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Chapter 4. Why Good Copy Counts > What Makes Good Web Copy?

What Makes Good Web Copy?

Writing well for the web does not mean that you have to be the most skilled or high-paid writer around. We are not trying to give our users a literary experience; we are trying to get them what they need. To do this, use language that is:

  1. Honest and straightforward.

  2. Broken up in short, concise chunks and peppered with meaningful blurbs and headlines.

  3. About the user, not you.

  4. Simple, but not simplistic.

  5. Free of spelling and grammatical errors.

  6. Rotated on a regular basis.

When you think of these six characteristics of good web copy, think about all the places on a site where you use words:

  • Body copy

  • Callouts and highlights

  • Headers

  • Title tags

  • Navigation

  • Error messages

At every place where text appears, the shoestring web professional takes advantage of the power of the written word and uses the principles of good web copy to maximize that power.

Budget Threat

Nothing can undermine the success of your site as easily as bad copy. Users have no tolerance for insincere jargon, and they lose confidence in a site riddled with bad grammar. If you have taken the time and money to create a beautiful design or to develop powerful software, do not undermine those investments by neglecting to take good care of the content.

Be Honest and Straightforward

Returning to the sage insight of Nick Usborne, we know that when people read on the web, they are much more skeptical than when they read a book, a brochure, a newspaper, or any other printed material. Usborne maintains that the same hyperbole that people tolerate in print puts them off when they encounter it on the web. The glib language of marketing will fail you if you use it on the web.

I add to that idea that even the happiest web user is just a click away from the frustration of conducting business on the web. Taking these ideas together, most visitors are a pretty prickly bunch, and the web professional's job is to keep them from feeling skeptical and frustrated. The best and easiest way to do this is to keep your words honest and to the point—simply tell your users what they need to know.

Take a look at Figures 4.1 and 4.2. Figure 4.1 is the Swimmers Guide site as I found it. Notice the theme line—the descriptive text “More information about more swimming pools in more places than on any other resource! More swimming links than any of the swimming indexes!.” What does this text tell the reader about what the site does?

4.1. Hyperbole helps no one. The theme line—or lines, really—in the Swimmers Guide (www.swimmersguide.com/) is hyperbolic drivel. It does not even tell us whether the site is about public pools, building pools, pools for purchase, or pools of the rich and famous. Who cares that the site offers the most information about swimming pools? We want to know what kind of information is there and how good it is. Tell us more of what we need to know.

4.2. Tell us who you are and what your site does. Using some copy that was squirreled away on an About page (left), I edited the theme line for this revised version of the site (right). Now we know what the site does. You can make something from nothing by moving your best copy to the home page.

Spinning Straw into Gold

Far too often, good copy is buried deep in a site's internal pages, while hyperbolic language floats to the top. Take advantage of the stronger language by promoting it to the splash page.

Now read the copy as I have edited it in Figure 4.2: “An international directory of publicly-accessible, full-size, year-round swimming pools available.” This is copy that I found buried down a level in the site. So often the most engaging and descriptive language is buried on a site as an afterthought. This probably is because when people are not trying as hard, the real idea of what they are trying to sell comes to the surface in a human voice. Think about the copy that you have already written, languishing in the corners of your site. If you have good copy like this—copy that tells what your site does—bring it out. It is no more expensive to use your best copy up front on your splash page than it is to bury it.

The hyperbolic theme line in Figure 4.1 might do well in the Yellow Pages, but when you have a potentially impatient audience of web users, give them the straight dope. Keep it honest and straightforward; tell them exactly what they need to know. The Hendersonville County Public Library site is a fine example of this, shown in Figure 4.3. At the very top of the site is the telephone number for the director of that library. In highlighting the phone number of the person in charge, this site delivers in a straightforward way information that is probably in high demand among that library's audience.

4.3. Relevant copy can be as simple as a phone number.

Cutting to the chase with web copy will not cost more than droning on will. You do not need special software or hardware. Shorter copy also means that you have fewer words to edit. If you pay by the word for copy or copy editing, striving for short, to-the-point text will reduce content costs. It also means that you can get more material above the fold, giving the user a better idea of what else the site offers, and giving you a better return on your writing investment.

