The Web Developer’s Copywriting Guide

Wouldn’t it be great if all the content for a Web project came straight from the client, and they knew exactly what they wanted to write?

But this is the real world, and most of us designers and developers know that this might happen perhaps 1% of the time. For the other 99% of jobs, you, Average Joe Developer or Average Jane Designer, are left holding the ball.

But, you’re not a copywriter. You may not particularly care about the site’s written content. But you want to keep your client happy, of course, and that means not only writing the copy, but doing a good job.

That’s why I’ve put together this quick and dirty guide to develop Website content.

What is "Content"?

For a point of clarification, mentions of "content" in this guide will refer to text that conveys information about a business, product, service, etc. You get the picture. We’re basically re-learning how to write.

A Breakdown of Sections

To make this guide easy to read and reference, here’s a rundown of what we’ll cover.

  • The Goals of Content Writing
  • What Do You Need to Know?
  • Spicing It Up
  • Grammar and Spelling
  • Handy Resources
The Goals of Content Writing

The purpose of many online projects, especially those that involve an ecommerce component, is to sell something to the visitor. This can be anything from a toaster oven to a new outlook on life — whatever it is, your job as the site’s content writer is to help sell it. Selling isn’t the easiest profession in the world, though, especially since most people these days have "heard it all" and "seen everything".

It’s your job to think of the best way to get their attention and get them interested. There are a number of ways you can go about this, most of which focus on one of four primary goals.

Goal Number 1: Education

Education of the consumer is a fairly standard goal, though many companies tend to stray from details to highlight on the glitzy stuff that they think is more appealing.

Take a car, for instance: how many people want to know what it looks like driving down an open road in a beautiful setting if they know they’ll just be driving it down the street to work? What if they have kids and they’re concerned about safety? People buying products like this will want the facts straight up. There’s no need to dazzle the customer with atmospheric copy. The need for quick, accessible information is paramount.

Let’s look at some examples. The product is an automobile; let’s say it’s a family-sized minivan.

Example 1

Ride with style, ride with the wind and leave life behind. That’s what our new minivan feels like with its new dual shock absorbing power that will let you feel like you’re riding on air. Fast, maneuverable, and sleek, it’s no wonder our Coup de Mini is the leading minivan of its class.

(You will never know how hard it is to write ads you don’t believe for a second.)

Example 2

  • Security, versatility, efficiency. Our minivan has all that and more.
  • Our new patented kid-proof locks will let you rest easy about the safety of your passengers.
  • Driving versatility rivals that of any high end vehicle on the market. You have the control you need, anywhere you choose to roam.
  • New, more efficient engines mean you can finally save money on gas.
  • Drive smart. Check out our Coup de Mini today.

Can you guess the target market? That’s right. Minivans tend to be the soccer mom’s primary vehicle and the points covered are things that need to be addressed in the sale of such an automobile. Topics like safety and security are important to her, along with driving control (to avoid accidents) and the gas mileage. These are all huge factors in the sale of automobiles, period. However, these qualities stand out much more in the mind of a mother trying to keep her kids safe while balancing the family checkbook.

Some techniques to consider when writing for educational purposes are:

  • Use clear, concise language. Though it can be a little flowery, you still need to make your point quickly.
  • Use bulleted lists for easy skimming.
  • Define value in terms of the customer by asking yourself what they would want from the product.

Goal Number 2: Convey Emotion and Mental Images

Sometimes, details and facts are boring — they need to be spiced up a bit. But, instead of just dragging out the regular buzz words and so called "Selling Content", start thinking. Let your imagination go wild for a moment and sit back, taking it all in. I do this every time I have to write content and it’s one of the best techniques I know.

The challenge of this goal is to take those mental images in your head and communicate them to your customers. It’s tricky, but it can be done. Keep to the first person, and highlight the experience for readers. That gets the images moving in their heads and, if you capture their imaginations, you can easily get their hearts to tag along.

To illustrate, here’s a snippet I recently wrote for a photography site:

Remember a moment in your life. Now capture it in your mind. Relive the sights, sounds, and smells of that moment. Now take it with you. Go and show that moment to all of your friends and family. Stroll down memory lane with a great tour guide pointing out all the highlights and the times that you laughed, cried and changed your life. A photo is more than the paper it’s printed on. A photo is a moment in time, where the sands of the hourglass stopped and everything was as it should be. With that in mind, shouldn’t your photographs be of the highest quality? We think so.

