3 Rules for Writing Web Copy

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Let’s face it: Web copy isn’t sexy.

Writing lacks the visual flair of the latest CSS techniques, it doesn’t make your application deploy in a few easy steps, and it won’t make your code read like poetry. However, its importance is on par with picking the perfect color scheme or designing a beautiful logo, because it’s an opportunity to communicate to people plainly and directly.

Web copy is web design.

I could bore you with English language fundamentals, but I’d rather give you a few simple tips that are easy to remember and utilize. With some practice, your web copy will improve. Let’s get to the goods.

1. Read Your Writing Out Loud

Web copy should feel conversational, so a good litmus test is to read your copy out loud. Many bits of copy will read like sentence fragments, particularly in complex interfaces with lots of interactive widgets.

You don't need an audience. Just say your copy out loud to yourself. - Photo by asdf

You don’t need an audience. Just say your copy out loud to yourself. – Photo by Flickr user visual.dichotomy

However, with these exceptions in mind, speaking your text out loud will help you uncover words that you would never use in real life. It will also help you find more errors in general, because when your brain translates written text into spoken language, it’s more difficult to speed read. This will force you to slow down and give some consideration to each individual word. Iterate, make corrections, and read it again.

2. Embrace Brevity

We live in the age of TL;DR and 140 character tweets. Unless you’re Steve Jobs (which is very unlikely) nobody is visiting your website to read your life story. Leave the epic tale of you and your web app for a blog post or the about page. Also, learn how to omit needless flowery language and express the same meaning with fewer words. Mark Twain said it best:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

- Mark Twain

That’s some very good advice. Do the reader a favor and get to the point.

3. Pepper in Familiar Language

One way to be brief and reduce the volume of your language is to increase the density of expression. When used sparingly, a simile, analogy, or idiom can be more impactful than language you write on your own.

A screenshot of Apple's website. The text says "The thin and light notebook, at the height of its power."

Every Apple product page is littered with colloquial language that’s informative and friendly.

For example, an entrepreneur friend of mine told me about a new product idea recently, but he was having difficulty coming up with a good elevator pitch that positions what the product does and how you can benefit from it. I suggested playing with the phrase “[Product] is like a X for your Y” with X and Y being the interchangeable parts. A simple analogy allows you to leverage the meaning of the original subject. If you’re able to tap into the wealth of experiences already stored in the reader’s long term memory, the new idea is more likely to fit into the established mental framework… like a puzzle piece. Hey look, it’s a simile!

When using colloquial language, you do need to think carefully about the nationality of your audience. As a citizen of the USA it’s easy for me to make the mistake of using ethnocentric idiomatic expressions. For example, the phrase “elevator pitch” describes a brief overview of a product or service that could be expressed within the duration of an elevator ride. But in the UK, I know that an elevator is more typically referred to as a lift, so maybe this phrase doesn’t translate well. Or, maybe they use the phrase “lift pitch.” I don’t really know. Of course, the best thing to do is Google for the answer and find out; I’m just writing this so that you can understand the thought process.

Excellent written communication is an essential skill for any web professional. Quality writing can improve your website and, as a bonus, it can increase your employability. Customers and employers like people that are able to present themselves well and easily collaborate with others.

If you have any additional tips to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Nick Pettit

Nick is a designer, public speaker, and teacher at Treehouse. He is also a co-host of The Treehouse Show. Twitter: @nickrp

Comments

14 comments on “3 Rules for Writing Web Copy

  1. Would it be possible to get an email share option at the bottom of the article (unless I can’t see it) on mobile and want to share with people without social media account *gasp! Copy and pasting links are a drag. Loved the article though :D

  2. Thanks for teaching me what TL;DR means (found via Urban Dictionary… I feel old). The conversational tone tip is the best one and I suggest that to blogger friends all the time.

  3. Only recently have I understand the importance of copy in not just digital, but any product in general! Nice write up, Nick!!

  4. Excellent article Nick. I’d like to add that it helps to use creative visualization in imagining a composite of your target audience standing in front of you as you’re reading your web copy out loud. How does the average person of your target market look? What are their needs? Worries? Likes? Dislikes? What keeps them up at night? What problems or objections do you anticipate them having?

  5. All three are excellent points and well written. It seems that brevity is the area that has the largest room for improvement. It’s that tension between having enough detail and over communicating, that tension is where the art form comes into play.

  6. Thanks for the article, still not sure about the reading out loud, won’t people be reading it in their heads?

    P.S. I’m British and to me ‘lift pitch’ sounds like a sports field in an elevator, which I really have to try some time.