The Disgustingly Simple Rule for Web Writing That’s Often Hard to Swallow

Yuck

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote a Pulitzer-prize-winning book called Anti-Intellectualism in America. This rich, thorough book exposed the thread of anti-intellectualism that runs through the culture of practical America.

For example, even though the founding fathers were sages, scientists, and men of cultivation, the Federalists attacked their curiosity and idealism as too trivial for important affairs.

Did you know there’s a thread of anti-intellectualism running through good web writing and design? In fact, web usability demands mindless writing and design.

Naturally, this makes some people want to vomit. That’s part of my point behind using “disgusting” in the title. So let me explain where I’m going with this.

The Simple Rule for Web Writing

Web users are mission minded. Cramped for attention. Bent on standards. And uninterested in learning new navigation methods. What you have to remember is that people don’t go to the web to window shop.

They go there to drive 60 miles per hour—and look at billboards.

Thus, there’s only one good reason why you should learn how to write clear, concise and compelling copy for the web…

To get noticed.

That means when someone arrives at your website, blog or article, they should know immediately what to expect. Everything–even your microcontent–should be simple, succinct and scannable.

Before You Write, Start Here

Most people will find your website through a search engine. That’s where you have to start. From the beginning.

See, the problem is that neither you nor Google can guess–at this point–the motive behind someone who types in a certain keyword phrase.

But you can find someone’s motive. How?

Ask them. If you can’t do that, research.

Also, pay attention to your own behavior when you search.

What does a typical searcher do when the results don’t please him? He narrows his search.

This is how you need to think. You need to think like a searcher. Comprehending how a searcher thinks is crucial. Drilling down this way is a great method to discover not only what kind of title to write…but fundamentally, what kind of clear and simple article to write.

Down the Slippery Slope

But don’t stop there. Write all copy–each word, sentence and paragraph–so it’s immediately clear, concise and compelling.

Think of your headline as nothing more than a slide to get people to your first sentence. Your first sentence as the slide to get people to the second sentence. And so on.

This means you need to avoid cleverly ambiguous headlines. Subtitles that don’t push the ball forward. Cutesy sentences.

You might say that’s so boring.

Think about this: Nobody wants to speculate on how to start a lawnmower. All they want to do is cut the grass.

Let them cut it.

When You Can Break This Rule

So, while anti-intellectualism is a dangerous and dirty word in some circles, on the web it’s permissible. For most content, you actually don’t want to make people think.

Make it simple and self-evident.

But, utility and creativity can mesh. When?

When it’s useful.

You don’t want a surgeon to be creative when he’s removing your daughter’s appendix…unless it will save her life. In short, if a creative writing technique is useful to the reader (think metaphors and analogies) then use it.

Otherwise, stick to simple.

What Do You Think?

So, does the thought of simple, clear and concise web writing make you gag? Or have you seen good results from it?

Let us know in the comments.

About the Author: Demian Farnworth is Senior Web Writer for an international humanitarian aid organization and blogger for Fallen and Flawed.

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Comments

  1. First blog post in a while that I’ve actually read word for word – no scanning.

    Good points for sure. I know I’ve been guilty of “cutesy” titles and even ambiguous titles. I promise to pay attention.

    Also “They go there to drive 60 miles per hour—and look at billboards. ” The best description of internet use I’ve ever heard. Ever.

    Cheers!

    George

  2. Love it, especially your metaphor at the beginning: “They go there to drive 60 miles per hour—and look at billboards.”

    Every time I read your blog, I find one more thing I want to work to get better at.

  3. Excellent tips! I’ve passed this along to some friends.

  4. I really love the photo choice for this.

    This is a hard one for me but I work on it. I try to remember that I’m not writing a New Yorker article, I’m writing a blog post. The same person often wants very different writing styles in those two contexts.

  5. Demian, thanks for a great post.

    Your introductory statement, “Did you know there’s a thread of anti-intellectualism running through good web writing and design?” is fairly misleading – I almost didn’t bother reading the rest of the article. Web readers as a rule are, in fact, curious – they’re looking for answers. We need to write to help them find those answers, fast.

