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Nine Things We Thought You
Visitors care deeply about what your company can do and what you believe in. But they rarely care about the 33-word mission statement your staff spent an entire weekend retreat arguing about:
“Our mission as a company is to value each and every client, as well as treat them with respect and dignity, while providing a world class solution that meets or exceeds client expectations.”
So spare your readers a bland, clichéd mission statement. Instead devote your efforts to making your About Us pages clear and specific.
Yes, we know it’s easy to just slap up a PDF at your site, but that’s not the same as repurposing print for the web. While PDFs are fine if the content will always be printed and read as hard copy, here are five reasons to avoid PDFs for online reading:
For a classic problem-PDF example, see the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland’s “Having Problems With Your Lawyer?” brochure. In this PDF, readers are presented with brochure panels #4 and #1, followed by panels #2 and #3. Talk about having problems!
Back in the day, some people argued novice users wouldn’t know what to do unless a link said “click here.” Well, that’s ancient history—the web equivalent of telling airline passengers how to fasten their seat belts.
“Click here” is lame because it doesn’t help users find information as they scan, and it doesn’t tell the users where the link is leading them—and what they’ll find when they get there.
TDS Telecom needs to end the “click here” abuse: “Click here to learn more about TDS ePay or to pay your bill on-line” and “Click here for answers to Frequently Asked Questions.”
What do these three web headings have in common?
Hurricane Katrina Evacuees Continue to Recieve Aid from ADRA
Ten States Recieve Grants for College Readiness Programs
N.C. Zoo Keepers Recieve Conservation Award
That’s right; someone forgot to run spell check. We realize that usage, grammar, and spelling errors happen. But errors make even good content look bad. You want your content to grab your reader instead of your reader grabbing her red pen.
Content should be concise. One well-chosen word instead of three. To demonstrate, we’ve transformed this wordy passage from the Future of Family Medicine site:
Original 80-word version: “In the increasingly fragmented world of health care, one thing remains constant: Family physicians are dedicated to treating the whole person. Family medicine's cornerstone is an ongoing, personal patient-physician relationship focusing on integrated care. Unlike other specialties that are limited to a particular organ, disease, age or sex, family medicine integrates care for patients of both genders across the full spectrum of ages within the context of community and advocates for the patient in an increasingly complex health care system.”
Our 35-word rewrite: “Family physicians treat the whole person. Family medicine's cornerstone is a personal patient-physician relationship; the focus is on integrated care. Unlike other specialties, family medicine cares and advocates for patients regardless of gender or age.”
If you’ve written web content, you probably expect (or hope) your visitors will read it. Words are easier to read when they stay still, so use none of the following text effects:
When we read content like this:
“Booz Allen has a long history helping companies in a wide range of industries across the globe build competitive advantage through innovation. We combine strategic thinking with functional expertise, and analytical insights with sustainable implementation to provide comprehensive innovation and new product development services, including: strategy and operations; product/service and process innovation; and support throughout the entire process, from ideation and launch to culture and tools, improving revenue and cost across the extended enterprise.”
We think: Huh?
Fluff is annoying in print and fatal online because most web visitors are scanning, not reading at all.
Visitors who scan this text won’t glean anything. It requires too much mental energy to translate fluff into fact.
If you ever find yourself writing a passage like Booz Allen’s, take a break, get a grip, and replace the buzzwords with concrete language. Or, at the very least, link abstractions like implementation and innovation to case studies rich in specifics.
Page design must support your written content.
At the Red Cross’s Community Services page, the bad page design is fighting the content. (And the bad design is winning). The text wraps around the top, right, and bottom of the Community Services medallion. It’s nearly impossible to recognize that the content is a list of community services.
To improve page design, move the medallion and bullet the list of services. At a minimum, take the page design oath: First, do no harm to your written content.
Web readers rely on headings. If they can’t scan your content before actually reading it, they probably won’t read it at all.
No doubt, readers crashed into the wall of 944 words (no headings) at the University of Washington’s Pine Project History page. These web writers ignored three clear signs their content needed headings:
So, now you know the nine things we thought you already knew about web writing.
Is web writing as simple as following these principles? Not quite. As Groucho Marx said, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.”
So stay tuned. We have others!
Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan are partners in E-WRITE , a training and consulting company in the Washington, D.C. area that specializes in online writing. Rudick and O'Flahavan are authors of Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents. Learn how to write great web content and e-mail by subscribing to their free newsletter, E-Writing Bulletin at http://www.ewriteonline.com. The site also features other valuable resources to help improve your writing skills.
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