Writing Content that Works for a Living

by Erin Kissane

45 Reader Comments

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  1. ... why did I have to wade through your dissection of the bad copy before getting to what you found? Say I’d come to this page looking for something about academic research myself? Would I have known what you were talking about? Of course, I agree with your points about meaningless marketing-speak, but then, I reckon almost anyone who comes to ALA deliberately does too.
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  2. Erin:  Great article—thanks.  It’s true that far too much Web copy reads as though it were created with one of those BS-generator sites :-)  Even when the aim is selling something, a paragraph should have a point, and words should be chosen to express ideas as lucidly and succinctly as possible. Well done!  —Doug
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  3. The 4 point summary at the end of your article is concise and should provide a helpful road map when trying to communicate with clients who don’t seem to understand its not the size of their text that counts but the content and context!
    Thanks - John
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  4. I absolutely despise fluff and nonsensical blabber.  I agree with Erin and John;  The multitude of confused web-writers should follow those four steps.  When I come across a site that I don’t understand (especially when it’s something I should understand), I back out or hit thumbs down on my StumbleUpon toolbar.  No Patience for Stupidity,
    Antonio Ciccarone
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  5. Great points, Erin.  The Zotero example you used in closing leads to some exciting possibilities.  The tone smacks of the forthright, concrete, simple language that accompanies many Web 2.0-influenced businesses.  I’m thinking “37signals”:http://37signals.com/ and “Twitter”:http://www.twitter.com/ and the like.  They’re not overly contrived, they motivate clear action, and it’s obvious what you should do to engage—much like the calls to action and value propositions that show up on their landing pages.  The Zotero example uses active voice, uncomplicated sentence structures, and common words to make its case.  In design, we see this more and more.  It’s the verbal equivalent to large areas of flat color, tactile sans serif, and an uncluttered layout—all hallmarks of Web 2.0-styled design, which (hopefully) denotes a Web 2.0-influenced business. No gradiants, no passive voice, no bull.  If more businesses (and our clients) are moving in that direction, let’s ensure their design and content keeps pace.
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  6. Mr Orwell’s paper from 1946 raises many of the same arguments and is well worth the read. You can find it all over the place, but “here’s”:http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm an HTML version.
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  7. ... But linking is queen !
    Great writing is a must because it is good for your users and for your search engine optimization.
    Users loves to read simple sentences that are comprehensible at the first reading. Too much complicated words, too long sentences are a no no and you should always prefer clear and concise writing.
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  8. Naturally I agree with your deconstruction of this kind of copy - I’m often to be found shouting at web pages/ the TV/ radio/ passers-by for the same reasons.  Interestingly, though, you mentioned this kind of copy having a corollary in pretty but useless page designs visual design-wise.  What do you say about designs for, say, online stores that abandon copy completely and rely on graphical elements that don’t afford user interactions well (random product/ branding-related imagery, almost to fill up space rather than do anything) - how does one persuade of the need *for* decent (or indeed any) copy to be a guiding hand in sites like this?
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  9. ...And then cut it in half again. This article reminds me of Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make me Think!” (great read, highly suggested). The writer really should keep in mind that most of our users don’t read the content- they skim through it and look for the keywords that they already have stuck in their heads. To help them find those words faster, keep the message as short and concise as possible. (PS: After I wrote this out, I took out a full paragraph worth of extra words, and didn’t lose my point.)
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  10. Helpful tips. Looking forward to the tips on how to extend this across a site. I’m so tired of seeing fluffy, empty-calorie words filling every corner of a page.
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  11. In a bid to sell and portray themselves as maesteros of the profession (which they are actually not) web writers oftne end up writing heavy words that have no value altogether. Its more on quanity but falls glat on quality. A vice versa approach can do so much good!
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  12. This one got very close to primary school. Should we expect a “how to type with a keyboard” article soon?
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  13. Kissane’s right, of course. But frankly, the article is just a restatement of general principles that are well-known and well-articulated elswhere. (That’s fine. No beef.)
    But I wish there was, at least, a few nods to the classics in the field - stuff by Rudolph Flesch, David Ogilvy; these are sources I think readers of ALA - if interested in this article at all - would find useful.
