Writing Content that Works for a Living
Issue № 271

Writing Content that Works for a Living

Web copy is still, for the most part, being written in much-less-than-ideal circumstances by people who aren’t writers and don’t have any time. That’s a problem, but it’s not one we’re likely to solve in the next few years—particularly not with a recession forcing many people to do ever more with ever less.

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The good news, though, is that anyone who touches copy can make a difference by insisting that every chunk of text on the site is doing something concrete. And alas, “selling product!” doesn’t count: “selling” is a muzzy, undefined process, so you can’t tell if you’re doing it properly just by looking. Copy needs specific goals to accomplish. For the moment, let’s take the product page—that is, a page designed to sell a product—as an example.

I’m in grad school, and I’m not a naturally organized person, so last week, I started looking around online for reviews of academic productivity and citation management applications that could help me manage my research materials. An ad for academictoolkit.com topped my first page of Google results, and the URL sounded about right—an academic toolkit was pretty much exactly what I was hoping to find. When the page finally finished loading, though, it took me several seconds to figure out how I’d gotten there, and quite a few more to parse enough of the copy to realize that the site appeared to have nothing to offer me.

This wasn’t the worst-case scenario, since it turns out that I wasn’t in the target audience, as far as I can tell. But if I had been, the copy might have been frustrating or just plain baffling enough to drive me away before I found what I was looking for. In that case, the company would have lost a sale and I would have missed out on a potentially useful tool. Still, what really happened was bad enough: the company wasted money on a too-vague Google ad and the site’s unclear copy wasted enough of my time to make my inner editor squeak in irritation.

Solutioning your academias#section2

In case the page changes, here are the first two paragraphs that greeted me at academictoolkit.com, once I’d scrolled past the extraneous Flash-video-headline thing at the top of the page:

Academia Solutions

GeoAge mobility solutions allow researchers to gain insight by providing access to real-time inspection information. The ability to capture data and mobile devices, transmit and instantly report provides a strong advantage.

And that’s where FAST can be a valuable asset … turning data into intelligence in near real-time. Capturing and reporting in real-time can improve operational intelligence and provide insight that enables more effective strategic, tactical and effective decision-making. With GeoAge mobility software, research is FASTER.

I should have closed the page as soon as I saw the words “academia solutions.” “Solutions” is vague enough on its own, and the “academia solutions” construction bespeaks a mindset in which “verticals” square dance with “industry matrices.” It’s the language of marketing briefs, not that of academics or researchers or human beings.

This is not where I whine about jargon#section3

There’s a time for professional jargon: when you know you’re speaking to an audience that understands you, and you need the extra specificity and precision that jargon can provide. If you’re using it outside of that situation, you’re probably not communicating clearly, honestly, or effectively.

Jargon isn’t really the problem here, though. The problem with the copy on this page—and so many others that promote information products—is that it’s not saying anything. Misplaced jargon, buzzwords, and other kinds of fluff rush in because the lack of conveyable meaning creates a vacuum.

What’s wrong?#section4

If you come to the page, as I did, by Googling “academic research software,” you may well be befuddled by the complete lack of information that might explain who this “solution” is intended for. The third paragraph of copy does finally suggest that the activity it supports is “mobile academic research,” which presumably tells the target audience that they’re in the right place, but there’s no information about what academic disciplines, specifically, the software (hardware?) is intended to serve—or whether they’re targeting individual academics, research labs, or departmental IT leads.

Moreover, the copy doesn’t say what the product is. Two different brand names, “GeoAge” and “FAST,” appear, as does “mobility solutions,” which tells us the whatever-it-is is small and probably wireless. Is it software? Is it hardware? Is it a hosted service? Is GeoAge the name of the company? What’s FAST? If you don’t already know, you’re not going to find out here.

