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Writing basics for the web

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This is an excerpt of Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose. It’s excellent general-purpose writing advice, geared towards writing for users. Required reading for anyone who writes copy for users.

Chapter 4: Writing Basics

You’ve done your research. You have a plan. You can’t escape it any longer. It’s time to sit down and write (eek!). Yes, this is the hard part. Hang in there, though. We’re in this together. In this chapter, we’ll cover:

  • Basic guidelines
  • Common mistakes
  • Tips for getting unstuck
  • Exercises for improving your writing

Let’s start with a few guidelines for good writing to help you produce it.

Basic guidelines

Good writing is clear, useful, and friendly. Some sentences may be a little plain or just the facts, ma’am, but that’s okay. A straightforward tone rarely hurts the reading experience, as long as the information is accurate.

The hardest part, of course, is making sense to someone outside your own head. To write clearly, you need to understand your subject, organize your thoughts, and present each point in a logical way. That takes a combination of research, patience, and clearheaded thinking. Style is another important layer that we’ll touch on here and explore in upcoming chapters. Your style is there to help you convey your message, which means it’s secondary to the message itself.

So let’s get to good first and bring in style later. Good means solid, not glamorous, cute, or catchy. Practice these guidelines regularly:

  • Be clear.
  • Be concise.
  • Be honest.
  • Be considerate.
  • Write how you speak.

Let’s work through each of them individually. Rules and guidelines can be a little dry, but we’ll try to make this enjoyable.

Be clear

Writing is almost always about clarity. Of course you want to be clear! But if you’re under a deadline, it can be hard to spot what’s confusing to readers. Here are a few practical tips.

Remember that you’re the expert

Don’t assume that readers will understand what you’re writing about. You know your business and your website better than they do. Invite them in as if you’re striking up a conversation or telling a story. You don’t have to dumb things down, but you do need to help readers skim and follow along. Think about what you’d tell a friend or a neighbor if they were learning about the topic you’re covering.

Keep it simple

If there’s a shorter word to say what you mean, use it

Untitled

LongerBetter
compose, author
write
discover
find
incentivize
encourage, reward
objective
goal
obtain
get
optimize
improve
purchase, acquire
buy
retain
keep
utilize, leverage
use

Keep your writing as close to speech as possible. One way to do that is to read your work aloud and see if it sounds like you. For example, do you ever hear people say “inimitable” or “natch” in person? Yikes. If it feels forced, rephrase it. Another way to write like you talk is to use contractions, which crop up naturally in conversation.

Be specific

If you’re writing instructions for a series of steps, go through the steps yourself and write down the names of links or buttons exactly as you see them. Be explicit in what you’re asking the reader to do.

Avoid vague instructions:

Update your settings to receive fewer communications from us.

Instead, include specific labels:

To receive fewer emails, go to Settings > Email Notifications.

Names and labels improve clarity like signs on a highway. Show people how to get around by adding these details. This is especially important for links to articles, headings, and help content.

Consider these questions as you write:

  • What is the reader trying to do?
  • What does the reader need to know?
  • What’s missing?
  • What happens next?
  • Is this topic covered somewhere else?

Tell readers what to expect and guide them through the process. Don’t stop at a basic confirmation:

Your order was successful.

Instead, add details about the order:

Thanks for your order. You’ll receive an email confirmation within a few minutes. [View Order] [Print Receipt]

If something goes wrong, politely explain what to do next, whether it’s reading an article, resetting a password, or asking for help. Including buttons and links can help you with that.

Be consistent

Use names and labels consistently. If you refer to notifications in one place, call them notifications everywhere else—not push notifications, instant notifications, real-time alerts, or messages. Being consistent and being repetitive aren’t the same thing. Consistent names reduce the number of things your readers have to remember. Being consistent helps people understand the different parts of your website and shows them where to find what they’re looking for. As an added bonus, consistent terms improve usability and reduce translation costs.

