Round-up of “Seven Steps to Writing Web Copy”

Many thanks to Sue Keogh for coming down to the EBI, and giving us an intersting and insightful talk about writing great text for websites. Thanks, too, to everyone who attended. Sorry that so many of you had to stand!

Sue’s presentation will be made available as soon as possible is now available below, but Jenny and I thought we could usefully add in some extra notes and links to reading material, to follow up from her talk, and so that you can find out a bit more.

(This talk was given on Nov 11, 2009)

Some useful links and reading material

Web fonts – try out Marko Dugonjić’s brilliant Type Tester, where you can compare fonts from a “safe list”, Windows defaults and Mac defaults. Great!

Grids for layout – Mark Boulton’s classic guide

Vertical rhythm in text – Richard Rutter’s excellent article on 24 ways

The W3C – the web’s mothership, and their recently redesigned website!

Sue’s handouts:

SEO copywriting techniques that readers love

Web developer’s SEO cheat sheet (PDF)

Content and Usability: Writing for the web (from Webcredible, the accessibility experts)

Amount of text

Sue recommended that we “wage war on waffle” (but not waffles… ), and aim to “say twice as much with half the content”. We need to be succinct in our writing. Avoid duplication. Avoid complex sentence structure and language whenever possible.

Follow British journalistic writing style, and “front-load” articles, i.e. have a strong, meaningful headline, and then put the conclusions and main points in the first paragraph. Break up text into small paragraphs.

If content extends below the browser “fold”, we need to make sure that there are visual clues to draw the users into that content. Usability expert, Jared Spool, talks about the “scent of information“, and letting users know that they are on the right track, instead of oversimplifying navigation and interfaces. Users do scroll down pages, but we need to give them a reason to do so.

For general ideas on how to tidy up text, have a look at Strunk & White’s great little book, “The Elements of Style“.

Too many options, not enough guidance

Don’t overload users with options. If we give a user a whole page of hyperlinks, all of which seem to carry equal weight, then the user won’t know what to do. In fact, the user might just click on anything that looks about right, and hope for the best!  Order your content according to a hierarchy of importance/relevance for the given page.  This is because we need to guide the user to important content, and highlight the exciting bits.
The structure and layout of pages is critical, too, as is the size and spacing of text.

These are clearly areas where design plays a key role, since that governs how the content is laid out and presented. Apart from text size and contrast between foreground and background, we should be using grids to layout the blocks of page content, and compose with vertical rhythm when setting the size of text, images and text line height.

Jargon and acronyms

It is very easy to write content that is full of very domain-specific language, and to perhaps use acronyms that only really mean a lot to people within the project team. We should try to cut down on this, and bear in mind that our audience might not know what we mean.

If we can’t avoid using certain terms or acronyms, we could provide a short list of definitions, or links to a glossary of key terms.

Vocalising what we write is a good way to find out if the text will work on a web page, so say it out loud. And we can also get someone who is not familiar with the area to read our text. They will tell us quickly if it makes sense.

Think like Google

We’ve probably all heard the maxim that, on the web, “content is king”, but it’s not much use if your site can’t be found! So to do some search engine optimisation (SEO) – think like Google! (since it’s the ‘Big One’).

For a good guide to SEO, have a look Rob Chant’s guide to the SEO mindset, and there are also some great tips on the EBI website.

Don’t go crazy with lots of links in the text, but having internal linking (linking to resources that are inside the website) also helps page ranking in a search engine.

Keep the “weight” of webpages down, too. Ideally, images should be less that 150K in size, for example. The issue is that if a page is too “heavy” in terms of memory, Google won’t cache it.

We should also consider “link bait” (approaches to incorporating website links), to attract visitors and users. There is a good description on Wikipedia of the kinds of link bait “hooks” we can use.

Make pages findable, readable and digestible. If we can manage that, we also win on accessibility, or at least accessibility for partially-sighted / blind users. Broadly speaking, if a search engine can make sense of your page, so can a screen reader.

Target audience

Our audiences can be segmented in different ways, and we can use surveys to help us discover more about our audience makeup. For instance, they might be “novices/end-users” or “power users“, they might be lab biologists, medics, software developers or bioinformaticians.

These possibilities and combinations can often make it difficult to pitch the content in the right way.  To please everyone, consider directing user groups to different areas of the site, based on their interests or requirements, for example.  When your site is for ‘expert’ users, consider providing a glossary or other information for new users in a toolbar panel for example, so they can refer to it as they navigate your site.

Content management

Keeping on top of the content of a website takes dedication, and it is a good idea to have some sort of editorial process. This means you can  keep track of the lifecycle of content, and make sure things are up-to-date.  You should also regularly check that the hyperlinks to, from and within the site are working – dead ends can frustrate users and diminish the professional feel of the site.


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