Goal Number 3: The Other Approach

If you’re working on a personal project or a site for a small business, play a bit with the writing to see what works best. In other words: go wild, see what happens. You might end up with some interesting realizations about the project and these can influence the direction of the content you’re writing.

Set your mind free; let it soar like a dove, twisting and turning, reading the clouds as it passes. Let your mind wander to distant lands then lose itself where it stands. Get lost in ancient libraries and watch ancient battles. Highlight the essence of the moment and watch were it goes. Follow that essence over the rainbow and begin writing the right words in droves.

Goal Number 4: Don’t Sound Like Anybody Else

As a Web designer, I browse oodles of Websites every day as a part of my job. Half that time is usually spent admiring the graphics and layout; the rest I spend cringing at the redundancy of what everyone is saying. Don’t be redundant: say something different that will catch people’s attention.

Find the defining point of what you’re trying to sell. If it’s great customer service, convey that concept through writing that is friendly, non-patronizing, and inviting. If your client has the easiest-to-use service, make that known through each piece of content, keeping concise yet friendly tones, and highlighting the ways in which the service is easier for customers to use.

What Do You Need To Know About?

In a word: everything. As a designer or developer, your interest is the client’s interest and, to better understand that, you need to understand the client. Research what your client’s doing, soak up everything you can, take notes, talk to people. Do whatever you can to better understand what you’re writing about.

Your client is also another great reference point. Listen not only to what they want, but to what they are doing. Ask questions about the business and get some answers. Take this knowledge to heart, because it’s what your content should reflect.

As not every designer or developer has the privilege of having the client hand over all the info they need, we need a backup plan. Designers who need content to create content must learn the ancient secret of gleaning information. As an example, I’m going to use a project I’m currently working on (sans company name and location, of course).

The Client

The client is a military surplus store located outside of a military base. It’s fairly busy each day catering to the needs of soldiers from the base. The client wants a Website redesign and online storefront, though has very little to say content-wise. All I could get off the old site is a snippet of a letter that was written some time ago, though it’s not entirely outdated. Let’s call the client Military Surplus for the time being (it might look odd in the letter, but it’s only an example).

Existing Content:

Military Surplus was established September 1992 in beautiful Northern ——–. Our main Branch is located within 100 meters from Fort —-‘s "North Gate". Military Surplus is proud to serve the elite 10th Mountain Light Infantry Division.

Unlike other surplus stores, Military Surplus focuses on the military’s most current items. These new products are made with high technology materials such as Kevlar, GORE-TEX®-Tex®, Neoprene, Nomax, Polypropylene, and Thinsulate®. We sell common items such as military Web gear, battle dress uniforms (BDU’S), and field jackets.

On the other hand, we also work hard to find and stock experimental items such as CFP-90 Lowe Rucks, Load Bearing Vests (L.B.V.), GORE-TEX®-Tex® bivey shelters (Eco-Tat), Kevlar Helmets, Meals Ready to Eat (M.R.E.), and night vision equipment.

Gleaning The Info

Okay, we have a little content, though nothing much — there are so many brand names that need to be reproduced to the letter. That isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t make life much easier. Let’s see what we know so far:

  • This is a military surplus store that sells common military items.
  • The store also sells many hard to find items that might have to be special ordered in the military, and this service saving customers time and money.
  • The store is easily locatable and accessible by its main clientele, the 10th Mountain Division and any other units rotating through the base.
  • The store’s mindset follows the military mindset: get in, get what you need, and get out in a timely fashion. The proprietors champion efficiency and expediency. Upon an actual visit to the store, I found this approach was also inherent in the way it’s laid out.
  • Since the letter’s a bit old, I’ll add some details from my visit. The store provides equipment repair and mending services, as well as regular food, and will soon be adding a small dining are to its complex. Prices for equipment are also pretty good.
The Result

Here’s what I came up with:

What is Military Surplus? Fast, easy, versatile, and proud

  • We’re Fast, getting you what you need when you need it.
  • We’re Easy to find, just minutes away from Fort —-‘s North gate.
  • We’re Versatile, offering you just about anything you need, from food, clothing, ranks and insignias, to equipment and an array of services including hair cuts, hot meals, and mending.
  • We carry Current and Hard to Find Items like CFP-90 Lowe Rucks, Load Bearing Vests ( L.B.V.), GORE-TEX®-Tex® bivey shelters (Eco-Tat), Kevlar Helmets, Meals Ready to Eat (M.R.E.), and night vision equipment.
  • All this at Affordable Prices.
  • We at Military Surplus are Proud to Serve the 10th Mountain Light Infantry Division and that pride shows in our service.

