We've been thinking a bit about content recently, so in a casual email to Donna Spencer, we asked her...
"So why do people end up with crappy web content?"
This is her most excellent response. Of course, this is easy for her given that she teaches web writing and wrote a book on the subject.
So, over to Donna:
Let’s face it, after years of communicating via the web, there’s still a fair amount of crappy content around. There’s a ton of good content as well of course, but a lot of bad. Why is it so hard? Here’s 7 reasons why you may end up with crappy web content.
1. You’re not a very good writer
I know it’s a harsh one to start with, but sometimes it’s best to get the ugly truth out in the open straight away.
Writing is a skill. A good writer has a solid understanding of grammar, a good vocabulary and understands how words should be used. For corporate writing, a good writer will be able to write in their own voice as well as the organisation’s.
Writing needs practice. Good writers constantly practice, play, explore and get better.
The only way to become a better writer is to write. Take care with every email, polish every report. Set aside time to do nothing but write, even if it will never be published.
If practice isn’t an option, you won’t get better. Instead, make sure you have a good editor to help you out. Or pass the writing job to someone who loves doing it.
2. You don’t make web content a priority
At least a couple of times a week I hear about something new and cool (last week it was the 2013 release of the motorbike I want to buy next). Naturally, I go to the web to find out more. At that point, I’m completely ready to be captured, encouraged and persuaded. I’m ready to spend some time learning about the new thing. You could sell me anything.
But no. I go to the website that should have the information and there’s nothing there. No updates, no indication of the cool new thing.
Guess what? By the time you’re ready, I’m gone. I’ll never look for that thing again. There will be something else that I’m interested in (unless of course, it’s a new motorbike - I’ll check back about that, but I’ll be annoyed every time the information isn’t there).
When you have something new to say, make sure your web content is all there and ready to support it.
3. You forget that you speak a different language
No, I don’t mean that you speak German and your readers speak English. I’m talking about all that internal jargon.
Jargon is a fantastic human invention. It lets us communicate more efficiently and effectively with people who know the same kinds of things that we know. We don’t have to spell everything out in detail. We can cut to the chase & just get on with it.
The trouble with jargon is that you forget you’re using it. You forget that other people don’t necessarily know what you know; and you forget that they don’t understand the words you’re using.
If you’ll be writing for readers who aren’t your crowd, you’ll have to carefully unpick all the jargon and figure out how to explain in a way they understand, using words they understand. Higgs-Boson anyone?
4. You’re selling, not answering questions
Writing that sells a product is very different to writing that explains a product.
Writing that sells must be persuasive. It must make you excited and keen and ready to buy.
Writing that explains must do just that. It needs detail. Concrete, solid, information. It needs to answer questions that people have and answer questions they didn’t know they have.
Each has an important role. But I see far too much content that is trying to sell me something by being persuasive and exciting; when what I need is answers to my questions.
Make sure you’re providing answers if people are coming to you with questions.
5. You get the level of detail wrong
Government websites with mountains of detail and no overview; product sites with photos, marketing copy and little detail. Both are as frustrating as each other.
Sometimes I just need to get a general idea of what an issue or topic is about. Just enough that I can hold a conversation or understand what’s on the news. I don’t need detailed policy and I certainly don’t want to read legislation. I just need a relatively straightforward overview, with links to more detail if I want to follow up.
Other times I need tons and tons of detail. That motorbike I’m going to buy - I’m not going to buy it based on a quick description. I want to know how big the wheels are, what they’re made of, which brakes it uses, what luggage I can get, what power and torque does it have, and so on and so on (sorry about the tiny use of jargon there). I’ll read every line, probably many times. And the person who provides it will get all my happy feelings and ultimately a pile of money.
Get this right and you’ll have happy readers. Get it wrong and they’ll leave overwhelmed or frustrated.
6. You asked the new starter to do it
A peculiar thing happened when companies started to communicate via the web. Their brochures and printed publications still were written by experienced writers and went through many rounds of editing and approval; but their web presence was written by anyone with some spare time - often the new starter.
The problem isn’t that the new starter can’t write, but that they don’t know enough yet to write well. They don’t know the products, company or readers. How can they possibly do a great job?
‘Having some spare time’ shouldn’t be the #1 criteria for deciding who writes the content for your public face.
7. You didn’t think about the reader
Ultimately, many of these issues come from a single source - you didn’t think about the reader. You thought about yourself (or company) and the product or topic you’re writing about and you wrote that.
Thinking about the reader - and I mean actively, not just vaguely thinking that someone will read - is the best way to write non-crappy content. Before you write anything, think about:
- Who will be reading this?
- What do they know already?
- What questions do they have?
- What level of detail do they need?
- What’s their next step - what will they want to do after they’ve finished reading it?
Only when you have these questions clear in your mind (which may need research, not just thinking), then you can start writing.