Fresh Fish Sold Here!

Writers on the ‘net are still trying to catch up.

In the early days of web commerce, programmers carved out their niche pretty quickly. After all, you can’t get far in creating a web site without a programmer.

Designers struck it lucky. From about 1985 onwards, this formerly computer-illiterate bunch had been honing their computer skills with desktop publishing programs. They took to the ‘net like ducks to water.

Writers were a little slow to leap into the fray. One result of this ridiculous coyness on our part is that many, if not most, commercial web sites are not written by professional writers.

And when the dominant voices in the creation of a web site continue to be those of the designer and programmer — something weird happens to the words. They often lose their meaning.

Let’s say you’re putting together five navigation buttons on your home page. The designer designs the buttons. The writer then needs to write something very, very short to fit inside the button.

Here’s an example taken from the home page of a regional, small business web site. Here are the words on the five navigational buttons:

HOME GVEDC SEA BIC MENTOR

I think we’re all clear on the HOME button. But do any of the others mean anything to you at all? They fit the design very nicely, but mean absolutely nothing. Nor do they have any accompanying explanatory text.

I’m not saying brevity isn’t good. I think it is. But not to the point where all meaning is lost.

This concept is explained wonderfully in book three of Editing and Design. A Five-Volume Manual of English, Typography and Layout, by Harold Evans. Here’s what he says.

A fishmonger had a sign that said: FRESH FISH SOLD HERE

The fishmonger had a friend who persuaded him to rub out [erase] the word FRESH because naturally he wouldn’t expect to sell fish that wasn’t fresh; to rub out the word HERE because naturally he’s selling it here, in the shop; to rub out the word SOLD because naturally he isn’t giving it away; and finally to rub out the word FISH because you can smell it a mile off.

This story nicely anticipates what’s happening on the ‘net right now. Imagine that we just created a new online store: FreshFishSoldHere.com. On the home page, our heading is the domain name itself. And beneath “FreshFishSoldHere.com,” we’ll have three buttons.

Click here to buy Fresh Cod

Click here to buy Fresh Salmon

Click here to buy Fresh Halibut

It’s brief. It’s simple. And, I think, logistics aside, this could work pretty well. Then, having written these words, I take a quick vacation. To the designer and programmer I say, “Go for it guys. See you when I get back!”

When I get back and log on to FreshFishSoldHere.com, here’s what I find.

The heading is gone. In its place is a huge purple graphic of a fish that covers the entire screen. Centered on top of this are three other fish. One is a graphic, I guess, of a cod. It says, Click Here. The next is a graphic of a salmon. You get the idea.

Is this a likely scenario? You betcha. Would the “designer” site sell better than the site with words? I don’t think so.

Words carry meaning and can sell. But only if you let them. So how can we make sure that professional writing skills are put to use in the creation of commercial web sites?

One problem is that writers are being very slow to recognize that they could make a living by writing online. And there’s a learning curve. If someone is writing at an ad agency or on a magazine right now, they won’t be a master of internet commerce by dinner time.

My message to people who want great sites that sell is this: Take a step back and find a great writer before you start.

My message to writers is this: WHAT THE FREAKIN’ NELL ARE YOU WAITING FOR YOU DUMB SUMS OF BRITCHES A FORKIN’ EMBOSSED INVITATION? GET YOU STUPIT GROD-DAN HIDES ONLINE RIGHT NOW!

Thank you.

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