Categories
Content strategy Web writing

What you need to know before you write

It’s all too common for writers to be engaged to “make the content” for a page before anyone’s actually worked out what the big idea is.

If you can’t answer all these questions, it’s too early to talk to a writer (or to start writing yourself).

1. What content are you working off?

Is this job (a) brand new, (b) based on non-web content, or (c) rework of an existing page?

If there’s pre-existing content, what aspects of it are good? And what about it needs fixing?

If this is new, what information sources do you have? Are they complete? If not, who do you need to talk to to fill the gaps?

2. Who’s the audience?

Who are we building this page for? What do they already know, and what do we want to teach them? What are they looking for? Are they already a customer, or are we new to them?

3. What sequence or journey does this page fit into?

For example, is your audience at a starting point, a decision point, or a final call to action? Are they a current customer looking for help, or a prospective customer doing research?

Where’s your audience coming from?

Do you expect people to click through from a previous page, or could they come in from search? Is this content that we might share through social media?

Where’s your audience going to?

Where do we want readers to go next? What do we want them to do after they’ve read this stuff?

4. What’s the page’s purpose?

For example, are we selling something? Are we offering after-sales service? Or is this educational?

5. What supporting information or pages will you link out to?

Before you write, you need to know what you’ll link out to. Any information you’ll link to is something you won’t have to explain on the page. It saves words and time, but extends the digital ground that your reader might have to cover.

6. Why haven’t I started writing yet?

If you haven’t started writing yet, what are you missing? And who can help?

If you don’t know why you can’t start, then start! If there’s anything missing, you’ll soon find out.

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This post is 378 words long, with an average reading grade of 5.1.

Updated: I added the section about links on July 6, 2012.

Categories
Web writing

Plain language and the myth of “dumbing it down”

The biggest favour you can do your readers is write in plain language. You can also do your workplace a huge favour by advocating for plain language in everything it says to its customers (and within its own walls). But when you say, “hey, this policy is too hard to read”, there’s a common response you’re probably sick of hearing:

“We don’t want to dumb it down.”

This is true. You don’t want to insult your readers’ intelligence, or treat them like children. But there’s no relationship between plain language and dumbing it down.

  • The active voice isn’t dumber than the passive voice.
  • Short words aren’t dumber than long words.
  • Short sentences aren’t dumber than long sentences.
  • Common phrases aren’t dumber than obscure phrases.
  • Talking to people plainly isn’t dumb.

Writing something in plain English is not the same as dumbing it down. It doesn’t make you sound dumb, and it doesn’t make people think you’re treating them as if they’re dumb. In fact the opposite is true, which is awesome. It’s so awesome that I’m going to say it again, in plain language and in bold print:

Plain language makes you sound smarter, even to very clever people. There’s a lot of research that agrees about this. Here’s an example from the legal world.

Judges find plain English submissions more persuasive

A pair of researchers gave judges and research attorneys legal submissions. Half were written in “legalese” (the unplain native language of the judge and attorney) and half in plain English. Here’s what happened:

The respondents rated the passages in legalese to be substantively weaker and less persuasive than the plain English versions..Moreover, they inferred that the attorneys who wrote in legalese possessed less professional prestige than those who wrote in plain English.

[…] Judges and their research attorneys do in fact assess plain English briefs, and the lawyers who write them, more favorably.

PDF: Benson and Kessler, Legalese v plain English: An Empirical Study of Persuasion and Credibility in Appellate Brief Writing (Thanks, Digital Commons!)

Sound smart. Be smart. Write in plain language.

Plain language has a confidence that unclear, specialist language lacks. To explain something plainly you need to understand it really well. Your reader will notice, and appreciate it.

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This post is 385 words long, with an average reading grade of 8.1.

Categories
Web writing

General web copy needs a reading grade of 9 or less

If you’re writing for a general web audience, aim for an average reading grade of 9 or less. Here’s why, and how to measure (and lower) your copy’s reading grade.

What’s a reading grade?

A reading grade indicates the years of education an average reader would need to be comfortable reading your text.

There are different systems for measuring this grade. Each uses a different formula, but common keys are average word length (measured either in syllables or letters), and sentence length.

Why have a limit so low?

Literacy levels in Australia

Over 45% of Australians aged 15+ have reading skills below the “minimum required … to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work”. 37% meet, but don’t exceed, that level.

These statistics are fairly well in line with other OECD countries (the USA (PDF), for example).

The challenges of reading on-screen

Research generally agrees that reading from a screen is slower than reading on paper, and suggests that it could reduce comprehension.

Smaller screens, which are becoming more popular, make complex content even harder to comprehend.

