Seven things new web writers need to know

A lot of people are interested in, and passionate about, writing but there’s not often a clear way to take that hobby and turn it into a career. One the best parts of my job is finding people in that position and helping them turn writing into a skill they can sell.

This list is lesson one. It’s seven things that I introduce to already well-practised writers who are starting in the web world. Without them they’ll never go from being spare-time writers to earning pay cheques that say “web writer”.

1. Web accessibility

This is almost always new to the writers I work with (which isn’t surprising, given how lowly accessibility rates within large parts of the web industry.) Writing accessible web content isn’t difficult but it can be the difference between silence and conversation.

Accessibility isn’t about disability, so I avoid the old example of “the blind man and the screen reader”. Separating out part of the web-using world as “people who need accessibility” infers that there’s no gain (or maybe even a cost) to the majority of users, which is wrong.

Accessible web content is inclusive. We’re not bolting an “extra” audience onto the side of our core audience. We’re making our core audience as large as possible by letting you be a part of it no matter how you navigate or read the web, or how well you see (if at all), or how you use assistive technology. And that makes our content easier to use.

Even better, the techniques that make written content more accessible overlap other things on this list. (My post on good link text gives an example.)

2. Search engine optimisation (SEO)

This is an easier “sell” than accessibility, even though both increase your audience. A little bit of SEO knowledge can be a bad thing – if you don’t believe me spend 3 minutes reading a keyword-stuffed content farm – so approach SEO with caution.

I’m against anything that strays too close to algorithm-chasing. If you’re writing for the robots first it doesn’t take long for human readers to work out that something’s not quite right. Your writing should make it clear to search robots what you’re writing about without being inhuman.

Writers need to know:

  • the basics of keyword research
  • how and when to use keywords (and when not to)
  • how to write metadata – title, description and keywords for a page.

3. Our in-house writing guidelines

Almost all of the writers I work are already publishing words in one way or another – usually they’re helping with things like brochures or letters, or they have personal blogs. Some are even freelancing on weekends. But so far none have had a style guide they need to stick to.

Like every other corporation we have an in-house guide that solves a lot of grammatical or stylistic things that would otherwise come down to preference, and so differ between authors. For example we keeps things consistent by preferring contractions (“isn’t” over “is not”) and using commas to divide thousands (as in 5,000). We also have additional web writing guidelines.

Referencing every stylistic quibble back to a pair of documents takes time and isn’t an easy habit to pick up, but once you have a feel for a given style it makes writing faster.

4. Our brand voice and tone

Another staple of the corporate world. As well as our style guides we also have a particular brand voice – a way that everything we say should sound. MailChimp’s Voice and Tone is a fantastic example.

Getting brand voice and tone right takes time and practise. Reading examples helps but nothing beats writing, failing and succeeding for yourself.

It’s a big change for a hobby writer, no matter how skilled, to have to sound like someone else. Writing the same thing in different voices can be a good start. (For example: explain your job in a paragraph or two. Then write that explanation like your boss would, then like a bored cynic, then like a hyperactive child.)

5. (Very) basic HTML

I haven’t found a better way to introduce and demystify HTML than to share Mandy Brown’s wonderful article “Markup”. She explains how HTML creates a relationship between your words and their appearance, and then puts designers and readers in control. Writers need to know what meaning HTML can give text (“this text is a heading” means a lot more than “this text is big and bold”), and how to mark up their own text.

Fortunately, there’s a plus side to all this: HTML is easy to learn. Even if you never peeked at the source for a website, never so much as authored an anchor tag, you already know most of the principles behind it, because they emerged from the texts themselves.

Update, May 2013: If you’re hungry for more, the wonderful Karen McGrane has written the main course to follow Mandy’s appitiser: WYSIWTF

6. Writing for scan reading

This starts with a hard truth: people aren’t going to read every word you write. Web users are time poor and task-focused, and they have the whole internet to choose from. They scan read and you need to work with that habit. More than anything else in this list, this shows you the difference between the hobby of writing for yourself and the work of writing for others.

7. Plain language

Plain language fits in with accessibility, SEO, and our company’s writing guidelines and brand voice. (If your company doesn’t encourage plain language, why haven’t you quit yet?) But it’s too important, too underappreciated, and sadly too rare to leave between the lines, so it has its own place in this list.

Without wanting to reduce plain language to the mechanical scoring of reading grades, that at least gives us a starting point.

More posts:

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This post is 991 words long with an average reading grade of 8.5.

One thought on “Seven things new web writers need to know

  1. So, I’m a Canadian who has had the privilege of travelling to both Australia and New Zealand!

    ABOUT ME AND A QUESTION
    Ok, to the writing part. I have been writing for a federal government website (http://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/index-eng.php) since 2009 (minus a year for maternity leave) but still don’t feel like much of a writer. Plus, I’m a bored to tears and am looking for ways to prevent brain cells from dying. I have a plain language mentor (she sends small projects my way when she can) and am taking online college courses. I’ve also started my own blog (www.thehogstrough.wordpress.com). Any other ideas?

    A LINK YOU MAY LIKE
    It sounds like we’re interested in similar things: plain language, usability and web writing. I’m also adding social media to the mix and trying to combine everything–a task that is a bit daunting!

    Researching these topics led me to this information on accessibility by Sarah Horton: http://www.universalusability.com/access_by_design/index.html.

    I enjoyed your post and see that I have a lot more reading to do! Best get to it…

    Robin

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