You should also be consistent with how you capitalize headings and subheadings—whether you decide to use title casing or sentence casing.

Be careful with pronouns, too. Some websites are confusing in this way. They refer to the reader as you in one place and me in another. Here are a few common examples from headings and links:

  • About us
  • My account
  • Enter your comment
  • Your orders

Who’s us here? Generally, us and we should refer to your company, with our referring to things belonging to your company. This is where my is especially weird. Who’s me here? The reader or the company? One way to avoid this awkwardness is to avoid pronouns in the first place:

  • About
  • Account
  • Enter a comment
  • Order history

Otherwise, we recommend calling the reader you to keep your writing conversational. This is definitely a style choice, but you should be consistent one way or another to avoid confusion.

Break the rules thoughtfully

Most of the time, your writing should fit in with your house style or the style of the publication you’re contributing to. But every now and then, you’ll need to break the rules. It’s common for web writers to break traditional style conventions, because some rules don’t read well online. For example, most style guides say to spell out numbers up to ten, but digits usually work better on the web since readers are scanning. Another example is how you refer to people after introducing them. Traditionally, you’d use the person’s last name, but people don’t talk like that in person, so it’s a good rule to break.

As you write, keep the appropriate rules and style conventions in mind. Be careful not to confuse or distract the reader. When in doubt, talk about the issue with an editor, rephrase the sentence, or break the rule thoughtfully. If you find yourself breaking the same rule regularly, it may be worth updating your style guide.

Avoid abbreviations and acronyms

It can be tempting to shorten words to save space, but clarity should always come first. As an example, security code is a little longer than CVV, but it’s easier to understand at first glance when you’re talking about credit cards. If you have to use an acronym, briefly define it in plain language on the first mention.

If you’re working within character or word limits, you may need to shorten words occasionally. Here are a few commonly accepted examples:

  • Dates: Sat Nov 22
  • Times: 3h5m, 3hr 5min, am, pm
  • Places: USA, UK, EU, JP, CA
  • Numbers: $20M, 45 ft, 60 m, 60 mi
  • Technical terms: 3G, LTE, EDGE, Wi-Fi
  • Formats: CD, DVD, JPG, GIF

If you decide to use abbreviations, look out for confusing ones, especially those that can refer to both states and countries. For example, CA could be either California or Canada. Use abbreviations sparingly, and add approved ones to your style guide.

Be concise

Most of the time, shorter is better. The easiest way to condense your writing is to give it a clear structure. Sketching is one way to do that. Here are a few other tips for organizing your thoughts.

Start with the main idea

Think about what people need to know right away. Move that information up to the top. Don’t get to the point; start with it. Find a direct and polite way to express your idea. Talking it out with a friend or coworker can help. Record yourself if you can so you can hear how you phrase things. Ask yourself: What am I trying to say? The answer to that question is often shorter than whatever you wrote down.

Make it scannable

Pull related ideas together. Arrange similar topics into modules and sections. Then, you can easily move anything that’s out of order or fill in the gaps. As your paragraphs get longer, add clear headings to them. If you want to call out any important points, use bulleted lists to summarize them. Make it easy for readers to skim, find what they need, and know what’s coming next.

Use simple sentences

Break down big ideas into manageable bites. Keep your sentences as short as possible.

Avoid trailing on:

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for our newsletter to receive deals and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.

Instead, try paring it down:

Sign up for our newsletter to get special offers.

Don’t make people read more than they need to. Once you figure out what your point is, whittle the writing down to the essentials. Here’s another wordy example:

For assistance with questions not listed above, please click here to see our contact information.

Instead, cut the extra words:

Other questions? Contact us.

Cover one idea at a time. If you need to include secondary information, try linking to it instead of summarizing or repeating yourself.

Talk to your readers

Use the imperative when it’s appropriate. Talk to your readers, not at them. Tell them what to do in a kind and straightforward way. This little change in perspective can help you be concise.

