The Secret to Better Web Writing

It might not be what you expect

Last week I had the pleasure of teaching the Principles of Digital Writing to a group of content creators at a scientific society. And now you get to learn the secret I revealed to them.

You are all writers
You are a writer. So start acting like one. - Jeff Goins

You are a writer. So start acting like one. - Jeff Goins

Yes. If you put text on a website or send emails as a form of business communication from your company, you are a writer. It's time you started acting like one. The web is now everyone’s job. If you’re reading this, it's probably because publishing information on the web or sending emails or posting to social media accounts are an important part of being successful at your job.

This is a surprise to a lot of you because no one has made you accountable for what you publish. Most of the time putting up web content is just one item on a long list of tasks and activities you are expected to perform. Organizations don't think of themselves as publishers, though they are. So why should the people doing the work to create that content think of themselves as writers?

The real secret

Once that tidbit sunk in, I shared the real secret to better digital writing.

Better writing does not start with copy, but with user needs. It’s about them, not you.

You must understand that you are writing web copy, emails, and social media posts to help people get information or complete a task or influence them to do something. Instead of starting with what you want to tell people, start with a question. Here are some questions to start with:

  1. Who is this person reading this?
  2. What are they here for?
  3. What do I have to offer them?
  4. So what?

Before you commit a word of copy to your blank document (or start hitting the delete key on existing copy), ask the first two questions. This will identify your target audience (just one!) and what they want.

Once you have the answers to those, move on to question three. Start writing by responding to likely questions or statements they have in their head. You want to approach web writing like you would a conversation. Think of what you put on the page as the answers to anticipated questions.

After you've written your page, ask the fourth question: So what? Does what you wrote answer that question? If not, you've got some editing to do. Be ruthless and honest. Keep going until you get to a good answer. Make sure that is at the top of the page. If it's not, the reader may not read any further.

Copy transformation

Here's an example of how a typical bit of copy might evolve based on these questions.

Original Copy

IDA18 Replenishment

Every three years, donors meet to replenish IDA resources and review its policy framework. The most recent replenishment (IDA17) was finalized in December 2013, resulting in a $52.1 billion replenishment to finance projects over the three-year period ending June 30, 2017.

The replenishment process typically consists of four formal meetings held over the course of one year. In addition to officials from the now 50+ donor governments (known as “IDA Deputies”), representatives of borrowing member countries are invited to participate to help ensure that IDA’s policy and financing frameworks are responsive to country needs. Four IDA18 replenishment meetings are scheduled for 2016:

Let's ask the first three questions:

  • Who is reading this? Frankly, I have no idea who the audience is, despite reading several pages on this website. But let's assume it is policymakers who have a hand in funding the IDA (which is a lending arm of the World Bank).
  • What are they here for? Since this is about the next round of funding for IDA, we can assume that they want to know about the process and timeline for the next replenishment, which is IDA18.
  • What do we have to offer them? We are the IDA, so we can tell them about the process and timeline.

Now go back and read the two paragraphs above and ask "So What?" Keep in mind what page this is (IDA18 Replenishment). I'll wait...

Doesn't really tell you anything about what is happening for the IDA18 Replenishment cycle, does it? If you go to the page, you'll see that there is more information about the four meetings taking place for this cycle, three of which have already happened as of this writing.

Let's try a rewrite to better answer the visitor's question and make sure there is a "so what" element.

Revised Copy

IDA18 Replenishment

IDA17 Replenishment ends on June 30, 2017. Therefore, the replenishment process for IDA18 happens in 2016, through a series of four meetings. The outcomes and decisions are documented here for your use in planning and policy making.

When are the IDA 18 meetings?
March 14-15, 2016 – Paris, France
June 21-24, 2016 – Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar
October 10-11, 2016 – Washington, D.C.
December 14-15, 2016 – Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Who attends these meetings?
Along with officials from the 50+ donor governments (known as “IDA Deputies”), representatives of borrowing member countries are invited to participate to help ensure that IDA’s policy and financing frameworks are responsive to country needs.

What came out of the meetings?
[links to documents from meetings]

Of course, it would help to know the actual answers to our questions, but the writer should know them. Just as you should before you start to write or edit. Always aim for just enough information. Link to other pages for context or details that already exist elsewhere and aren't needed by the reader right at that point. And as always, less is more when it comes to content!