    The rest of your article defends that reality (and provides guidance for writers to LIVE IN IT) very nicely.

    Also, this article may be of interest: by Amber Simmons.

  6. Well said. Sometimes we forget to be understandable in an effort to appear creative, crafty, and smart.

    If you’re writing to convey a message, and you want it to be understood, keep it ‘simple, stupid’. Else go write poetry. ;)

  7. Demian,

    Gag.
    Disgusting.
    And I read it all and learned.

  8. I supposed we are talking about writing a type of blog like this ProBlogger one. In this case, writing a concise, easy to understand copy would be the best thing to do.
    There are some other types of blog that might get away with cutesiness though. A personal blog might be one example.

  9. I’m right with you. I try to keep it as fast, simple and impactful as possible. I’m not about big words or fancy tricks.

    Here it is. Get it. Now.

    That’s it.

  10. I guess Chris proves Demian correct… he couldn’t even get the name of this blog right. I thought my billboard looked different from Darren’s. :)

  11. Damn ! *blushing bright red*. I don’t know why I had Darren’s blog name on my mind while my eyes was clearly starting at yours Brian :) I blame it on Twitter !!
    Maybe I was ‘speeding’ at more than 60 mph :)
    Sorry Brian …

  12. Rat-tat-tat-tat is not only the sound of a typewriter, but it’s the sound of a blog post. I like it!

  13. Yes and no. It depends on the audience. It is very possible that the people that you want to draw in are very intellectual and feel like you are talking up to them with a healthy command of the language. For the majority of blogs I think you are correct though. Even the ones that are blogs about blogging and social media marketing.

  14. I believe in the value of clear, concise web writing. I’m a new blogger and, when writing a post, try to pretend that I’m writing a short story – where every word must count and there’s no room for “fluff” that doesn’t contribute to the message. This calls for discipline and makes it hard (for me) to write fast and be economical at the same time. I’m working on it.

  15. I agree. If you’re looking for some advice on getting something to work in your WordPress blog, for example, you’re probably spending a lot of time hopping from one site to the next; I do this myself.

    When you know what you’re searching for, the last thing you want is fluff. If the information isn’t readily clear and available, I move on.

  16. uhm.

    I love copyblogger, and I know what you are trying to say.

    But saying that “giving users what they want” is “anti-intellectualism” is hysterically wrong. I’m sorry, but if you equate being “cutesy” with being “intellectual” or thinking — that’s just silly.

    The focus isn’t on trying to cause your readers to -not- think; the focus ought to be on cutting out the fluff. In other words, let their thinking be more efficient.

    Efficiency isn’t mindless; it’s simply a lack of waste.

    That said, I agree with the simple and concise webwriting. But I think your understanding of it is a bit off. You might be great at it (and you are), but that’s not “intellectualism.” ;-)

  17. I, too, despise anti-intellectualism, and find that writing for the Web can be quite boring and bland. I want to use more thoughtful, creative words and express myself in a more literary fashion.

    However, I also know that the following sentence from Jakob Nielsen’s article that you linked to is dead on (and it’s from 1997! More true than ever):

    “Instead, users scan text and pick out keywords, sentences, and paragraphs of interest while skipping over those parts of the text they care less about.”

    That’s exactly how I read online these days, looking for highlighted words or phrases of interest, and simply racing through the rest.

    I think a solution to this for writers who want to write more thoughtfully is this:

    For your business site/blog (or those that you write for), write for the way people read online–give the customer what they want if you want their money.

    Then, create a personal blog where you write with all the style and creativity and thoughtfulness and wide-ranging vocabulary you can muster.

  18. Keep it simple stupid… I try; however many times it’s more difficult than easy! Creativity when necessary!

  19. Great post! From a corporate perspective, I’ve been running into these issues lately. There are those on one side who feel that anti-intellectualism in online writing hurts the “brand”, and those who have experience writing on the web who are more open to the nuances of web writing.

    But that leads me to a question: if we’re seeking differentiation on the web, would that mean writing more intellectually would be actually refreshing? Is there a way to do it that still allows it to be taken at “60 miles per hour”?