For example, avoid talking about yourself:

For the holidays, our customers can find the perfect children’s books on our website.
We’re excited to announce that we are introducing over 30 new products to our shop for the holidays.

Instead, be direct:

Find the perfect holiday gift. Shop now.
There are over 30 new items in the shop today! See what’s on sale.

Be careful with the passive voice, where the subject of the sentence comes after the object:

You have received a gift card from Maria.

Instead, use the active voice:

Maria sent you a gift card.

Balance being direct with being nice. Huddle your nouns and verbs close together to shorten your sentences. Active verbs help you write concisely and invigorate your prose so that it feels more like a conversation.

Be positive

Be careful with negative language, which is usually longer and less friendly than positive language. Avoid telling readers what they can’t do:

You cannot continue without signing in.

Instead, be positive or neutral:

Sign in to continue.

And while it’s generally best to avoid the passive voice, in certain situations it helps you sound softer without adding too many words. It’s especially useful for time-sensitive messages like payment confirmations and error messages. Directness can sometimes sound terse or robotic:

We couldn’t authorize your credit card. We cancelled your order.

In those cases, soften the language:

We were unable to authorize your credit card. Your order has been cancelled.

Conciseness is a trickier concept, because it isn’t always appropriate. You may need to vary the lengths of your sentences to keep them friendly. If you use several short sentences in a row, you can end up sounding sharp or stiff. It’s also possible to cut too much, to oversimplify a complicated issue, or to reduce your message to something generic. Find the simplest way to say what you mean without losing important details.

Be honest

For web writers, honesty means two things: presenting the facts and being true to your company. It’s a combination of accuracy and sincerity. Tell the truth and be nice. Don’t brag about how great you are. Focus on your strengths and present them carefully. People will know when you’re lying to them. Don’t say an offer is “Just for you” if you’re sending it to hundreds of readers.

Be careful

Along with checking for errors, you should also make sure your work is trustworthy and reliable. Back up your claims with facts and concrete examples. Don’t exaggerate or overpromise. For example, if it takes an hour to purchase something over the phone, don’t say it’s a quick call. Or, if you’re specifying how many readers you have, don’t lie about the number.

Check your facts and sources. When reading through a draft, pick out any details you consider to be facts and verify them. If you’re citing another writer’s work or referencing a study, link to it. When you’ve done your research, it will come through in your writing.

Tell the truth

Make sure your writing speaks the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Even if you have the best intentions, little white lies can sometimes sneak in. Be especially aware of this when you’re writing marketing copy. If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, it’s tempting to say things that sound nice but aren’t exactly true. As Anne Lamott says, take out the lies and the boring parts.

image

Check in with your own feelings regularly. As you’re working on each sentence, make sure the writing is sincere. It should represent your real feelings or attitude on the topic. If you feel like you’re pretending or forcing specific words into a phrase, you may need to pull the language back toward reality.

Be careful with adjectives and modifiers. It’s easy to overuse descriptive words and leave readers feeling unsatisfied. Replace fluffy modifiers with concrete ideas. Here are a few examples to avoid:

  • amazing
  • artisanal
  • beautiful
  • dynamic
  • industry-leading
  • innovative
  • intuitive
  • memorable
  • natural
  • powerful
  • revolutionary
  • unique
  • everyone’s favorite
  • it’s never been easier

Show readers how your product is different or why it’s great; don’t tell them how to feel. Avoid being melodramatic:

With our intuitive design tools creating the site you’ve always wanted is easier than you ever imagined. (www.godaddy.com)

Instead, add honest, useful details:

Choose from simple templates or customize your site over FTP.

Point out specific things you can do for the reader, instead of assuming you know what they want.

Be considerate

Help people on their own terms. Use words they understand, and treat them with the same level of respect you’d give them in person.

