Principles of copywriting for the web
Writing effective web copy isn't easy. But good copy is
essential to ensuring that your readers — and your
customers, if you run a business — can understand
how your website works and what it can do for them.
The guidelines this
document describes will tell you
how to improve the user experience on your
site. They apply to web copy generally — both
marketing copy and navigational (or instructional or
"guide") copy — and their value is indirect
but significant: Observing them will improve your
site's ability to do its job well.
These principles aren't intended to catalog the tricks of
the copywriting trade, however; they concern only the
adjustments a writer should make in writing web copy in
particular. Nor are they intended to be applied to
content in the form of articles, essays, stories or
other texts that readers may also find online, but that are ends in
themselves. Those forms of writing do not necessarily observe
the principles described here.
This document reflects my own, still-growing experience writing,
editing and reading web copy. If you have any thoughts or questions
that might help improve its accuracy or usefulness, please
let me know.
So let's get to it. Here are some basic principles for writing
good web copy.
Remember three key things about web users
People don't read websites the same way they read print material.
There are three key characteristics that affect how web users
react to online content (and consumer-related content in
- Web users are active, not passive: One click and they're gone.
If they don't see a reason to stay on your site, they'll leave
— in as little as 15 seconds after they get there.
- The longer the text, the less
likely they are to read it — and the faster they'll skim it, if they bother
to skim it at all.
- They don't believe hype.
If you want a web user to believe what you say, you have to back it up.
To be effective, your web copy must take these characteristics into account.
Anticipate your site's users' questions
There are four basic questions a user has that you must answer on every page:
"What am I doing here," "How do I do it," "What's in it
for me," and "Where can I go next?"
If your site's navigation and design don't make the answers obvious
to even a first-time visitor — which they should, if at all
possible — then you should use copy to explain them.
Don't count on your site's visitors to figure things out for
themselves — half of them won't bother to try, and half the rest won't
Keep most copy short
Unless a visitor arrives at a particular page on your site expecting to find
something to read, he or she probably won't read more than one or two lines of
text. And the longer the text, the less likely he is to read any of it.
Don't add long copy to any page where your visitors aren't looking for it.
Keep short copy simple
The complexity of your copy
matters as much as its length. Make sure visitors can
understand short copy on its first reading, without stopping to
think about it. (They won't.)
Typically, you can convey one key idea effectively in one or two lines.
You can sometimes get two, if they're both simple. Don't try for three;
try to say too much and you ruin the chance that even the first idea will get through.
(And if a new user isn't going to be able to understand a page on your site
without learning three new things first, it's time to think about a redesign.)
If you anticipate that readers will want to learn more about something
they find on a page where they weren't expecting a lot of copy, add a
link to another page where they can get the information they need.
Organize longer copy effectively
Even when readers are expecting to find a text-heavy page, they won't
necessarily be willing to put much effort into reading it. Make it easy
for them by dividing distinct ideas into separate paragraphs, using
helpful headings, sub-headings and bulletted lists,
and introducing key ideas deliberately.
Don't assume readers will read longer pieces of text in their entirety
— write the copy so that readers can skim it and read only the parts
they're interested in.
Longer copy needn't be as direct as short copy, but it must
be just as easy to read. If your visitors have to work too
hard to understand what it's saying,
they'll stop reading.
Make it lively
Be clear, but don't be boring. Write vividly and aim for a light, unassuming tone of
voice. It takes a little while for boring or overbearing copy to affect a reader,
but once it does, practically nothing you say with it will get through.
Focus on your core audience
You can't reach everyone. Make sure your copy addresses your site's
most important audience directly and lets them know what the site can
do for them in particular. Don't weaken its effectiveness
by adding words intended for readers you don't need.
If you are targeting more than one kind of visitor, design your site
to direct the different audiences to different pages on the site.
If a web user doesn't think your site has something of value to
him, he'll go somewhere else. But if your message speaks
directly to his needs, he'll listen.
Use a consistent voice throughout
The more consistent a voice you create — and the better it
speaks to your intended audience in particular — the quicker your visitors
will recognize it and become familiar with it. And the more familiar
it is to them, the more effective it will be.
Let the facts speak for themselves
Don't talk down to or past your audience. Make your descriptions
compelling, but not excessive. Web readers read hype as hype,
and remember it that way, too. Skip it.
Copyright ©2002-2003 Matt Pfeffer