With all this, why wouldn’t you Shop at Military Surplus?

Spicing It Up

Let’s face it, not every one of us is a good writer. For all the students at the top of the English class, there are some at the bottom. Here are a couple of tips to help get your content up to snuff.

  • Write out the bare bones of what you want to say. Whether it be informative or fictional, lay some groundwork for what you will do next.
  • Read over what you wrote and look for words that seem very plain. Replace some of the more common words like "bright" with words like "blazing" or "vivid". You can whip out the thesaurus for this one; it’s a very good tool for writing.
  • Proofread, proofread, and proofread. Then get some else to proofread your copy. Get constant feedback from yourself and others on the quality and message of the text. Ask people who read your content how they feel. Has the content created any images or connections in their minds? What? Use the feedback to tailor your writing more.
  • Change your perspective to the first person for content writing and involve the reader. This is important: if you’re not engaging, then you’re not getting the reader to go anywhere.
Grammar and Spelling

Now those two words, grammar and spelling, are essential to conducting proper English, or any language, for that matter. One of the most important things to remember about writing for the Web is that the spell-check and grammar-check functions on your computer are not obsolete. At the very least, when you finish writing and proofreading, perform one last check for bad spelling (the easy check) and one for poor grammar (that’s a bit more difficult).

Sometimes, though, it’s okay to skimp on small grammatical points if you can get your message across without telling the reader that you don’t know what you’re doing. Otherwise, if you’re typing your content on any system or program that has spell-check or grammar-check, use them frequently and follow the rules.

Presenting The Copy To The Client

Before you reach presentation, you need to make sure that your copy is nearly bulletproof. That is to say, it must sound good, it must look good spelling- and grammar-wise, and it must not put people to sleep. Your next sell will be one of two things:

  • Extremely Easy: Your client may well not care. They may just give the copy a once over and sign off on it. There are quite a few of these people out there. It’s mostly a matter of having them trust you to do your job. Count yourself lucky if you have a client like this.
  • Extremely Difficult: If the opposite of easygoing is nitpicky, these people will drive you bonkers. And there may well be many more nitpickers out there than there are easygoing clients. Basically, it boils down to a couple of things. The mindset of the client might be that they don’t trust anyone or they just have one notion of doing things. That’s great, as long as they don’t get the wrong influence. Don’t underestimate the power of the wrong advice from a friend or a spouse that sticks in your clients head. The toughest part is justification: to find and explain to your client why your copy will work and why you wrote it the way you did. This will work many times, but, sometimes, you’ll just have to bite the bullet and go back to the drawing board.

Also, remember that your content may undergo several re-writings before it’s finally accepted. This is a natural course of evolution for writing, so don’t get your hair in a tussle over "that client making me do everything over."

Handy Resources

Here are some links that you might find useful for writing Web content:

  • Wizard Academy – These people make ads for a living, but they also teach, which is rare)
  • Elements of Style – Good guidelines to have, especially just starting out)
  • SitePoint’s own Content Strategy section
  • Your local library – Read something about this and learn more
  • Your local bookstore – Take advantage of reading in the isles — you’ll buy the books eventually
Conclusion

Next time you need to write copy for a client project, use this checklist as a guide.

  • Depending on what you’re selling to the reader, your angle for writing may change. Decide early whether to educate the consumer or let them use their imagination to experience things. Do both if you can.
  • Let loose and write copy, even if you don’t plan to use it. Practice makes perfect.
  • Make an effort not to sound like everyone else on the Web. Highlight a distinctive quality or qualities that your client’s business possesses.
  • Find out as much about your client as you can, so that you can better understand what they’re trying to accomplish. Convey this in your writing.
  • Spice up your words by replacing boring, common words with more vibrant, colorful ones.
  • Proofread constantly to ensure that your writing makes sense and sounds the way you want it to.
  • Keep to the first person if possible.
  • Become a grammar and spelling peon. You know you want to!
  • At the very least, use the spell-check and grammar-check functions dutifully.
  • Be aware that your content will change — just go with it. Your flexibility will help in the long run, especially when you please your client while helping their Website.
  • Check out other resources and keep up with good writing. You never know — you could even be the next Faulkner or Hemingway.

Since this is a relatively quick and dirty guide, I suggest you pursue further research outside of this article. I would love to profess that I know everything, but thankfully, I know otherwise. Learn more and practice writing, and I guarantee that your Web content will improve in leaps and bounds!

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