Be polite

Most of the time, the easiest way to show your empathy is to write how you speak. How would you talk about this in person? Make it sound more like a conversation. Show your thoughtfulness. Make the reader smile. You can even give them a little encouragement. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and check your tone to make sure you’re being polite. If you need the reader to wait for a moment or fill in extra form fields, a simple “please” or “thank you” goes a long way.

Be inclusive

The words you choose affect how people relate to you and define your relationships. Keep the language open when you can. Watch out for words that turn people off or only make sense to a particular audience. Don’t assume that your readers are all from the same place, age group, or industry circle.

Be careful with idioms and slang

Jokes, metaphors, regional expressions, and cultural references don’t always translate well. Your readers may live in different countries, or English may not be their first language. The next time you’re explaining something with a metaphor or a reference, ask yourself if there’s a more universal way to make your point.

Avoid jargon and catchphrases

Don’t complicate your ideas with business or industry jargon. Not everyone will understand your lingo, even if you and your boss talk that way around the office. Whenever you’re reading over your work, remember to cut the bullshit..

Untitled

Blogs and magazinesStartups
bespoke
adaptive
curate
crushing it or killing it
gifted, gifting
disruptive
sustainable
ecosystem
tweeps
engagement
X is the new Y
game changer
the future of X
impact
viral
seamless

You probably have your own set of professional terms too. Make a list of overused words and phrases from your industry and add them to your style guide so that your team knows to avoid them.

Be respectful of personal names and genders

Use a person’s chosen name and preferred gender pronoun. If you’re unsure of what to call someone, use their name or consider using the singular they. Neutral pronouns like them and they are inclusive of all gender presentations, and considerate of the fact that not everyone identifies as male or female. Here’s an example:

Your gift card recipient can choose exactly what they want.

We use the singular they throughout this book for that reason and because it sounds less awkward than the alternatives. And while it may be a controversial topic for grammarians, the singular they has been in use since the 1300s.

Okay, those are all the rules for now. Still here? Great! To sum it up, good content presents the facts in a kind, honest, appropriate way.

Getting unstuck

So far, we’ve covered the basics of good writing and looked at some examples. But if you’re feeling stuck on the writing itself, you may need a little push in the right direction. Here are a few things to try:

  • Be patient. The hardest part of writing is waiting for the right words to come to mind. Keep at it. Stay in your chair, and be kind to yourself as you work through drafts. Don’t try to write and edit at the same time. The first draft is usually the most painful, but don’t be discouraged by that. Writing is a process, and like anything worth doing, it takes time.
  • Switch it up. Depending on what you’re writing, it may be easier to start on one piece than another. If you’re stuck, try switching over to a different page or section. You can also try talking it out with a friend. You don’t have to go in order. In fact, we usually save the introduction for last.
  • Clear your head. If your brain isn’t cooperating, take a walk or try writing in a different environment. Give yourself time to think it through before you force words onto the page. Sometimes all you need is a change of scenery.
  • Read edited text. Reading is the best way to get better at writing. Study other people’s work. Books and magazines can expand your vocabulary and help you develop an ear for strong sentences. As you read, you’ll start to notice different styles, which can help you develop your own voice.

There’s a world of wonderful writing advice out there. We’ve included a list of our favorite books in the Further Reading section.

Go further

After you finish a first or second draft, take a break and let your work rest overnight. Look at it tomorrow with fresh eyes. Ask a few friends or fellow writers for an outside opinion. Find ways to push your writing a little further.

Try different options

One thing you can do to improve your copy is to come up with a few variations. This can help you explore a specific idea in the copy or find the best way to express it. Try words and phrases with slightly different meanings. Think of different directions you could take the feeling or essence of the word. As an example, here are some variations on a button label:

  • Post
  • Publish
  • Comment
  • Send
  • Share
  • Save

Which one works best? How are they different? Along with different words and phrases, try variations in length. Here are some examples for a nonprofit:

  • Donate
  • Donate now
  • Give back
  • Fund a project
  • Make a donation
  • Save a life today
  • Help us save lives
  • Join the fight.
  • Make a contribution.

