Listen To: Mike Lichter on Writing for the Web

For this week’s podcast, I sat down with Matt Hansen to talk about my thoughts on writing for the web, expanding on my Q&A from last week. We chat about scanning versus reading on the web, how to structure information before it hits the Internet, and why old school writers still win when it comes to grammar and punctuation.

Podcast Transcription

Matt Hansen: Welcome to Air Quotes. I’m Matt Hansen. Today I’m joined by Mike Lichter, creative director and copywriter here at Cardwell Beach. Today we’re going to be talking about work that Mike frequently does with writing for the web. He has written copy for many a website and structured information across the internet so it’s a pleasure to talk to him today. He’s going to be talking to us about some of the best practices to keep in mind when you are writing for the web. So Mike, welcome.
Mike Lichter: Thank you.
Matt Hansen: So we actually talked about this earlier in the week. We sat down and had a conversation then I thought it would be worth some–maybe talking about some of the highlights from that conversation here for the podcast this week. So maybe you could get us started by talking about when it comes to writing for the web, what are some of the basics that people should really keep in mind?
Mike Lichter: I think the main thing people need to remember is that people don’t read the web, they scan. They’re coming and they’re looking for the information that they want to get in any particular moment and then they move on. So when you’re writing, don’t write for a reader, write for a scanner, right? I guess the other thing to just keep in mind is that–well, it’s easy to get seduced into writing because it’s a website, you could build it out as large as you want it to be. But just because you can add all kinds of stuff and everything that you want to say about your company, service, whatever it is, that doesn’t mean that you necessarily should do that and that’s where marketer and a copywriter really comes in handy.
Matt Hansen: How can organizations even start to tackle this problem? I think it’s probably tempting for a lot of companies, they have a lot of information that they want to share. They’re very passionate about their brand. But how can they actually take the steps to figure out how to present information that’s really useful for people online?
Mike Lichter: I mean, I think it’s really all about prep work and getting the people who are ultimately going to sign off on the site to get them involved at the very early stage so that everyone is aligned with the message, the priorities, the goals of the site, the tone, all of that stuff that’s ultimately going to affect the messaging and design, build, everything. There needs–often a project will come up, there’ll be a brief. You start working and then someone who ultimately has to approve it comes in and says, “Wait a minute, I want to do X, Y, Z.” And the main problem with creating a site is not necessarily the writing or the coding or the designing, it’s the rewriting and the recoding and the redesigning when you’re in the middle of the process and everything is shifting except the actual timeline.
Matt Hansen: When companies start this process and they’re actually engaging in some of the writing, what are some of the best practices they should keep in mind and in terms of actually structuring information on the web?
Mike Lichter: It’s important to not repeat–I always say, “Don’t repeat, build but compartmentalize.” And basically what I mean by that is sometimes you need information in multiple areas for people but you don’t want to take that information and just repeat it. You really need to expand it or finesse it for the particular section that the user is in. That being said, you need to remember that because people are scanning, any one piece of information can’t be reliant upon a previously stated piece of information in order for there to be comprehension. Everything needs to exist on it’s own but also exist within the larger information framework.
Matt Hansen: Let’s talk about another thing that comes up I think in this process and that is crafting a voice. Obviously companies and brands and organizations like to have a sense of voice, a sense of personality in their writing. Is that difficult to convey online and how important is it to have a voice when you’re writing for the web?
Mike Lichter: I mean, I think it’s a little tricky because you do need to be pithy and–but–or it can’t be so utilitarian that the copy is ultimately lifeless because it’s boring enough to read web copy. So if you take any kind of tonality out of it or any kind of brand voice out of it, it’s a losing battle.
Matt Hansen: So of course I have to ask you having worked on many web projects, when you browse the web yourself and you see sites that you haven’t written yourself, what are some of your pet peeves with the way language is used online?
Mike Lichter: Well, I should probably start by saying that I’ve–I’m certainly not perfect. I’ve definitely made my share of mistakes and I’ve learned quite a bit in writing for the web. So–because I started out as a traditional ad writer but–so that being said, my biggest pet peeve is em dashes because I see it all the time. It’s always–and it’s so frequent, it just–it drives me crazy. It’s just a hyphen where there should be an em dash or there are two hyphens instead of an em dash and it drives me absolutely batty. I just–it–and probably because I was trained by old school writers who–I mean, I wasn’t a copy writer. I meant–or I wasn’t trained by copy writers. I was trained by people who really wrote for a living so that kind of stuff was just totally unacceptable. And I think–it’s weird because I feel like you don’t see that kind of thing in direct materials and I think it’s because that’s where the hardcore, old school writers now exist and now it’s like the younger–God, I’m totally dating myself here but–or being an ageist but that’s where the young millennials, copywriter millennials exist now. And they weren’t trained by those people who will hit you over the knuckles or the ruler if you use a hyphen when you should be using an en dash or an em dash. Anyway, I don’t like hyphens in the place of em dashes. That’s the central pet peeve.
Matt Hansen: You said something interesting in our conversation earlier in the week about how really people often take for granted I think the use of grammar, punctuation and language in generally but you said something to the effect of if you can’t community accurately, your own ideas and your own product, it undercuts your ability to actually produce that product. Can you talk more about that a little bit?
Mike Lichter: Yeah. I mean, I think the main point that I was just trying to make was these little things like em dashes versus hyphens and semi–commas where there should be semicolons, things like that, it’s really, really minor stuff but–and your basically–if you’re selling yourself, you’re basically selling a promise. It’s more than just a product or a service. It’s a promise to someone. So that inattention to detail undercuts the promise that you can deliver on what you say you can deliver. And plus–and it’s really small and it might not persuade anybody to not buy your product or not buy your service but people already arrive at sites with a billion reasons to leave. So just don’t give them more reasons to do so.
Matt Hansen: I think that’s a really good place to end our conversation today. I mean, that’s a great cardinal rule to keep in mind. Mike, thanks so much for taking a couple minutes to chat with me. I appreciate it. Thanks for listening to Air Quotes this week. Our special guest was Mike Lichter, creative director and copywriter here at Cardwell Beach. See you next week.

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