Writing Well Online: Talent Isn’t Enough

A few years ago, I wondered why any self-respecting writer would ever want to write for the web. Words on the web seemed so impermanent, so forgettable, so unsophisticated — like words on a chalkboard. Why would it matter whether the writing was good or bad? And standards: Why bother?

But somewhere along the way (I don’t remember the exact moment, but it was sometime in early 1997), I fell in love with the web. Before I knew it, I was a web writer.

What I’d come to realize was that writing for the web wasn’t at all like writing on a chalkboard.

For one thing, pages can be archived indefinitely, or printed out and saved forever.

For another thing, there’s nothing inherently unsophisticated about words on the web — any more than there’s anything inherently sophisticated about words in print. Good writing is good writing whatever the medium.

And though words on the web tend to be less formal than words in print, standards matter every bit as much online as in print, if not more. (Why else would so many people have such a gut-level reaction when Wired put the hyphen back in “email”?)

Copywriting on the web, I came to realize, is like writing song lyrics. On the web, text and design need to complement each other to create a good user experience — the way lyrics and melody need to complement each other to create a good song. Too many words, the wrong words, or even words with too many syllables — and you lose your audience. Switching web sites is as easy as switching radio stations.

Writing for the Web Is Harder — Not Easier — Than Writing for Print

“A writer is someone,” said 1929 Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann, “for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

It’s so true.

And the more serious you are about writing, the more difficult writing becomes. Oscar Wilde once claimed he’d spent the entire morning putting in a comma and the entire afternoon taking it out again. Though most of us writers aren’t quite that hard on ourselves, many of us can agonize — even lose sleep — over a single word.

But I believe web copywriters have the most difficult lot of all copywriters. And I believe it’s getting more difficult all the time. Here’s why:

  • As the Internet matures, stiffer competition online drives up the quality of the user experience and, with it, users’ expectations. What was good enough to keep users on a site a year ago doesn’t cut it today.
  • Users are in a bigger hurry than ever online, and they’re usually task-driven. With far too much to read, far too many sites competing for their attention, and far too many other demands on their time, they’re hell-bent on getting in and out fast. Anything that slows them down will send them away, most likely forever.
  • Copywriting for the web is a collaborative, iterative process that requires you to work closely with designers and other members of the team every step of the way. You solitary scriveners must either get used to working in tandem or stick with print.
  • You never know where users will enter your site. They may never even see your home page, let alone start there. That means every page should be able to stand on its own. Sometimes, therefore, you have to find several ways to write the same thing without sounding repetitive — when in print you could write it once and be done.
  • No matter how well you understand your target audience (and it’s critical you understand your target audience — more on that in another article), your actual users could be anyone anywhere in the world: children in Australia, businesspeople in Asia, retirees, college graduates, high school dropouts. Your words need to be clear to all of them.

So how do you pull it off? How do you factor in all the demands of writing online and come up with the right words?

One thing’s for sure: It takes more than talent. World-class print writers don’t necessarily make world-class web writers. Why?

Because besides talent, it takes an understanding of web site architecture and navigation. It takes a feel for the web. An affinity with the web. Perhaps even a passion for the web. And it takes a willingness to collaborate and let go.

Aye, there’s the rub.

Next week: the seven qualities of highly successful web writing.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.