Writing good copy

It Ain't Easy

Communication is a difficult task. This is something that pops up periodically, and is a topic that is constantly on my mind when I am writing about myself, particularly in résumés. We as designers are committed to having clean, semantic structural markup, but are we as concerned about writing intelligibly? We communicate visually, but often neglect grammatical focus.

I dare say this is an area that is commonly overlooked among website crafters. Far too often, I see designers or programmers, award-winning even, writing up tutorials which barely make sense. This is not to imply their code is flawed, rather it is their mastery of English that is lacking. It does not matter how much you know, if you cannot effectively share that with others.

This is something I saw quite a bit at seminary: students or faculty that had amassed much book knowledge, but were not able to effectively communicate it in an understandable or interesting manner. Suffice it to say, I have heard more than my fair share of dry, informational sermons. In those cases, it was not their grammar that was lacking, but their preaching.

Clearly, there needs to be a balance between being informative and engaging. So, what exactly am I talking about? Allow me to elaborate. When sitting down to write copy, particularly for a website, there are several things that need to be taken into consideration. First and most obviously, who is your audience? Secondly, what is the point? Thirdly, what is the time frame?

Consider Thy Hearers

When I say that we need to write intellectually, I do not mean write superfluously. You should never make anything more complicated than it has to be. This a complaint about some churches. They are not conducted in today's vernacular. In so doing, a timeless message becomes irrelevant.

When writing for the web, it is difficult to anticipate your potential audience, because if the site is publicly accessible, this could be anyone. Depending on how broad of an audience you are shooting for, you should write at an easily understandable common denominator. Consider this staggering statistic:

The average reading level of American parents of young children is 7th or 8th grade, but 80% of pediatric materials for parents are written at the 10th grade level or above. - Source

Those are the parents who are reading at a 7th or 8th grade comprehension level. It is ironic, because they are attempting to buy curriculum to help their children learn to read, but these books are over their own heads. I shudder to think that I might actually be dumber now than I was in middle school.

Get to the Point

Aside from to whom you are communicating, another important thing to consider is what you are trying to say. No doubt you have heard the joke about the Panda who "Eats, shoots, and leaves." Written that way, this large Asian mammal should be feared, for after it eats, it will fire a gun and quickly flee the scene! By removing the commas, we have the expected description of an animal that eats both bamboo shoots and its leafy foliage.

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people write You're when they really meant Your, or Are's when they should have said Ours. Another common mistake is typing It's to mean something that belongs to It. With the apostrophe, you are really saying "It is." Thus, this sentence: "The dog went into it's house," really means "The dog went into it is house."

Future-Proof Yourself

I always find it humorous to read designers' online résumés that are written like this: "I have been in this profession since 1990, and have a solid 10 years of experience." What, did this person take a break for five years? If so, at what point did he or she resume working in this field? If I am reading that in 2005, it appears the person has a gap in work history. More likely though, the résumé was written in 2000, and has not been updated since.

The same is true of software version numbers. Sure, it might sound cool to have the latest rendition of Adobe graphic products touted in your skill listing. Yet, how long will "Photoshop 7" continue to impress, when businesses are looking for people proficient with Photoshop CS2, or beyond?

I suggest simply listing Photoshop amongst your software repertoire, and let the potential reader infer that as a dedicated professional, you continue to keep up with all the latest version changes and feature enhancements. Likewise, if you want to divulge the length of time spent at your job, just put the date at which you started, and let them do the math for themselves.

Practice Makes Perfect

I will be the first to admit that I fall prey (not pray) to any and all of the above blunders. I am not writing this article to point my finger at all the rest of you, but to remind myself to take greater care with my own writing. If you benefit from reading this, then all the better. There are two key things you can do to become a better writer: read regularly, and practice your own writing.

This is one of the benefits of reading programming books rather than simply relying on blogs. While blogs can be even more important than books in the sharing of information, they do not go through an editorial process. So, while a book on DOM Scripting might not be more informative than joining a JavaScript forum, I can guarantee it will be better written.

If you really want to hone your writing skills, make a habit of using best practices. Web standards are becoming second nature to most designers, because that is the best way to do things. Likewise, you should consistently force yourself to write complete sentences with proper grammar and capitalization. My friends make fun of me for typing instant messages this way. Yet, when it comes time to write something that must be perceived professionally, I do not have to "switch" over because I am already there.

Think of quality writing from the standpoint of marketability. CSS usage is becoming more prevalent, and standards savvy web developers are increasing in number. There may come a day when the only significant difference between you and the next guy is: He can write better than you.