  20. You post has really got me thinking. Found you because of Stephane Grenier’s Blog Blazers book. Though I’ve never thought about it, I use the web exactly as you discuss. Get to the point, already!! In fact, I love to read a good book for hours and hours at a time, but this doesn’t carry over to the web for some reason? Anyone else the same way?

  21. Yea I struggle with this but every now and again I get it simple.

    Always good results .

    Like Scott WIlliams said keep it simple stupid!

  22. I wholeheartedly agree, I don’t think this is just a theory which should be applied to the web. Think usability and design – the basic K.I.S.S principle.

    When people want to buy a product, they are not interested on long, complicated words. They want to know (quickly!) what’s in it for them. A little basic perhaps, but I write with this in mind. Mix in a few gripping headlines and I think the foundations are there.

  23. While keeping it simple I seek to write quality.

    My partner leans on me to blast out posts fast and furiously but I don’t agree.

    I can see through an article someone just posted to have a post there. An excuse to email the list again.

    These posts suck. I don’t haul ass on the web unless I’m searching.

    I have certain people I’m excited to learn from and about and I go to their sites to see what’s going on.

    When I go see John Carlton I know I’m gonna be a while and I’m fine with that because I know it’s time well spent.

    Hell, when I come here I know it’s not gonna be a drive through experience. I come here when I have time and lounge.

    When I read Clayton Makepeace’s post I know I’ll be parking for a few minutes. And I don’t know if many people here are aware of this but every single post of his ezine into chapters for two books.

    He made the content so rich that it could double for a book chapter. This was brilliant.

    For one, when he first started the ezine you could feel this wasn’t some dribbel he passed off as content. He was giving away the store.

    This made sure I was eager to open his email and go to his site. And I’m just as eager today to read his posts years down the road.

    As a loyal reader to these three sites I don’t necessarily need the most intriguing headline to get me to read. It’ll be there, but I’m pre-sold.

    Lazy copy in any way shape or form chaps my hide. Laziness would include not making dense copy easier to read.

    I say write quick but don’t hurry.

    The money is always in the back end and allegiance to your voice. If you cheat your readers by putting up what lands on people as a hack effort, you’ll get what’s coming to you.

    Note Taking Nerd #2
    http://www.mynotetakingnerd.wordpress.com

  24. This is the same basic advice journalists have espoused for decades in the “inverted triangle” rule. You put the important take-aways earliest in the article and let the reader drill down for details, if desired.

    I would add (or contend, whichever you prefer) that “simple/clear/concise” does not have to be, and should not be, mutually exclusive with “creative/interesting.” You don’t have to be boring in order to be clear. And “cutesy” is never appropriate anyway.

    Would also add (no contention, here) that optimizing an article, whether it’s for human readers or for searchbots, involves paying attention to typography, as well as word and style choice. If one must use a hyphen in place of a dash, it’s still advisable to sandwich it between spaces. This way, it doesn’t look like you’re trying to join two words together. You don’t do that with real dashes, but a hyphen is not a dash anyway. This way, at least it reads like you are splicing phrases together, not words.

  25. Thanks for sharing. I like your ideas but find your style a bit jarring after a paragraph or so. Consider working on transitions to ease the reader (the scanner who pauses) from one idea to the next. The old chestnut is “to be as concise as possible, but no more.”

  26. You can despise anti-intellectualism all you want. You still have to write for your market. And if you think the market is YOU–or even anything like you, you’re probably wrong.

    It’s not a matter of opinion. Super-successful marketers and copywriters have proven this over and over again. Get over yourselves, people. :)

  27. For being an article on “simple, clear and concise web writing” it seemed a bit long.

  28. Great tips. I suggest keeping a copy of The Elements of Style close to any blogging station.

  29. The sites I like the most, which inform instead of sell (even in that sneaky advertorial way), would suffer if everyone tried to write like this. But for marketing, sure.

  30. OK, after reading a ton of your other posts, I’m thinking it’s not a lack of transitions that’s tripping me up, it’s just that line break that sets off many of your punch lines. Isolating the kicker, to me, renders it a little naked and bare.

