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Tips for writing clear, compelling and concise content

January 27, 2012

One the most undervalued roles in a web or software development team is that of a Copy Writer/Content Strategist.  Having a skilled specialist on a team who is able to set the tone of the conversation with users and ensure that it is consistent across the site can make the difference between a mediocre or great product.

Unfortunately, it’s rare to have a dedicated Copy Writer on a team unless the product is either content heavy or marketing driven. Largely the duty of authoring all those small but important bits of text tends to fall to the User Experience Designer and Product Manager/client when creating and reviewing wireframes.

In the worst-case scenario it gets left with the Devs to do when they are building pages. In this case instructional text, error messages, field labels, etc. end up sounding like the have been written by an emotionless robot. This is not a slight aimed at the English skills of my technically minded colleagues, but more a reality of what happens when copy is produced as a by-product of writing functional code.

Recently a colleague of mine, Meaghan Waters, shared a set of content writing guidelines, which had previously been shared with her by an old colleague, Amy Teshio.

It has some great tips and reminders on how to write compelling content. I found it so valuable and helpful that I had to share it here as well:

Clear, Compelling, Concise

Like most things in life, good writing is about thinking and feeling:

  • If you can think clearly, you can write clearly.
  • If you are passionate about what you have to say, your text can be compelling.
  • If you can be dispassionate about how you’ve said it, your text can be concise.

Some tips:

Believe in your message.

Trusts its value. Let it speak for itself. Tell stories. Know when to move from information, to story, to visual rendition, back to information, etc. (or consult with others).

Get it down on screen/paper, then revise.

Let the flurry happen. Put it aside and come back with fresher eyes. Consult with our editorial team. Give yourself enough time to draft, consult, revise. Writing is different from editing. Don’t try to do them simultaneously.

Edit, edit, edit.

Remember, just because you are reluctant to give up a particularly nice word, sentence or paragraph doesn’t mean the reader will miss it. If you are having trouble giving it up, copy it to a separate file and make it your own buried treasure.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary word, a paragraph no unnecessary sentence, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style

Vary your sentence length.

Mix up the rhythm. It keeps it interesting and sounds less robotic.

As a general rule, a good sentence contains one idea.

If you have another idea to convey, start a fresh sentence.

Find your voice and stay with it.

Know your audience.
Voice should reflect subject matter.
Use the appropriate tone:

  • Formal vs Casual
  • Serious vs Humorous

Use active verbs. Avoid “to be” constructions and the passive voice.

No: The white iPhone is preferred by generation Xers.
Yes: Generation Xers prefer the white iPhone.

Stay close to the idea.

Don’t put too many qualifiers between you and your message. This attempt to be conscientious will only confuse the reader. Readers don’t retain ideas that are in remote locations.

Don’t say “perambulate” when you can say “walk”.

Avoid jargon. Use the simple, reliable work. Good writing is not so much a matter of using unfamiliar words, as using familiar ones in unfamiliar ways.

Watch stuff like:

Three factors of influence versus three influences.

When talking to different participants, paper copy remains a critical component of the way they manage day-to-day information.
But note: paper copy didn’t do the talking to the different participants.

Avoid passive voice/double gerunds.

No: The e-binder concept form was seen as a way to provide a format for organizing sharing.
Yes: Participants see the e-binder as a way to organize the sharing of information.

Why learnings instead of lessons? Why around instead of about?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 11:49 am

    Courtesy of some other ThoughtWorkers here are some other useful writing guides:
    http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/free-guides.html
    http://books.google.com.au/books/about/English_Essentials.html?id=G3oOSlPQUDgC

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