a daisy primer: how to give good copy

I’ve been a writer since my mom gave me a flowery (but sadly, daisy-free) diary in the the fourth grade. The journal has always been my outlet of choice, but there has been a lengthy flirtation with poetry as well as the sturdy and well-bibliographied art crit essays in school. (Chillax on the creative abuse of the language, I’ll get to that.) After finally achieving the BA, (in Fine Art; I’m a pretty much self-taught designer) I jumped into the business with Bu planning [my genius corporate takeover] to become more active in web development.

While the bring-out-the-reading-glasses-and-migraine-pills world of HTML and CSS still fuels my nightmares, I have become the go-to gal for “prettying up” our clients’ web content. Striving for readability comes naturally, but I was a little dismayed to find that writing for web publication is very different than writing for print.

I’m still a newbie and fear that it’s a fate to which I’m doomed forever given how quickly technology is shifting. Catching up with the www while everyone’s whizzing by me talking about Web 2.0 is daunting, but I’m always up for a crash course and sharing what I’ve learned so far. Firstly, these are my rules:

#1: Shut the $%@# Up

We don’t read web pages like we read print. The most methodical book lover can log on to the net and become an ADD-afflicted robot, skimming pages and sampling information as quickly as possible. Of course, as we find the pages we want and tuck into the meat of the site (usually the sub pages) we expect to read more in depth content, so keep this in mind. A front page (or main, home, or index) needs to be very light on copy. I shy away from any more than a brief paragraph or two of text. Edit like crazy then cut some more. The sources I’ve found say we have anywhere between 15 and 30 seconds to grab attention and turn a scanner into a reader.

This advice applies to a typical commercial site. A blog (which we all know is an amazing tool for business as and not just an awesome creative outlet for spazzed out moms) of course requires you to do a little less Shutting the $%@# Up. On a blog, assuming your style and subject match, you can certainly write more freely than on static sites. Keeping it as brief as you can is still important. Most readers are looking at several (maybe dozens of) other feeds and will skip a post that’s too long.

Brevity is a hard line to walk for our clients, and for me too. Sometimes we’re a little too in love with our own minds or ideas or products, and we gush. Just stop it. This is the single best page I found researching this post, and all it says is:

“Most copywriting on the web sucks because it’s written for the writer, not for the reader. Write for the reader. That is all.”

When you do have to get wordy, break up the text. I use much shorter paragraphs in web copy than for print. Always,

always

use a full line to space between paragraphs. Use images wherever you can to add variety. Bu loves to use bolded text to highlight the phrases we think will pull in readers. I’m not crazy about the way this looks, but see above Re: writing for the reader.) Bulleted or numbered lists are great organization tools, as are subheadings within a page. Please for the love of the Design Gods don’t ever use generic horizontal breaks or cute divider bars. Ever. I’ll bitch-slap you, I really will.

#2 Organize/Stay on topic

Organize your copy into relevant categories. For a commercial website selling a product or service, this means getting all your Word documents or scattered note papers and assigning them to categories. These are your sections for navigation. If you have a lot of textual content, you may need to subdivide. For example, my non-profit clients typically use “Home About Resources Support Us” or similar as main navigation, and under “About” we put “Mission, History, Board of Directors, etc.”

For bloggers, this means that if you want to make money you need keep to the main topic of your blog. If I started a fine art blog and sold ads to galleries, museums, and frame shops I’d have to leave out the cute baby stuff. Obviously. Even within your highly topical blog, stick with one idea or story per post. If you find you’re consistently wanting to post a hodgepodge of different thoughts, try making it a weekly round-up of collected rants, reactions to current news, or other noteworthy items. That gives the miscellanea a tidy home. (EMom’s own free blogging course has lots more blogging tips.)

#3 Voice & Grammar: They’re Where it’s At

Generally, if you’re writing for commercial sites, you obviously need impeccable grammar. Make sure to check- even if, like me, you’re sure you’re an expert. I find errors often, mistakes I knew were wrong immediately after hitting ‘post’. On a whimsical blog like this, it’s not a big deal, but for a “real” web endeavor it will really devalue your product. There are several good grammar resources online.

It’s a good idea to brush up on using active rather than passive voice– it’s much more engaging and flows more easily. Using active voice, as well as present tense when possible, gives sentences more impact. (Watch verb agreement if it’s not yet a habit to write this way.) Word’s spelling and grammar tool will usually alert you to passive writing.

My caveat to grammatical perfection is this: To lure readers in, a blog needs a personality. Most bloggers strive for conversational tone, and rightly so. Blogs are a looser and more intimate communication tool than other forums, and they lend themselves to an informal approach. So unless you are an unapologetic grammar geek and that’s a good vibe for your business, you can end a sentence in a preposition. I give you permission. The key here is to know the rules and which ones are all bendy so that you sound intelligent yet warm, not ignorant. Let your voice reinforce your identity- if you design skins for MySpace or blingy cell phone cases, it’s OK to lapse into txtspk. If you are a marketing consultant, prolly not, lol.

#4 Why I Hate Thinking About Keywords, but Have to Suck it Up

I hate this part. I have to stop thinking about the flow of language and the effectiveness of my words, and think about how many bloody times I can incorporate and repeat key words. I’m still learning this science and many times I’ll send Bu a beautifully written intro page and he’ll chop it to pieces so search engines will like it better.

I’ve found a very methodical approach to key words and metatags. This site is a great resource. It enables you to input a word and it will generate related words and show you ranking for each key word- how many searches are run for each and how your competitors use them. It’s a great way to find new phrases and words and they offer a free trial. Once you have a list of terms to use, check out this method for deciding how many and which ones to use.

The second page of the link tells you how search engines read key words and where to place them in your text. The article goes in depth about using keywords in metatags and alt text, etc. Breifly, in your body text you should repeat your key word about three times, but not too much, and keep them in the beginning of your text- it carries more weight than placing them in the middle or end. Whenever possible, use your key words in links- they’re highly favored by search engines. This site has a good explanation for beginners on how search engines work. SearchEngineWatch is, according to Bu, the end all be all of search engine registration. Jennifer’s Search Engine Guide is another thorough and frequently updated resource for marketing on the web.

Lastly, I’ll make like a professor leave you with a supplemental reading list:

http://www.provenanceunknown.com/edit/basics.html
http://www.excessvoice.com/web-copywriting-tips.htm
http://www.copywriting.net/webwriting.html

Edit 7/13/07:
Derek, you win the LMFAO award of the day. Thanks for pointing out that I misspelled the word grammar. I was just testing you?

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4 responses to “a daisy primer: how to give good copy

  1. Roxy – you have a *great* writing voice as well as good tips on how to duplicate what you’re obviously a master at. I look forward to reading more of your stuff!

  2. Jeri, Thanks so much-I’m very flattered now that I’ve seen your site and know what great taste you have:) Your design is beautiful.

  3. Roxy, very nice post. I’m trying to make my way through all of the submissions and your post has some great tips for improving my writing. You’ve also linked to a few great resources, thanks.

    Sorry to do this but you misspelled grammar in your section about grammar. 🙂

  4. Great advice on here and being the reader and not scanner that I am I read it from start to finish.

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