How To Write Good

Sep 2nd

Yes, deliberate mistake :)

It grates when people write poorly, huh. When writers write well, the words almost become invisible. The focus shifts away from technical details, and onto the message.

Is there an easy way to write better blog posts? E-mails? Web copy?
Let's take a look at three guidelines for web writing.

1. If You Can Say It, You Can Write It

The Dilbert Mission Statement Generator - sadly now offline - comes up with convoluted gems this:

"Our challenge is to assertively network economically sound methods of empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance based infrastructures"

Satire, one would hope.

However, the US Air Force uses the following mission statement:

"The mission of the United States Air Force is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests - to fly and fight in Air, Space, and Cyberspace"

"Deliver sovereign options"?

Who talks like this? Well, apart from the US military.

Nobody.

Good web writing is the same as good spoken language. Use short sentences, short words, simple structures and a natural, predictable flow of ideas. Avoid waffle, hyperbole and words that hide meaning. Whenever you finish a piece of writing, read it aloud. Cut or rephrase phrases that sound clunky, because they'll read clunky, too.

Your writing will sound warm and human.

The human voice is especially important online. Communicating at a distance, particularly two-way communication, is relatively new to humans. To help people connect with one another more easily, it pays to write in a warm, conversational style that mimics personal conversation when conducted in close, physical proximity.

When you think about how you would say something, especially to a specific person, you choose words, expressions and structures based on that personal context. Try to imagine that person in front of you as your write.

This approach works well for all applications - from formal legal sites, to personal sites.

2. Planning

Planning what you're going to say helps you to complete any writing task more quickly and easily.

  • 1. Identify and list your goals. What is the message? What is the desired action you want your reader to take? What is the key thought you want your reader to take away?

    For example, a goal list might look like this:

    *inform people the last project went well, even though there were problems
    *highlight the good aspects about the project
    *highlight the problems
    *present ideas on how these problems can be overcome in the next project
    *get everyone revved up and excited about the next project

  • 2. Think about the audience. Who is your audience? What do you know about the person or group?
  • 3. Determine the right tone and format based on answers 1& 2
  • 4. Write quickly. Don't edit, even if your writing is a mess. Separate out your writing and editing functions.
  • 5. Draw a solid conclusion. Calls to action work well.
  • 6. Read aloud what you've written. Cut, fix and tighten. Writing comes alive in the rewrite.

Solid blog posts sound spontaneous, but they're not. They're often structured, worked and reworked.

3. Hyperbole Doesn't Work On The Web

Hyperbole means extreme exaggeration. i.e. "All the perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten this little hand". Web readers tend to gloss over the flowery and the convoluted.

On the web, people scan, so the shape of your writing - how it appears on the page - can be just as important as what you say. So think about the shape and form of your writing. Can you use bullets, headings and images to break up large blocks of text? Sometimes, the best thing to do is not write at all. Can an image convey your message? If so, use it.

Also consider context. When visitors arrive on a page, a page deep within your site, do they know what your site is about from glancing at that one page? If not, consider using chunks of content to provide context. These chunks of information can be repeated on every page of your site, and should be self explanatory. Think directory entry. Your repeat visitors will become blind to it, but your first time readers will appreciate it.

We could go on all day about web writing. However, we'd like to hear your tips. How do you approach writing on your site? Do you plan? Do you wing it? What style of writing gets the best results?

Published: September 2, 2010

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Comments

September 2, 2010 - 3:10pm

Keep it short and sweet.

September 3, 2010 - 7:17am

Reading a lot can be added to the list. It is important to read books; and read a lot.
Also, I find re-writing the same article a few times is a tremendous tool. It really sharpens your writing skills. I'm forced to do this now with a current job, and although the work is mind-numbing, it is rewarding in that you have to create non-duplicate content a few times over, for the same piece. Big challenge.
Also, handy little tools, like WordWeb (http://wordweb.info/) and, on my BlackBerry, dictionary.com. Small, quick, great.

September 3, 2010 - 10:31am

I have written about 5000 Blog posts over the years, and often have people ask me, "What skills do I need to Blog?" or they ask, "How do I make a web site?"

I say you must love to write, and hopefully use all 10 fingers to type.

They do not like the answer, however finding a coder to do PHP is easier than to find the person to write the introductions. And, if content is King, then the writers must be the Kings of content --- something like that.
Andy Graham of HoboTraveler.com on the way to Ivory Coast tomorrow.

September 3, 2010 - 6:10pm

I'll add: Keep good reference points, links, and supporting stuff all in one easy to access place. Add to it often - it couples with what Jansie was suggesting about reading more. By collecting little snippets, quotes, links, images and ideas as you see them, coming up with your own way to weave them together sometimes happens pretty organically. Things just click together well. I think it's because you are influenced by the things you decide are important enough to warrant collecting.
But ultimately, I think (like Andy) the more you write, the easier it becomes. Just get in there. You learn your own strengths and weaknesses more intimately thru a variety of experiences. There is no substitute for writing to learn more about writing.

September 4, 2010 - 2:50am

Good tip about planning it all out ahead of time. I normally do what Martypants described ... sort of organically put articles together.

One thing I'd add: spelling, grammar and punctuation need attention, too. Articles with typos strewn throughout, or goofy grammar, sentence structure and odd punctuation, are difficult to read. Instead of reading along and grasping your point, the reader must devote time to trying to decipher sentences.

I'm no grammar nazi, but if I'm going to spend time reading, I'd rather be considering the author's point of view than deconstructing his sentences.

September 5, 2010 - 12:27am

Really liked #1: Ïf you can say you can write"...

The rest does not work for me.

Maybe it's because I don't try to sell anything directly. I just care about content - the stuff I hope people will like to read.

Planing ahead ... Bah... 8 times out of 10 I end up elsewhere from what I expected when I was starting this post.

Write quickly, just write then correct... I'm unable to not think about validity of argument I make in each sentence.

And hyperbole, exaggeration, etc; if used sparingly and with care, can bring you such an indispensable link love... E.g. the source of the rumors about Apple patenting developer app ideas... You just have to be careful and not overdo it :)

September 20, 2010 - 11:26am

I find clients prefer content that answers 1 question - "Whats in it for me".

Stickiness is the hardest part to fake, in SEO.

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