Think Before You Write

I don’t know how other writers think. But for myself, the act of writing is sometimes hard to separate from the process of thinking.

For instance, I have a fair idea of how this article is going to progress. But chances are that within the next 500 or so words, I’ll stumble across a thought or two I haven’t had before.

Even if I don’t have a new thought, I’ll maybe express some old ideas in a slightly different way — and see them from a whole new viewpoint.

The process of developing thoughts as you write is a great thing for a novelist or columnist. But I don’t think it’s such a hot idea for someone writing a web site.

Here’s an experiment you can try, offline. Grab a few magazines or newspapers and find some ads that have longish copy. Pick an ad and read the full body of the main block of text.

Now cross out the first paragraph and start reading from paragraph two instead.

What you’ll often find is that very little is lost by scratching those first few lines. In fact, many ads are improved by cutting the first paragraph.

How come?

Because the writer was warming up. Lots of writers, myself included, sling a few words at the page just to get started. The experienced writer will then go back and cut away the ‘warm up’ stage.

The inexperienced writer won’t.

And like I said, this can be bad news on a web site. Let’s say I’m sitting down with a bunch of chums and we’re creating a fair-sized web site that sells stuff. I’ll do the writing bit, someone else can do the design work, someone else can program the site itself, and one more person can program the backend database and site administration tools. We’ll do our critical path, and all of a sudden I have a bunch of writing to do.

I’ll take a look at the storyboard and get started. I’ll probably want to start at the home page. After all, that’s where my visitors are going to start. And I’ll start slinging some words at the screen. The homepage will go pretty fast. Not too much text there. Then onto the next level and so on.

Meanwhile, I’ve been passing on my text to the designer and the programmer.

If I’m a ‘warm up with words’ kind of writer, one of two things are going to happen.

First, if I don’t go back and cut away the ‘warm up’ text from the home page, I’ll likely have a pretty ineffective collection of text on the page that needs the very best I can do.

Second, if I do go back and attempt to cut and change the home page copy — the designer and programmer will likely make some suggestions that only a proctologist would find amusing. After all, some of my ‘warming up’ text — in the form of links and forms — may have already been programmed right through to the backend of the site.

The moral of this story is that as a writer, you have to be very self-disciplined when it comes to writing the text for a web site.

If you write a sloppy intro to an ad or article in a newspaper, your crime will be at the bottom of the cat’s litter tray by the end of the day anyway.

Get sloppy when you write for the web and you could impact the work of many people — and the long-term success of the entire site.

That means you should think things all the way through, before you start writing.

More on this next week.

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