    Thanks for all the ideas!

  31. I’ve just been approached to write a blog for money, so I’m keen to learn all I can. I found this article particularly useful & look foward to more. Many thanks! P. :)

  32. It takes intelligence to be concise.

  33. I did say I despise anti-intellectualism (as really we all should–let’s not praise stupidity and shallowness) but I also noted how people (including myself) read on the Web and said, if we’re selling something, we should write accordingly.

    Thus, I completely agree with you, Michael, that “You still have to write for your market.”

    And if we’re trying to reach our market through the Web, we’re best served by writing for the way people read on the Web.

    Very clear on that. I’m just saying it’s not as fun or fulfilling as more literary-type writing. But it is what it is.

    I’d rather make money than garner praise anyway.

  34. Good thing about internet freeway is that it is like German autobahn, there is no need to limit yourself to 60 mph. In 160 mph there is no time to look at billboards, you just hope you don’t get a good glance on somebody’s pumper sticker.

  35. @Jesse – I hear you. Although I used the same words as you, you weren’t the only one speaking about this and I wasn’t singling you out. :)

  36. Demian – Very nice article my friend. Good points, I actually read the whole article and didn’t just ‘scan’ it ;)

    Disgusting = Vomit

  37. @Shaun Connell I appreciate the distinction when you say “effeciency.”

    I do have to say though that so much literature bears out my point: people aren’t thinking when they surf the web. They want as little mental contribution as possible. All they really want is for something to work: is it practical.

  38. It’s actually difficult to write concisely as you can’t hide your meaning behind waffle.

    We can learn a lot from tabloid journalism.

  39. Help me out here. Your headline for the post was ‘cutesy’. What does ‘baby-food and hard to swallow’ have to do with direct, simple web copy?

    And why start a post about direct and simple web copy lead off with a literary allusion to a Pulitzer-prize winning book on anti-intellectualism???

    And why do you wait till the fourth paragraph to explain “where I’m going with this” ?

    Do you want a landing page to wait till the fourth paragraph to “explain where I’m going with this?”

    Do you want me to illustrate my copy with a toddler in a high chair, even though I’m not selling baby food?

    Thinking like a searcher, I land on a blog post that starts off talking about something I’m NOT looking for (sages and founding fathers) should I just keep reading, or just assume I’m in the wrong place?

    Just confused about what you say versus what you do.

  40. Ivan, the readers of Copyblogger expect unique angles in our posts. You still have to know your existing audience, and write for them first.

  41. I think you’ve laid out some nice tips for those people who don’t write a lot, but need to learn how to. I usually like to tell people to just start writing, and put their own words and emotion into it, and if it’s real then their readers will feel it and support it. I don’t like things too clinical, and I don’t like them too planned, because then I feel like I’m being manipulated, and I’m big on having control over myself at all times.

    I think your main point here is to not write for a search engine, such as Google, because it’s hard to determine what someone is going to find you for. I would say differently if we were talking about a static website, but for a blog, I’m in full agreement. Nice post.

  42. @Ivan, I think the title “simple rule writing for the web” lays out who the post is for, and like Brian pointed out, Copyblogger audience expects a unique angle. If I were writing a Wikipedia article, naturally I’d leave out the emotional cues.

    Content and context are king.

  43. Nice points Demian.

    I like to think of the reader mindset as “don’t make me work too hard” and “don’t make it take too long” … and edu-tainment is the vehicle.

  44. I’ve been thinking about this cutesy thing for a while now. Cutesy lines and titles are built for human eyes, while these other sentences are almost built for search engines. But without the search-engine aspect, no human eyes may ever see your title.

    So the hybrid approach becomes the answer. Now you just have to make the robots and the humans happy.

    I should be in Terminator or something.

  45. My 1 experience in hiring a copywriter was deleting about half of what the person wrote. They were not direct in their writing style. I knew right off no one was going to read all the copy before wanting to look at pictures of the product and bulleted points about the item.

    I guess this copywriter was a heavy reader and thought everyone else was like him.

