Ask Yourself This One Question Before You Write Web Copy

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Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the mental processes we go through when we write. Specifically, the questions we ask ourselves.

Unlike with fiction, or blog posts, or journal articles, we usually don’t get a great idea for web copy in the shower or walking the dog. We usually have to write copy—it’s a job. And we gear up for that job by sitting down and asking ourselves a question. This foundational question determines how we write.

Too often, that question is: “What do I want to say?”

How the wrong question makes your copy suck

Why is that the wrong question to ask?

Because when I think about what I want to say, I’m focusing on the wrong person: myself. When I do this, I end up writing copy that reads like this:

ABC Corporation sets the standard for widget manufacturers worldwide. With over 50 years in the widget manufacturing business, we hold over 2,000 patents. We are the exclusive manufacturers of the TurboDeluxe widget, the most durable widget ever devised.

Snore.

In this example, I want to tell people how great my company is and what it’s achieved. As a result, I include too much detail about that. I never think about the basic questions that readers have, and what they want to know.

The right question to ask

Have you ever wondered why novels, nonfiction articles, and newspapers don’t have usability experts working on them, the way websites do?

It’s because websites are different.

While readers of fiction or newspapers (and their online equivalent, blog posts) are genuinely interested in reading what the writer would like to tell them, website visitors come to a site with a specific need for information. The website is not pleasure reading. The website is a utility.

So we can’t approach writing for the web the same way we approach all those other types of writing. We need to ask ourselves a different question: “Who will be reading this?”

When you understand your audience

Web writing requires a radical focus on the user. Web designers and information architects understand this: they make personas and do in-depth studies of what people want and how they look for it. Web writers have to learn to think the same way.

Of course, it’s not enough to just know who’s reading our copy. Once we ask that question, several more follow:

  • Who will be reading this?
  • What is she looking for?
  • What does she already know about this topic?
  • What does she need to know?

Et cetera.

Asking the right question improves your writing

If we start by asking these questions, we consult our analytics and observe users reading our copy. We start to realize that they don’t care how many patents ABC Corporation has, or how much better it is than other companies. Eventually, our copy about ABC Corporation starts to look more like this:

ABC Corporation has crafted durable, effective widgets for over 50 years.

Straightforward information without excessive (self-laudatory) details. Just what a typical visitor would want.

What do you think? Which questions do you ask yourself when you write?