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  14. Nice article, but I’m still trying to find the right technique to overcome client marketing departments and their insatiable need to fill all whitespace with words. Most recent example: a Fortune 50 company whose marketing SVP had 1,000-word bio pages for the external site on recipients of *internal* attaboy awards. Yes, it’s great that Larry from Accounts Payable just completed his fourth year of Perfect Attendance - - but is it really going to help sell widgets if his heartwarming story pops up in a Google search?
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  15. @Erin Kissane: My comment was too harsh. I respect your effort. What I meant is that while being perfectly true, the article looked a bit shallow against other ALA readings. I know it’s the first part, but still I was hoping for more.
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  16. First of all that s one of the funniest critiques of poor copy I’ve ever read. The humour really helps to make the point. The four questions should be asked by everyone who writes copy for the web or in brochures, UK Sunday supplements are full of the kind of fluff we all despise. In defence of fluff it may reduce the effectiveness of your competitors and it will give you a laugh. Great article.
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  17. A very long winded way to say: Know what the point is before you start.
    Make your point clearly.
    Don’t waffle. Shame you didn’t just state that, then get to the more interesting stuff apparently in part two. Given the target audience on ALA and all…
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  18. I think Szymon is right, the quality of this article seems not to fit the audience here at ALA. And in my opinon we can gladly do without the second part of this article. You are just beating around the bush. Come to the point. Ironically your article is in my opinion too long and not very understandable.
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  19. Do you know who designed / built the website?  It is awesome! I absolutely love it.  I think you are crazy, the website clearly defines the product.  I think maybe you might have drunk a little to much when you read the website.  It’s just copy anyway only nerds read the copy, look at the pretty pictures like real people do and the message is clear.
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  20. I thought Erin’s comments about the GeoAge site were the spot on observations of a very intelligent woman.  There was a lot of how to do it right (Zotero) and what to avoid (GeoAge).  This is something we can all learn from. @Peter Roesler:  Most of us aren’t in kindergarten anymore.  Copy IS important.  As an example, a web site with pretty pictures of butterflies might be entertaining, but it is useless if I’m trying to figure out how to change a fuse in my car.
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  21. Thanks for your thoughts! Love em!
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  22. what rules am i talking about? “dont make user think”. smashing magazine writes this and i believe that academic toolkit should read it.
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  23. Fair points.  But here’s the thing . . . good writing is good writing.  The same principles apply whether you’re writing a sonnet, a sermon or a summons, or a sestina. Make it clear, make clean and make it nice.
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  24. I’m an SEO copywriter myself, and I found your article extremely clear and helpful.  It’s easy to fall into the pitfalls of not communicating, especially when what you’re trying to say is clear and familiar to yourself.  Copywriting shouldn’t be undertaken lightly—it’s how your customers will see you, and should be accorded that respect. Heidi
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  25. I think you redesigned.aligned.  PS nice article.
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  26. Make it simple should have included a fifth step (and good for any writing—not just for products but articles too). 5. Is it concise? You talked about academictoolkit.com wasting your time—but then you wasted ours.  So many details, and not a lot to gain from it.  80-90% of your article was about poor writing, and then 75% of that was illustration rather than teaching.  There were some good points, and certainly valid ones, but one that you may have missed (but certainly portrayed) was to keep it brief.
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  27. Website copy is too frequently the unwanted child handed to marketing types with too little time to do it, approached with an “I have to do that too?” attitude and executed with a “let’s just get something up” mentality. Scintillating, SEO savvy copy with a personality should be embraced and treated as a matter of urgency. If your company does not have the skill set or time internally to produce bumff-free and SEO-focused material, outsource!
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  28. “Solutioning”?? “Solutioning”??? An article about good copy/content and you’ll mangle it with a “nerb” (noun verb) (hey if you can make up words that you think will make your point so can I) - and not just sneak it into the body content either but stick it up big and bold as a section header! Perhaps you’re doing it intentionally to poke fun at the original article you’re trashing but remember tongue in cheek doesn’t always translate well on this here Interweb thing without appropriate visual clues (quotation marks help). I further concur with the other suggestions that you took too long to get to the point, and should have spent more time on the “Words with jobs” aspect rather than teasing it for a part two. Although I guess $200 is better than $100 any day right. All in all, for an article on “Content that Works” this… doesn’t.
