The Seven Qualities of Highly Successful Web Writing

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.

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