Break Text into Small Chunks and Use Headlines Liberally

In a May 2002 eye-tracking study conducted by Stanford University and The Poynter Institute (www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,36104,00.html), researchers found that on news sites, users scan headlines and blurbs before zeroing in on content that they then read word for word. It is safe to extrapolate beyond the newspaper web site genre and apply this insight to other kinds of web sites, such as school and library sites, church and community sites, and small business sites. The lesson is obvious: Chunk text into bite-size pieces, and give your users headlines and blurbs to read, as shown in Figure 4.4.

4.4. A List Apart (www.alistapart.com/) is a weekly magazine for people who make web sites. As a not-for-profit, ALA operates on a budget that is practically nonexistent. Each article is chunked into small, bite-size paragraphs and is broken into manageable intellectual pieces with meaningful headlines. If your site has long pieces of content, be sure to chunk text in this way and to write straightforward, meaningful headlines. The headlines will help users.

When we learned to write in school, our language teachers drilled into our heads that paragraphs are buckets for related thoughts. We were taught to create a new paragraph only when we had a new idea. Ignore this well-learned rule when you write for the web, or learn to define “new idea” somewhat more liberally. Remember that reading on the computer screen sucks and that your site visitors need visual relief if they are going to read anything on your site at all.

We have been emphasizing the notion of “daring to do less” as an important theme for any successful shoestring web site; here the idea might be applied to the length of copy. Write shorter paragraphs, and this should alleviate the need to chunk text randomly.

Also remember that you can craft condensed versions of an idea and then use hypertext to link to a more detailed version of the same topic.

Breaking text into small chunks is not quite enough. It is also important that you give your readers headlines and subheads to help them navigate though passages. This not only helps them scan and digest content, but it also helps them keep track of where they are as they scroll through longer pages.

The irony of this low-tech chunking and headline technique is that it does a presentation job that more involved and expensive design work can't do nearly so easily: It makes text look good on the page.

Write About the User, Not About You

If I had a nickel for every site that seemed to be having a conversation with itself, I would be a wealthy woman. The tendency to use words in a self-absorbed rather than user-centered manner comes out in profound ways. Some of the best examples are in site navigation.

Figure 4.5 shows a site for a continuing education program at the University of Connecticut. Turn your attention to the first item on the left navigation pane. Centers and Institutes seems innocuous enough, but think about the analogous link in the UCLA continuing education site (see Figure 4.6); Fields of Study is less about the structure of the school and more about the options available to the student.

4.5. The copy in the University of Connecticut Continuing Education program site is about the program (http://continuingstudies.uconn.edu/). Even the theme line, “Transforming Lives Through Education,” is about the program, not about the students. It is a hard habit to break, but try to write about the user rather than about your program.

4.6. The University of Southern California also has a Continuing Education Program (www.uclaextension.org). The language in this site is more about the student and less about the program. The theme line, “Lifelong Learning,” is about the process or experience of the student, not about the program.

Each school offers a travel-study program. On the University of Connecticut site, the link to this program is labeled International Studies; this is a description of the program. The link to the travel-study program at UCLA is in the spotlight area in the middle of the page; the text for this program describes the student's experience. UCLA takes the user-centered language principle one step further by personalizing the copy and giving a short blurb about one student's experience.

One last comparison, and then I'll give the University of Connecticut a break. Each school offers online courses. The University of Connecticut labels the link to this section of the site with the left menu item, Online Courses. UCLA takes us to the same information with the label Become an Online Learner at the bottom right of the page.

Using language that is about the user rather than your site does not cost you any extra money, and it adds warmth and humanity to your site that can come from nowhere else.

My Whatever

Don't try to personalize content that is not personal. It is just silly. For a time, The New York Times on the web got caught up in the “My Whatever” label; we saw sections called My Finance and My Real Estate. When I go to the Times, however, I am not looking for information about my finances. I already have that information. I am looking for financial information about New York City, the United States, and the world. There is nothing personal about what I am looking for.

