The First Rule of Web Writing: Just Don’t
Most business owners wouldn’t dream of coding their own websites or designing a new logo.
But things are different when it comes to web writing.
All you need to have a go yourself is a decent command of English and access to a word processor. And that makes web writing fair DIY game when site owners want to capture what matters most about their brand and possibly save a few quid in the process.
If you feel like serving up your own content for a web project or blog, consider the first rule of writing for the web: Don’t. Hire a pro instead.
But if you’re still set on firing up Word and hashing out a masterpiece, take a look at some of these writing tips on making lukewarm content sizzle.
This guide isn’t about using words to sell – that’s another topic for another day. Instead, it focuses on techniques you can use to avoid some common pitfalls and make your content clearer.
And although the focus is on web writing, the tips outlined below can be put to use on everything from blogs and marketing emails to fiction and poetry.
Nail Your Opener
“Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with a spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.”
This is the opening sentence from Flann O’Brien’s brilliant and terrifying The Third Policeman and possibly my favourite first sentence in all of literature.
It does everything a good opener is supposed to do. The macabre imagery carves a striking statement that poses all sorts of questions: Who is Phillip Mathers? Who is John Divney? And just what on earth did poor old Mathers do to warrant his gruesome demise-by-special-bicycle-pump?
The only way to find out is by reading on, making O’Brien’s stellar opening the very definition of ‘compelling’ writing.
Too much web content makes the mistake of not addressing the reader directly. Use first-person address (I/we) and let the reader know you’re speaking to them in person by using you/your instead of talking in third-person about ‘patients’ or ‘people’.
Direct address is an easy hack for creating a conversational tone and a strong rapport.
Vocabulary and Tone
In writing, there are no prizes for knowing all the best and biggest words. The best web writing should be simple, direct and shouldn’t have your reader reaching for the dictionary.
Consider a better-known work from the master of brevity, Ernest Hemingway, whose novel The Old Man and the Sea scooped the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for literature. Written using a simple vocabulary of no more than three syllables per word, The Old Man and the Sea is considered one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. And yet, it’s simple enough for an eight-year-old to read.
To nail an easy conversational tone, start by writing as you speak. Keep sentences short, to the point, and don’t be tempted to
deploy dexterous verbosity use long words where simple ones will do.
Take some time to read through the work you have written and get rid of every single excess word that you possibly can. There are some words, like ‘that’, which you’ll probably find are okay to dispense with altogether. Then, when you’ve finished, read through the text again and repeat the process. You should find that your writing now seems much clearer.
Read through your work and get rid of every single excess word. You’ll probably find it’s okay to dispense with words like ‘that’ altogether. When you’re done, repeat the process. Your writing will be much clearer.
Get rid of every excess word. You can often dispense with words like ‘that’ altogether. Now repeat for even more zing.
Each of the sentences in this paragraph is roughly the same length. Keep your ear on the rhythm and cadence as you read. Notice how the text gets pretty boring to read after a sentence or two. Now imagine your audience falling asleep as the repetition takes hold.
In contrast, let’s give our words some rhythm. Listen. Notice how the urgency shifts and dances as we change the sentence length. Ooh, that sounds good. Next, let’s try an even longer sentence to bring the paragraph to a crescendo and feel how that makes you want to read on. Now check out your audience…
Break it Up
Most internet readers have short attention spans, so monolithic walls of text are a no-no. Keep paragraphs short with just a sentence or two between line breaks.
Aiming and Striving
Corporate-speak and cliches are usually the biggest clues that content hasn’t been penned by a pro.
“We strive to…”
Let’s get something straight: striving is struggling. It’s how Egyptian slaves hauled blocks of granite up ramps to build the pyramids. Striving is for glassblowers and sweaty men who sculpt locomotive parts from molten iron with their bare hands.
Nobody wants to visit a dentist who ‘strives’ – presumably through gritted teeth and a sheen of perspiration – to place high-quality veneers.
“We aim to…”
And when you’ve finished striving, let’s also look at one of copywriting’s most heinous phrases, ‘we aim to…’ Here’s the thing about aiming: sometimes you hit the target, and sometimes you miss. Compare the following two statements and ask yourself which dentist you’d choose:
“I aim to provide superb smile makeovers.”
“I provide superb smile makeovers.”
“We pride ourselves…”
While there’s strictly nothing wrong with this phrase, it’s one of the most overused terms in copywriting.
What’s the difference between talking about ‘prosthetics’ and ‘prosthetic solutions’? The former is simple, direct and doesn’t break our brevity rule. The latter introduces unnecessary jargon that adds no meaning or clarity to the term and breaks the conversational tone. Watch out for phrases like solutions, leverage, holistic approach and other gobbledegook.
Break the Rules
Forget what they tell you in school. Beginning sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’ is fine. And it’s brilliant for emphasis! (But don’t overdo it). Great copywriting isn’t like formal business writing, it’s a creative process, and that means you can go ahead and break the rules when the text demands it.
Writing aids like Grammarly are amazing tools for spotting grammatical and spelling errors, clearing up passive voice and generally tidying up your writing. But its suggestions aren’t always on the mark, so don’t worry about getting a perfect 100% score every time.
A Word About the Pros
Compelling copy for dental and healthcare is our bag. We take a content-first approach to web design and dive deep into brand personas to give practices a distinct voice. Contact us to find out more.