Getting readability scores

Dave Child’s free “Readability Score” tool checks the reading grade of text using five common methods, and counts your words and sentences. It gives you an average of those five scores, which in most cases is a better indicator than any single method of calculating a reading grade.

Using the readability score tool

This tool counts the number of letters in each word, and the number of words between full stops (or other sentence-ending punctuation, like question marks). It doesn’t parse text like a human does. Copy your text into the tool, then:

  • make sure there’s a full stop at the end of each heading, sub-heading, and list item
  • remove dots that the machine will wrongly see as full stops.

For example, if you’re checking this text:

You can find anything online

There’s no such thing as something you can’t find online (e.g. with Google). Seriously, there are sites for:

  • people who like to make Star Wars videos with lego men
  • fans of Irish Scottish ’80s pop sensations The Proclaimers, and
  • crazy racists looking to date other crazy racists.

You’d need to make these changes:

You can find anything online.

There’s no such thing as something you can’t find online (eg with Google). Seriously, there are sites for.

  • people who like to make Star Wars videos with lego men.
  • fans of Irish Scottish ’80s pop sensations The Proclaimers, and.
  • crazy racists looking to date other crazy racists.

This tells the grade-checking tool how people will read the text – we see headings and list items as stand-alone sentences, and we know that the dots in abbreviations aren’t full stops. It gives the tool better information to work with and usually has the happy effect of lowering the grade that the tool comes back with.

In this case the average reading grade drops by 1.2 (from 7.7 to 6.5). This can make the difference between another frustrating round of editing to get your reading grade down where it should be, and hitting “publish” and going home early.

How to lower your text’s reading grade

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This post has 578 words and an average reading grade of 7.2.

Categories
Making corporate web Web writing

When sign-off bloats your word count

As a web writer you’re the first (or if you’re working off a decent brief, second) person to work on creating something new. Because you’re human, you’ll end up feeling a bit proud and protective of the draft you end up with. Good! So you should.

But the process of approvals that your new work goes through can damage your copy (and hurt your ego). People who don’t understand your craft have a hand in what your work ends up looking like, and what it ends up saying. This approval process will, 99 times out of 100, bloat your word count.

Where word bloat comes from

Let’s say you’ve written a new 400-word article about a fantastic new widget that your company’s going to export to Asia. In a typical round of approvals your work might go through people from:

  • marketing, who add a couple of sentences cribbed from that print ads they’ve finalised that morning (because “it’s all about cross-channel integration!”)
  • legal, who try to “soften” what you’ve written about the widget (no matter how true it is), adding small print or some extra weasel words
  • a manager who’s trying to boost her profile online, so throws in a made-up quote from herself
  • branding, who compose a strange new paragraph about how important China has always been to your company.

By the time your 400 words get back to you, there’s suddenly 600 of them. Your short, carefully crafted article is half as long again, thanks to a bunch of people who don’t appreciate just how little online readers read, or how hard it is to keep people’s attention when they’re surfing. And it’s your job to stick to a brief for 350-400 words. What can you do?

Don’t let expert approvers work as editors

Approvers are necessary, and can do good things for your work. But they need to remember what their job is, and what it isn’t.

Ask for comments rather than direct edits of your copy – see Giving, and receiving, expert feedback on web copy (update: link added 19/06/12).

Include word bloat in your plan

You’re the only person in this process who’s going to care about word count. The reality is that everyone else will want to add, not subtract, words. Expect their bloat and plan for it. If you’re asked for 350-400 words, try to deliver 300 in your first draft. If you have 7 or 8 pages to fill, write enough for 6.

Constraining yourself to give others some slack isn’t ideal. But it can be an easier to get things done this way rather than getting your copy back from its first round of approvals, editing it down, and then sending it back through the same process that bloated it up in the first place.

Make bloat-culling part of the approval process

I don’t normally suggest that you add hurdles for your copy to jump, but this is an exception. If you can, try to have a writing style sign-off in the same way there’s a legal or marketing sign-off. Find an editor that assigns your writing work, a web development lead who upholds standards of design and accessibility, or someone else who works with web content and make it part of their job to approve your copy from a stylistic sense.

So long as they know good web from bad web, they’ll understand that every word matters and won’t approve bloated copy. Then you’ll have a veto-wielding ally who can help you remove words. “We can’t say anything about this new widget if we can’t say it in 400 words. How much do we need your quote?”

Writing style sign-off is easier with more objective criteria. You should have guidelines like “Corporate blog posts are 400 words or shorter”, rather than “Keep it short when you can”.

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This post is 648 words long, with an average reading grade of 7.4.