But that’s okay, right, as long as you provide useful information to people who come to the site already knowing the brand name and nature of the product? I suppose it is, if you’re willing to alienate everyone else (and pay someone to field customer service inquiries from the people who can’t tell what’s going on). But is this text serving even the already-informed reader? Let’s take another look.

GeoAge mobility solutions allow researchers to gain insight by providing access to real-time inspection information.

So these “solutions” let people gain “insight” by letting them see a particular kind of information in “real-time.” Presumably, competing products don’t let you do that—but this page doesn’t say that.

The ability to capture data and mobile devices, transmit and instantly report provides a strong advantage.

Now we see that the “ability” to do various things “provides a strong advantage.” Is this the solution’s ability? The researcher’s ability, gained by using the solution? What kind of advantage, and over what?

Perhaps the next paragraph will explain.

And that’s where FAST can be a valuable asset … turning data into intelligence in near real-time.

Leaving aside the question of what “that’s” refers to (the ability? the advantage?), didn’t you say I’d get insight in “real-time” two sentences ago? Is “insight” different from “intelligence”? Does “intelligence” take longer to bake, and that’s why it only comes in “near real time”?

This sentence tells us nothing. Moving on.

Capturing and reporting in real-time can improve operational intelligence and provide insight that enables more effective strategic, tactical and effective decision-making.

Intelligence and insight will be improved! By capturing and reporting! That enables, among other things, tactical decision-making! Glorious spider monkeys of the dawn, I’ll take a dozen!

No matter that I still don’t know what this thing is, except that it’s mobile and researchy.

With GeoAge mobility software, research is FASTER.

…and we end with a tagline.

There’s a third paragraph, but it’s not much help, either.

This is what happens when you need to fill a webpage with copy and have no goals more specific than “sell.” It’s easy to hate on the prose, but the real problem is a lack of direction—and of a sense that there’s a problem to be solved by the copy. (The same thing that on the visual design side leads to pretty, useless page designs.) The content isn’t doing anything but taking up space.

Make it simple#section5

Most product pages need to answer these questions:

  1. Who is the product for?
  2. What is the product?
  3. What does the product do for its target user?
  4. Why is the product better than the available alternatives?

Stupidly simple, right? But the lack of answers to these questions is what leads to thousands upon thousands of wasted hours (and more money than I want to think about) spent writing, serving, and reading meaningless dreck that doesn’t inform users, promote products, or help anyone.

Let’s break the questions down a little.

  1. Who is the product for?
    Ask yourself: Can the target audience tell from this copy that we’re speaking to them? Can other people outside our audience tell that we’re NOT speaking to them?
  2. What is the product?
    Ask yourself: Have we spelled out, clearly and in simple language, what the product is? Are the nouns as concrete as we can make them?
  3. What does the product do for its target user?
    Ask yourself: Have we laid out the product’s primary features and benefits in a clear, concrete way?
  4. Why is the product better than the available alternatives?
    Ask yourself: What evidence do we have for those claims? Are we presenting that evidence clearly and without fluffy, empty language that makes us look like we’re boasting?

Do those things and then get the text shined by someone who writes well, and you’ll communicate more clearly and efficiently than the horde of companies who’ve filled their product pages with the prose equivalent of cotton candy.

Doing it right#section6

Oh, and my search for a great research tool? It ended happily, when I found Zotero. Not coincidentally, the Zotero people know how to write web copy.

Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. It lives right where you do your work — in the web browser itself.

That’s how you do it.

Words with jobs#section7

In the second half of this series, I’ll look at how you can use content templates to make sure your copy does its job, no matter how many pages (and writers) you’re working with.

45 Reader Comments

  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.

  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

  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

  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

  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.

  6. … 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.

  7. 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?

  8. …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.)

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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?

  13. @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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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…

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.


  21. 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.

  22. 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!

  23. “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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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!!!

  26. 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.

  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 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, http://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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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!

  32. 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.

  33. the secret to a successful sales letter writing would be writing content which is both concise and psychologically appealing.

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