As the award-winning series “Mad Men” recently came to a close, I was reminded of yet another mad man, only this one isn’t fictitious. The legendary advertising genius, David Olgivy. He was arguably the best copywriter of his generation. Olgivy’s advice to copywriters in the 1960s remains as timeless as a Patek Phillippe watch:
“Write the way you talk. Naturally. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. Never use jargon words.”
Olgivy’s advice is just as relevant in the age of the Internet as it was 50 years ago. Indeed, his exhortations for simplicity are echoed in the tenets of today’s Web writing experts Ginny Redish and Ann Handley:
“Talk to your site visitors. Cut unnecessary words. Write in active voice.”
—Ginny Redish, author of Letting Go of the Words
“Make it clear. Don’t make the reader work hard to understand you.”
—Ann Handley, author of Everybody Writes
Web readers are action oriented; don’t waste their time
Advice on how to write a stellar Web page begins with the premise that Web readers often have different motivations than print readers. They are action oriented. Web readers are typically on a mission to find an answer to a question—scanning pages, foraging for information, according to usability expert Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen’s eye tracking research found most users spend 15-20 seconds on a page, scanning in an “F” pattern (Below, image Jakob Nielsen).
The “fold” is still relevant
Much has been written about the relevance of the “fold”—the invisible page divide as readers scroll down—in writing for the Web. Eye tracking research by Nielsen still shows the fold matters. As readers scroll down your web pages their attention wanes markedly (Right, image Jakob Nielsen).
The implication for writers: Encourage scrolling with copy that’s compelling enough to keep users scrolling and reading.
Hallmarks of a good Web page
You can identify the best Web pages by a handful of consistent features—five in fact:
- Clear text that talks to your readers using words they use
- Easy to scan text; short sentences and paragraphs (keep your paragraphs to 2—4 sentences)
- Bullets and lists that break up blocks of copy
- Plenty of subheads that aid scanning
- Strong, memorable images
Practice good Web style
The first step to practicing good Web style is to organize your page using the inverse pyramid (Below, image Ginny Redish), a model often followed by journalists. Basically, lead with your best stuff. Your supporting and background information follows.
Once you have your copy outlined using the inverse pyramid, begin writing using these four guidelines:
- Write in active voice; use “you”
- Write straightforward sentences
- Cut unnecessary words
- Avoid jargon
Writing in the active voice is critical to great Web style. Don’t say “conduct a discussion of,” say “discuss.” Don’t say “perform an analysis of,” say “analyze.”
Cut unnecessary words by getting to the point. Don’t say “at this point in time,” say “now.” Don’t say “in the near future,” say “now.”
Ditch the jargon: Don’t say “utilize,” say “use.” Don’t say “facilitate,” say “help.” Business is brimming with jargon and buzz words that break all the rules of clear communication and grammar basics. Stay away from words like synergy, paradigm, and words that end in “ize,” like conceptualize and operationalize. All of these words obscure meaning.
Write compelling headlines
The key to a great Web page is in the headline, or title tag. The headline has to summarize the page to entice you to click on it, yet, include the appropriate keyword phrase so the page will appear in search results.
Here are four headline tips from Jakob Nielsen
- Short: an average of five words (Title tags should be ~ 55 characters)
- Rich in information scent: Clearly summarizes the target content
- Front loaded with most important keywords (because users often scan only the beginning)
- Predictable so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click or read
As you go to work applying these writing tips, remember the words of William Zinsser, journalist turned teacher and author of the seminal book, On Writing Well. He has timeless advice for any writer:
“Clutter is the disease of American Writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”