Editor’s note: This post was originally published on January 14, 2009. We’re bringing it back today because clear, concise writing on the web never goes out of style.
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 reason why I used the word “disgusting” in the headline of this blog post. So let me explain where I’m going with this.
The simple rule of 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 on your website home page, 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
Many people will find your website through a search engine. That’s where you have to start. At the beginning.
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. You’ll not only discover what type of headline to write, but also, fundamentally, what type 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 about 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 discussion on LinkedIn …