From a writing standpoint, the “My Whatever” label is a bad move strategically, especially when you are writing site navigation. If most or all of your navigation labels begin with the word My, they are more difficult to read quickly. Which of the following two lists is easier to scan?

My FinanceFinance
My StyleStyle
My Real EstateReal Estate
My CatalogCatalog

Personalization functions make sense on certain web sites: I happen to like news sites that let me customize the screen so that articles about science appear before articles about sports. I am not suggesting that we do away with personalization features; this is simply a warning about getting wonky with overly personalized language.

Keep It Simple but Not Simplistic

Make sure that your sentences are short and to the point. Try to avoid compound sentences, especially as you introduce products and services. Figure 4.7 shows a fabulous no-no from the United States Post Office (www.usps.com/zip4/).

4.7. Most of the copy on this ZIP code lookup page (www.usps.com) is just fine. The text “Do you need a ZIP + 4 code(s) for a city? Or all cities in a ZIP code?” is straightforward and tells the user what she or he can do with this page. But take a look at what follows it.

The following copy looks like it was written by a programmer when the site was still in beta:

For integrating ZIP code lookup capabilities into your web site or application system, please visit our web tools (APIs) or find additional addressing products at Address Information System Products (AIS).

This is not to slam programmers; something happens to the brain while one is engaged in application development that makes it very hard to write for humans. I have seen it happen to the most articulate people. If you are the person doing both the programming and the writing, make sure you give yourself time to clean up the copy in post-production. A simple turn of phrase such as the following might do the trick:

Add ZIP code lookup to your web site. See our other address system products.

Well-intended writers sometimes think that web copy needs to be chatty, even glib. Not so. In fact, such an approach can be a bit embarrassing.

Consider the IRS web site shown in Figure 4.8 as a warning (http://www.irs.gov/individuals/):

Where's My Refund?

Get the lowdown on your refund now. Secure access anytime from anywhere. What a deal!

4.8. What a deal indeed (www.irs.gov). How does “get the lowdown” help me find refund information?

Remember also that the voice you use needs to reflect the company or organization that you are writing for. I know that the IRS is trying to be a more friendly and accessible agency, but we are never going to want to get down with them, and this inappropriate voice is a bit jarring. Who are we trying to kid? Why waste words on chatty copy that feels awkward and offers no real value to your customers?

I might rewrite IRS copy thusly and save the slang for when I am hanging with my peeps:

Where's My Refund?

Check the status of your refund online now.

Keep Your Site Free of Spelling and Grammatical Errors

The best way to undermine your user's confidence in your product and your message is to publish a site that is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. Use your spell checker, but remember that it will not help you with all errors. Take the time to review your copy carefully. Ask more than one person to check your text. Just as with shoestring usability, described in the previous chapter, shoestring copy editing and proofreading does not require the services of expensive professionals (although, if you can afford those professionals, it's money well spent). Shoestring copy editing and proofreading relies on the fact that two heads are better than one and that one pair of eyes can catch what another misses. Ask a colleague to look over your work before taking it live.

Keep an eye open for common language misuses. Know the difference between it's and its, your and you're, and affect and effect.

I am not the best at spelling, nor am I especially adept at distinguishing between homonyms. Every time I use the word palette, I have to check the dictionary to see that I should not be using palate. I know more than anyone how long it takes to thoroughly check language, spelling, and grammar, but as one who has suffered the embarrassment of these errors, I understand the value of good copy editing. If you do not have this kind of talent on your staff, make sure to find a way to have your site copy edited.

At one time in our history, grammar and spelling were taught more rigorously than they are now. You might be able to find a product of this old-school education who can do copy editing for you at shoestring rates. Check local community organizations that cater to the gray–hair set. You might also be able to find a poor college or graduate student in your area who will be happy to be paid by the word.

If you simply can't afford a copy editor, or even if you can, take this advice: Read The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr., E. B. White, and Roger Angell. The book is now in its fourth edition. I promise that this will be the best $8 you ever spend. This book will save you from looking stupid by pointing out the most common grammatical and word choice errors that we are all prone to making.

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