How do you learn to write for the web? It certainly isn’t a major taught is school. You would think it a simple task. After all, many of us write in some form every day. Yet of the proficient writers out there, maybe only a handful of those are capable web copy writers. Of the other however many people out there burdened with writing web copy—how is it possible that they do such a butcher of a job? And knowing it is so bad, why do we web designer do nothing about it?
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a strong writer but at least I’m here writing, trying to getting better in some small way. If you work in the web field you should be doing the same. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is currently no way to learn how to write for the web, aside from trial and error. And should error really be a part of your work?
Blame Your English Teachers
And it can be easy to blame them. After all, they crammed Shakespeare and Jane Austen, and Jack London and Mark Twain and whoever else down our throats. Personally, I enjoy their work but it did not teach me one thing about practical writing. You know, the stuff we do in real life. I will never write a novel or a fictional story, let alone get paid for it, and I certainly won’t write it in 17th century English.
The same goes for the formal letter, which I suppose I’ve written four of in my lifetime, and the five paragraph essay, which only exists in the classroom but is useless everywhere else. I look at all the of entrepreneurs and small business owners out there, who are largely responsible for creating their own brands, marketing material, writing their own product descriptions, promoting away with social media, and pitching to potential customers and investors, and I seriously doubt their English education did them a whole lot of good either. And from taking most of the courses, I know the only thing business students know how to write is a business plan, which is just about as useless.
I guess I don’t understand how practicality is nowhere to be found in the education system.
But we shouldn’t blame anyone else for our own faults, even if they deserve some or most of the blame. So back to the problem at hand.
But Web Designers Don’t Have To Be Able To Write
I used to actually think that. I remember even taking the copy a client supplied and pasting it in, without even reading it, ever. I feel bad for those clients and I feel bad for the people still doing that.
Designers who alienate themselves from the content are not designers they are decorators.
In case you missed it, that is a concept I’ll keep bouncing off your head until it sticks. The biggest problem with web design today is designers are not taking and owning the content they are given. Not questioning poor content. Not reworking and improving the content they are given. The difference between a $100 dollar website and a $4000 dollar website should be many things, but the quality of the content should be the most obvious one. And yet you can see some very expensive websites out in the wild with some embarrassingly bad content.
You are going to stand up to your client and say “Comic Sans over a rainbow gradient is not acceptable” but do you protest questionable content? When you get to the about page and the client says “Just throw the mission statement in there and call it good.” Are you going to stand up and say something?
As designers we take pride in our work and get upset when a client ruins a design. But we don’t worry about how bad the content is as long as the design looks good. This attitude has to stop.
Yes it sucks that we have yet another hat to wear. That we have to design and code and write and edit copy. But such is the life of the designer. We care more about the final product than the client and definitely more than the consumer. We usually put more work into our project than what we are getting paid for. I know I do. We take pride in our work and get a sense of satisfaction for a job well done, or we would certainly be doing something more lucrative.
And the alternative is not much better. In fact the alternative is design as a commodity. If you don’t care about the content than why is the client paying you so much? They should just buy a template and be done with you or get a designer who actually cares.
If You Thought Client’s Design Ideas Where Bad…
Oh man, the copy they write is even worse. I can’t even believe I’m saying that, because we all know how terrible client’s design ideas are. But it is true. They are awful at writing content. And even though I still haven’t found a good way to learn how to write web copy. I’ve found editing your client’s copy gets you moving in the right direction.
Is Brevity So Hard?
For your homework assignment ask a client to come up with a tagline for the website you are working on. You aren’t going to use it, just see what they will come up with. I’ve done this a couple of times now, and each time I receive 2-3 long-winded sentences in return. The rest of the content they write is not much better.
I don’t totally agree that people only skim online. If the content is good, people read it, regardless of length. But when the topic is already a little dry, like much of what goes into corporate websites, keep it simple and to the point. Clients aren’t capable of doing so, so your job is to cut everything they write at least in half. Take every paragraph over six lines and turn it into two paragraphs and a heading, quote, add an image or something else to break it up further.
Finding an Audience
Studying the content clients write is a good way of learning what not to do. The one word you won’t find in client copy is “you”. Since they don’t know or have a tough time writing for the site users. So your other job is to go through and rewrite everything for the correct audience.
Of course you can pay a content person to do this, but I feel it is necessary to do it yourself at least a couple times to get the hang of it. Plus, you can’t always rely on someone else, especially when little changes and content fixes come up. Best to learn how to do a passable job of it yourself.
There are so many other things that clients do wrong with their copy but that wasn’t the point of this posts. I just want you to understand the importance of content, take a personal stake in it, and learn how to do it correctly because there will be times when you are forced to rewrite bad copy.
The Long Way Back to the Point
If you take anything from this, understand that we are just as responsible for bad copy as we are for bad design. We cannot remove ourselves from the content and the marketing any longer. Websites have purposes, and our designs and the content must meet goals. If they don’t, you failed. It is too easy to make the design and then tune out.
If this field is going to progress and we start to get paid what we feel like our work is worth, we as designers need to take more stake in the process as a whole. That is what I’ll be getting into more when I get around to writing my Content-First Design posts. In case you did know, this is part two is what will be a pretty long series, leading up to Content-First Design.