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Principles of copywriting for the web

Writing effective web copy isn't easy. But good copy is essential to ensuring that your readers — and your customers, if you run a business — can understand how your website works and what it can do for them.

The guidelines this document describes will tell you how to improve the user experience on your site. They apply to web copy generally — both marketing copy and navigational (or instructional or "guide") copy — and their value is indirect but significant: Observing them will improve your site's ability to do its job well.

These principles aren't intended to catalog the tricks of the copywriting trade, however; they concern only the adjustments a writer should make in writing web copy in particular. Nor are they intended to be applied to content in the form of articles, essays, stories or other texts that readers may also find online, but that are ends in themselves. Those forms of writing do not necessarily observe the principles described here.

This document reflects my own, still-growing experience writing, editing and reading web copy. If you have any thoughts or questions that might help improve its accuracy or usefulness, please let me know.

So let's get to it. Here are some basic principles for writing good web copy.

Remember three key things about web users

People don't read websites the same way they read print material. There are three key characteristics that affect how web users react to online content (and consumer-related content in particular):

  • Web users are active, not passive: One click and they're gone. If they don't see a reason to stay on your site, they'll leave — in as little as 15 seconds after they get there.
  • The longer the text, the less likely they are to read it — and the faster they'll skim it, if they bother to skim it at all.
  • They don't believe hype. If you want a web user to believe what you say, you have to back it up.

To be effective, your web copy must take these characteristics into account.

Anticipate your site's users' questions

There are four basic questions a user has that you must answer on every page: "What am I doing here," "How do I do it," "What's in it for me," and "Where can I go next?" If your site's navigation and design don't make the answers obvious to even a first-time visitor — which they should, if at all possible — then you should use copy to explain them.

Don't count on your site's visitors to figure things out for themselves — half of them won't bother to try, and half the rest won't succeed.

Keep most copy short

Unless a visitor arrives at a particular page on your site expecting to find something to read, he or she probably won't read more than one or two lines of text. And the longer the text, the less likely he is to read any of it. Don't add long copy to any page where your visitors aren't looking for it.

Keep short copy simple

The complexity of your copy matters as much as its length. Make sure visitors can understand short copy on its first reading, without stopping to think about it. (They won't.)

Typically, you can convey one key idea effectively in one or two lines. You can sometimes get two, if they're both simple. Don't try for three; try to say too much and you ruin the chance that even the first idea will get through. (And if a new user isn't going to be able to understand a page on your site without learning three new things first, it's time to think about a redesign.)

If you anticipate that readers will want to learn more about something they find on a page where they weren't expecting a lot of copy, add a link to another page where they can get the information they need.

Organize longer copy effectively

Even when readers are expecting to find a text-heavy page, they won't necessarily be willing to put much effort into reading it. Make it easy for them by dividing distinct ideas into separate paragraphs, using helpful headings, sub-headings and bulletted lists, and introducing key ideas deliberately.

Don't assume readers will read longer pieces of text in their entirety — write the copy so that readers can skim it and read only the parts they're interested in.

Longer copy needn't be as direct as short copy, but it must be just as easy to read. If your visitors have to work too hard to understand what it's saying, they'll stop reading.

Make it lively

Be clear, but don't be boring. Write vividly and aim for a light, unassuming tone of voice. It takes a little while for boring or overbearing copy to affect a reader, but once it does, practically nothing you say with it will get through.

Focus on your core audience

You can't reach everyone. Make sure your copy addresses your site's most important audience directly and lets them know what the site can do for them in particular. Don't weaken its effectiveness by adding words intended for readers you don't need.

If you are targeting more than one kind of visitor, design your site to direct the different audiences to different pages on the site. If a web user doesn't think your site has something of value to him, he'll go somewhere else. But if your message speaks directly to his needs, he'll listen.

Use a consistent voice throughout

The more consistent a voice you create — and the better it speaks to your intended audience in particular — the quicker your visitors will recognize it and become familiar with it. And the more familiar it is to them, the more effective it will be.

Let the facts speak for themselves

Don't talk down to or past your audience. Make your descriptions compelling, but not excessive. Web readers read hype as hype, and remember it that way, too. Skip it.

Copyright ©2002-2003 Matt Pfeffer


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