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  29. I can understand why so much of the writing on the internet is not very good.  search engines don’t yet make the diference between good and bad writing - so often it is a case of get up as much as possible as quickly as possible. Google in their own way have made this worse.  If webmasters could not show ads from adsense there would be a lot less junk on the web.  But that is what we have and will have to live with.
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  30. Hello Erin,
    this is truly the most brilliant analysis of bad website copy i´ve ever read - as you put it, copy that only takes up space. Glorious! I already mailed the link to your article to my colleagues in my company, for they need to be updated in this matter urgently, too!!!
    Greetings
    Alexander
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  31. Brilliantly written of course, but amusing too. The bad website copy is the sort of thing we encounter on a daily basis but somehow have gotten so used to it that we just let it wash over us and move onto the next site. Not only does succinct and to-the-point copy ‘work for a living’ but it comes as a breath of fresh air too. Well done.
    Alan.
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  32. It seems that too many people don’t know how to write in plain English - be it on the web or not. Because I first thought that your ‘bad copy’ example was generated by a tool like Gobbledygook generator on “Plain English site (Plain English Campaign UK)”:http://www.textism.com
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  33. Plain English link should have been http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/examples.htm
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  34. The old adage about writing to an audience with an 8th grade level of comprehension is troubling to many writers. They want to be esoteric, sound sophisticated and worldly. The problem is that they bore their audience or lose them altogether. Content and copy has to be engaging, entertaining and understandable. It should address the topic honestly while taking the reader to the next sentence and paragraph. The goal of the writing must be considered, but the means to that goal cannot be ignored. Keeping the reader’s attention from the first sentence to the last is the very definition of success. Attempts at sounding scholarly come off sounding perfunctory and waste a writer’s time. The Internet does not have time for bad writing.  Write to an 8th grade audience and you will be addressing every reader.
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  35. If these stats are accurate, even through this down economy, writing is up and kicking.  Pretty inspirational!
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  36. Great article. I’m a designer, so it’s great to see the other side. Stu.
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  37. I think more and more industries and companies are (wisely) going the way of hiring qualified content writers, rather than diving in to a world they are neither qualified nor experienced at.  Just look at an outsource site, like, say, www.odesk.com, and you will see increasing openings for writers.  It’s nice to see some sites are wising up and doing it right the first time.
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  38. “Cheap Contacts”:href=“http://eyecontactlenses.org/cheap-contacts.html
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  39. The four point summary was what I was looking for.  Being pretty disorganized myself, I think it is important to supply myself with a template before trying to put works on a web page. Very helpful indeed.  Thanks.
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  40. Good writing and valuable content results in visitors returning to your website more often.
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  41. Erin presents a very valid argument. Most business owners and website owners overlook the one simple thing that separates success from failure, and that’s to offer something of value to your reader or customer. Writing quality content for the web is a tricky thing and is something that not alot of people understand (Which would explain why most online business’ fail…). The rule is pretty simple: Understand your market, present concrete benefits which directly target that market and keep it simple. Most sites have a “It’s all about Me” sort of site offering a bunch of features that doesn’t speak to the reader (as with academictoolkit.com). Features don’t sell, benefits do. Great article Erin!
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  42. I totally agree.  I think when it comes to writing of any sort, say it simply and clearly.  That’s it.  I hate when copy is overly familiar instead of professional and universally accessible.  It’s a fine line, and it takes a lot of practice to get it right, but well-written content can be what convinces a customer to buy a product.
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  43. An excellent article. Much of the Web copy you come across these days seems to be a rehash of an original article, making it difficult to understand at times the points being made. Thanks for an excellent article. Bob “home business”,http://www.homebusinesslink.com  
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  44. the secret to a successful sales letter writing would be writing content which is both concise and psychologically appealing.
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  45. I’m a bit tired of seeing wordpress sites filled with rubbish spun articles from content farms. I’m still not sure whether content should be short and to the point or longer with better keywords. do people read it or scan it looking for keywords. Build your own chicken coop
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