    Fact is most people scan on the Internet, not read every single word.

  46. @J. D. Meier: “edu-tainment” Love it! And thanks for the kind words.

    @Audio Bible: Good point about people not reading every word. I think we can count on most people reading about 10% of what we write…

  47. Bookmarking for when I can pull off the internet highway and enjoy the view, lol!

    Yes, simple, clear, concise writing is a goal for most communication. Should still be interesting and thought-provoking. Getting the reader to think about ideas is good. Making the writer struggle with “what does that mean” is not.

    Thanks for another good article!

  48. Damian hits it out of the park! Window shopping is so Web 1.0 — generally people go to the web for a purpose and that purpose is not to waste time. They are looking for something and the first person (or company) that can give them (and show them) what they want wins. BUT they have to do it quickly and effectively — at 60 miles per hour, with all the other cars on the road, even the best billboard is hard to miss. And, people are not going to get off at the next exit to go back and see it again!

  49. Okay, granted. Copyblogger is good at selling blog posts, with the formula [ high SEO ranked name ] approach to copywriting.

    My problem, however, is that the approach is pretty much only good for selling dubious scams like colon cleanses, timeshares, get-rich-tomorrow schemes, and similar ripoffs. Look at the clients served by the Copyblogger writers. Mostly hucksters, hustlers. Nobody selling anything worthwhile.

    It’s stuff people buy in the dark of the night when no one else is looking.

  50. I’m with Remarkablogger – you have to write for your audience. Most audiences online indeed read at something around a grade 8 level. So getting all highfalutin or jargon-y is generally a turnoff and yes, it wastes time.

    Even the best writers know that the delete key makes an efficient and effective editor.

    CAVEAT: If you can grab their attention–and their heart strings–your readers may decide it’s worth their time at some point to dig in and read every word. It’s called intimacy and it’s good as gold when it happens. But knowing when and how to get up close and personal with your words is what separates the great writers from the average writers.

    Cheers!

  51. @Ivan
    Criminy. Who took a turd in your cornflakes? Did you ever stop to consider that maybe your extremely poor attitude and negative outlook on life in general is what’s really holding you down?

    Sheesh.

    George

  52. Laughing my tail off here…@Ivan’s complaining about colon cleanses and @Tumblemoose is suggesting someone pooped in his cornflakes. I wonder if that was on purpose?

  53. Another Great Post, aren’t you guys smart!
    We preach 21ST Century rule: Don’t make me think.
    Ask Questions: about them, full of benefits, not features!

    Once again great site, Bob Lewis

  54. thanks for the advice…..very useful sharing

  55. Good advice. We tend to forget why we write in the first place.
    One of the worst thing to do is make joke that makes us smile when we write it : you can be sure that will annoy the readers.

  56. Great tips on how to write web copy that is compatible with users and search engines alike. In order to attract site visitors and turn them into conversions, website content must be easily indexed by search engines and easily read by users.

  57. I agree, keep it simple and short.

    Great post.

  58. Not all audiences prefer the same writing styles. If you’re writing for an ecommerce site, following Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think” rule is imperative. If your blog audience is the general public, what you write must be clear.

    There ARE blog communities where thinkers abound and they like more substance and sharing IDEAS that make them think; however, those ideas still have to be fully developed and clearly explained.

    Writing that can keep them coming back does rely on keeping it “simple, succinct and scannable” without sacrificing your personal style.

  59. The bile rising up in the back of my throat as I read this is inexplicable. Seriously.

    No, actually you make a great point. If I want to bury my face in pages upon pages of text I’ve been known to (gasp!) actually go to the bookstore and pick up a copy of the printed page. If I’m surfing around on the web for something I have that very specific something in mind, and I’m not going to sit all day to find out if you have it.

    Excellent post-not strategies to want to apply to creative writing, but vital if you’re going to cater to an audience with the approximate attention span of a bored 3 year old.

    They know what they want.

    They want it now.

    If you’re not going to give it to them they’re going to go get it somewhere else.

  60. For me,the most confusing part is how to put a nice and catchy title.Sometimes I use Google.