A guide to writing web copy
I was recently asked to hold a workshop at Oxford University to teach faculty members and graduate students how to write website copy. The audience were all highly intelligent, eloquent beings, who are all very well versed in the art of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keypad), but the University recognised that writing for the web requires a specialist set of skills.
Whilst they weren’t expecting me to turn their nominated writers into professional copywriters within a couple of hours, there were quite a few tricks and tips that I could pass on. There were certainly a few light bulb moments during the workshop. So, if you’re after some tips on how to write website content, then read on…
Remember that people read online content very differently
Today’s websites are very busy. Gone are the days of brochure sites where you are expected to read reams and reams of text. With today’s websites you land on a page and you’re instantly bombarded with links to other pages.
If you are writing a webpage, then take a minute to think about how you yourself read websites. I’d put money on the fact that you don’t necessarily read from left to right. You scan pages to search for what you’re looking for rather than read every word. You’re likely to focus on headings, subheadings, bold text and links.
Therefore, when you’re writing web content you need to:
Keep sentences and paragraphs short and keep the page as concise as possible. An average of 12 words per sentence is recommended, although admittedly, this is virtually impossible. These last two sentences were 13 and 15 words respectively and it took a lot of jiggling to get them that concise.
Break up your text as often as you can using headings and subheadings. Oxford’s Somerville College uses headings and subheadings very well (even if their content leaves a lot to be desired). Conversely, the University’s music faculty is an example of how not to do it. The sentences and paragraphs are far too long. I can’t be bothered to read it and I was a music scholar in a previous life – can you?
Think about where your reader has come from and where they are going
You have to remember that the person reading the webpage you are writing won’t necessarily have landed directly on that page. They are likely to have come from another page on the site.
You therefore need to consider where they might have come from and what they might have read before. That way you won’t duplicate content.
More importantly you need to consider where they are going next. Your number one aim is to hold their interest and for them to stay on the site as long as possible. It’s therefore important that you include logical links to other pages within your text.
My advice is to think about where it would be logical to send them to next. Add links to those pages within your text. Please note, I said pages plural, not page. Don’t be afraid to send them off on different tangents. The links will let them choose the direction they want to take based on what they’re interested in.
This college website provides a good example of use of internal links.
I only have one rule when it comes to adding links to other pages, and that’s DON’T use the term ‘click here’.
Links stand out in a block of text. Therefore, if you’re skim reading a paragraph, you’re likely to focus on the link and zoom right past the text. Try it next time you’re on a website where you’re looking for particular content. It’s all about the links these days.
If all the links says is, “click here”, then you have to read back to establish the context and figure out where that link might be sending you. If several links on a page say “click here”, then you have to remember the context of each link. My advice is to write links with unique and descriptive phrases that don’t make your reader do the extra work and have to build a mental model as they read. Links are also really good for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), but that’s a whole other topic! You can read more about SEO in my SEO blog.
Consider your audience
Talk directly to your reader. Don’t use a passive voice. You need them to feel involved and to start to identify with what you’re presenting. Therefore use ‘you’ as much as you can, e.g. ‘This will give you’, ‘This will help you’, ‘You will be working with’…
A general rule of thumb is to use ‘you’ and ‘your’ four times more than you use ‘I’ or ‘we’. It makes sure that you’re talking to your audience and making them feel engaged, rather than talking directly about you or your business.
Sorry to pick on Somerville College, but whilst its website makes good use of headings and subheadings, and the sentence length and structure and the enthusiastic and friendly tone of voice is wonderful, the site does very much talk in terms of “we have this” and “we do this” rather than “you will enjoy” and “this means you can…”.
Turn features into benefits
Don’t just make bold statements. You need to support any statements you make with facts and turn them from a feature into a benefit.
For example, rather than just say, “as a student at Oxford you will have access to the Bodleian library”, say, “as a student at Oxford you will have access to the University’s Bodleian Library. It’s the largest University library system in the UK, giving you unparalleled access to rare books, manuscripts, original texts and journals.” Now your reader will understand the advantage Oxford and its Bodleian library offers over other universities.
Think of it like this… you don’t sell glasses, you sell better vision. You don’t sell a bag, you sell a better or more stylish way to carry belongings. You don’t sell a drill, you sell an easier and faster way to make a hole. Do you get my point?
Tone of voice
The tone of voice you use for your copy is incredibly important - especially if people are going to find your product or service via the Internet without any prior contact with you. To find out more about how to create the perfect tone of voice for your business and website, then read my blog ‘Does your tone of voice reflect your brand?’
For further tips and advice I would recommend reading the following blogs on my website:
Beat the fear of the blank page – Tips and advice to help you get started and to overcome writer’s block.
Five killer writing tips – Tips on how to structure your content and keep your audience interested.