.)

7. Good integration with the site design

It might seem that ensuring the text and site design are well integrated is the designer's responsibility, not the writer's. Not true. Designing web pages should be a collaborative, iterative process between the writer and the designer because a site's design can have a big impact on the text. What sounds good in a text file might be all wrong once the text is incorporated into the design.

Work closely with the designer throughout the process, and cultivate a collaborative relationship. Both the text and the design will be better for it.

ClickZ Live Toronto On the heels of a fantastic event in New York City, ClickZ Live is taking the fun and learning to Toronto, June 23-25. With over 15 years' experience delivering industry-leading events, ClickZ Live offers an action-packed, educationally-focused agenda covering all aspects of digital marketing. Register today!

ClickZ Live San Francisco Want to learn more? Join us at ClickZ Live San Francisco, Aug 10-12!
Educating marketers for over 15 years, ClickZ Live brings together industry thought leaders from the largest brands and agencies to deliver the most advanced, educational digital marketing agenda. Register today and save $500!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kathy Henning Kathy Henning is managing editor of CommunicationFitness, a Web site for learning and teaching more effective communication skills. A writer and editor for 20 years, since 1997 she has focused primarily on the Web, and during that time has written and edited copy for nearly 40 sites. She also teaches writing and editing, and has an MA in English. Prior to her Web days she spent eight years as an editor at a law firm and two years as a magazine editor.

COMMENTSCommenting policy

comments powered by Disqus

Get the ClickZ Marketing newsletter delivered to you. Subscribe today!

COMMENTS

UPCOMING EVENTS

Featured White Papers

Gartner Magic Quadrant for Digital Commerce

Gartner Magic Quadrant for Digital Commerce
This Magic Quadrant examines leading digital commerce platforms that enable organizations to build digital commerce sites. These commerce platforms facilitate purchasing transactions over the Web, and support the creation and continuing development of an online relationship with a consumer.

Paid Search in the Mobile Era

Paid Search in the Mobile Era
Google reports that paid search ads are currently driving 40+ million calls per month. Cost per click is increasing, paid search budgets are growing, and mobile continues to dominate. It's time to revamp old search strategies, reimagine stale best practices, and add new layers data to your analytics.

WEBINARS

Resources

Jobs

    • GREAT Campaign Project Coordinator
      GREAT Campaign Project Coordinator (British Consulate-General, New York) - New YorkThe GREAT Britain Campaign is seeking an energetic and creative...
    • Paid Search Senior Account Manager
      Paid Search Senior Account Manager (Hanapin Marketing) - BloomingtonHanapin Marketing is hiring a strategic Paid Search Senior Account Manager...
    • Paid Search Account Manager
      Paid Search Account Manager (Hanapin Marketing) - BloomingtonHanapin Marketing is hiring an experienced Paid Search Account Manager to...