Longer labels may work better as links or headlines. Write alternate versions to find the best words for your audience. A visual thesaurus or online tool like Wordnik (www.wordnik.com) is a great resource for this.

For longer sections of text, switch the order of your main points. Here’s a basic example using the same button label:

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Get the best deals on zippers Join Zipzip by creating an account [Create account]

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Join Zipzip by creating an account Get the best deals on zippers [Create account]

Presenting a few options can be especially helpful if you’re part of a team. Most people aren’t content experts, and it may be hard to know what they’re expecting from you. Show your team some copy variations to get them involved and speed up the decision-making process. This is also a great starting point for running simple tests on your content.

Read on

People will read your work in different places, on different devices, and in different formats. They could be reading on a phone, or tablet, or computer. They could be on a train commuting to work, eating dinner, or relaxing on the couch. Read your writing in different contexts, so you can experience it the same way. And if you wrote the text in a word processor, be sure to read it online after you publish it.

Check your work

Read your writing on paper too. This is useful for improving drafts, spotting typos, and checking your tone. Tape your current draft to a whiteboard, or find a quiet corner to sit down and read. If you’re feeling adventurous, grab a pen (any color will do) and go to town. For longer pieces, you can check the structure by cutting pages and paragraphs into strips and reordering the sections. As you read, listen to how the words sound and consider each point you’re making. Keep an eye out for redundant ideas. Check for the basics: Are there typos? Are there clunky sentences? Does it all make sense? Would links or references help the reader? Take some time to reread and reconsider your work.

Ask for feedback

We all get too close to our writing. Ask a friend or coworker you respect to read over your draft. We call these people early readers. It might feel embarrassing to share unfinished work, especially earlier in the process, but it can dramatically improve your writing. Tell your early reader what kind of feedback you’re expecting. Does it make sense? Does it flow? Is it interesting? Are there any gaps? Does it sound like you? Or, you may have more specific questions about themes or details in the piece. Be clear about what you need from your early reader and respectful of their time. You may need to move things around or make other changes afterwards, but it’s better to learn that early in the process. Talking about your writing is a great way to make it clear, concise, and polished. (For more editing tips, see Chapter 11: The Revision Process.)

Edit it live

Try editing an existing piece of text in its real habitat. We love this little trick! It’s helpful in meetings where you’re debating headlines or labels with your team. It’s also helpful for copyediting on your own. And it’s easier than you might think. Let’s look at two ways to edit your text in context.

Inspect element

Open the page in your browser. Right-click the text you want to edit. Choose Inspect Element in the pop-up menu. The text should be highlighted in the source code. Replace it with something new. Press the Return key to see what the page would look like with the new text. If you want to show a few variations before making the changes, take a screenshot of each one.

Use Keynote or PowerPoint

Open the page in your browser. Take a screenshot of it at the appropriate size (small for mobile, larger for tablet, and so on). Drop the screenshot into a blank presentation slide in Keynote or PowerPoint. Add a text box over the current text. Give it a background color that matches the background of your site. For example, if the background is white and the text is blue, make the background of the new text box white. Then, write over the image in blue text with the copy you’re trying out.

Make a reverse outline

You probably remember making outlines in school. To outline something, you typically write a list of things you want to say, put them in order, and then expand on each of the list items. To review longer pieces of text, try making an outline after you have a draft (we call this reverse outlining). Pull the main ideas from what you wrote into bullets or headers. This can give you a sense of what you’ve covered and what’s missing. It can also help you see larger themes in your writing and show you where you might need to move things around. This is also a great time to review the labels and headings you chose to guide readers through your piece.

Keep practicing

As you work through drafts, keep pushing toward being clear, concise, considerate, and honest. In the next two chapters, we’ll show you how to write like you speak and bring your voice to the page.