Bullets Beat Sentences? Not Always…

Who wrote the rules for writing on the web? You know what I’m talking about:

  • Bullets beat sentences.

  • Write nothing longer than one screen view because readers hate to scroll.
  • Avoid multisyllabic words or regional expressions in deference to global readers with limited English skills.
  • Use journalism’s inverted pyramid because most people won’t get through the whole story.
  • Write with half the words that you would use in a print story.

Oh, please…

If we all followed these rules, web copy would be even more paltry than it is right now. WWW would stand for World Wide Weary. We’d be “shockwaved,” “flashed,” and “dreamweaved” to death because cool graphics would be the only outlet for creativity. And most unimaginable of all, there would be no ClickZ.com.

Think about it. Why do you read ClickZ? It’s not just to grab a few bullets of information and leap off the site. I don’t think it’s because all its writers have mastered journalism’s inverted pyramid. And it’s certainly not because you can get everything in one page view.

To borrow the parlance of a presidential campaign that now seems from the Truman era (please don’t correct me, I know it’s not), we read ClickZ because “It’s the writing, stupid.” Take this pearl from writer Nick Usborne describing a critical consumer interaction in the permission marketing process:

“In the vernacular of dating, it [the step in the process] is like finally getting to invite that person of your dreams back up to your apartment, without bothering to tidy your somewhat squalid bedroom first. Old pop cans, food-encrusted plates, and piles of dirty washing strewn across an unmade bed are going to lose any permission you might have had pretty quickly. A bad ‘onsite’ experience destroys permission.”

I read that and cackled with laughter (in addition to thanking my lucky stars my dating days ended 12 years ago). Most important, Nick certainly made his point without dumbing down his copy. And I believe I actually had to scroll down to reach his fantastic imagery (horrors).

I’d like to propose some of my own rules for writing web copy. Actually, they’re mostly antirules, but I’ve heard from enough copywriters over the past month to believe they’re good rules to follow:

  • Good writing is good writing. That’s not the best turn of phrase, but you get the point. Writers don’t need to heed the “no scroll down” rule if their copy is absorbing and well crafted. That said, I’m not proposing everyone post Tolstoy-esque copy on the web. After about 1,000 words, scrolling and/or printing become unwieldy. But I do believe that if it’s good stuff, most readers will even risk carpal tunnel syndrome to hit the scroll-down bar a few times and finish your piece.

  • Vanilla doesn’t work on the web. The web has always been a tad renegade. (Read “The Cluetrain Manifesto – the End of Business As Usual” if you don’t believe me.) Don’t go for dry just because Dimitri in Kazakhstan may come to your site to practice his English. Write in an interesting style… with attitude. In fact, read Heidi Anderson’s column “Testing Your Copy for Best Results,” which states a direct but somewhat playful approach tests best with readers.

  • You have your reader’s attention. Contrary to popular thought, web users do not all want their MTV. Some of us actually have attention spans and are willing to stick with good copy. True, something equally interesting may be just a click away. However, most of us use the web to find information, and if your piece has the information readers need or find absorbing, they’ll stick with it.

OK, I will concur with a few of the “rules” I’ve seen posted for effective web writing. I agree that writers should take advantage of the web’s interactivity and provide the “value added” of links to more detailed information (and please, please check to make sure the links work).

I also agree that it is imperative to carefully research and fact-check your copy. Unlike a lot of periodical print writing, web copy seems to stick around forever and ever. You want to make sure you get it right the first time, or your email box will be filled with messages correcting you into the next millennium.

The same goes for grammar and spelling. Granted, some stringent grammatical rules get bent in the web’s more casual style, but the inability to distinguish “there” from “their” could haunt you for years.

And, yes, you’ll notice that I did use bullets to segment a few points in this article. But will truncated, bulleted nonsentences ever beat finely crafted copy that elucidates, intrigues, or prompts lively discussion?

  • Not
  • Very
  • Likely

P.S. If you have some antirules that make you fume, email me your thoughts. I’ll keep exploring this antitopic in future columns.

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