Q&A: Mike Lichter on Writing for the Web

As a creative director and copywriter, I frequently work on projects that incorporate a web-first component. Whether it’s writing copy on a website or restructuring important content online, I share some of my best practices with Matt Hansen in this conversation.

Q: What are some fundamentals companies should keep in mind when writing websites?
A: The main thing that people need to remember is that people don’t read the web, they scan the web. Even when they are on a site and engaged, they are typically searching for the information they want to find at any one particular moment. They are not coming to your site and reading; they are coming to your site and scanning.
Because of that, you need to focus on what the user needs to know and not what you want to tell them. Most clients are passionate about their company—as they should be—and they want to say as much about it as they can, and the web is a place where they can do that, because you can build anything you want. But can is not should. When you say everything, it’s more likely that you’ll overwhelm people, and they’ll come away with nothing.

Q: What are some steps organizations can take to make sure they are presenting information that users need?
A: You really need to break down what is important and what is secondary. That really comes down to information hierarchy and breaking down content before you start.
Another key goal is to not repeat. Don’t repeat—build and compartmentalize. What I mean by that is because people are scanning, you might need to have some pieces of information in multiple places, but it’s not about taking the exact same points and repeating them; it’s about expanding on them in a way that makes sense for that section of the site.
You can build a narrative on a site, but each piece of copy also needs to exist on its own. For example, if you have an intro sentence that sets up a bulleted list, those bullets shouldn’t be dependant on the intro sentence for comprehension. Each bullet needs to be a single entity as well as exist within a larger framework. It comes down to assuming: never assume the user has read the information that preceded what they’re currently reading.
Finally—cut, cut, cut. I’ve never met a copywriter, and I include myself in this, who isn’t capable of being seduced by their own cleverness; and I’ve never encountered a client who didn’t have the inclination to add more information to a site. If those two things converge, you’re prone to end up with site copy that could’ve been trimmed by 25% or more. Copy equals time, and people’s time is limited. Again, focus on what the user needs to know, not on what you want to tell them.

Q: Before the writing has even begun, how can companies start to structure their own ideas to help with this process?
A: I think, at the most basic level, you need to have all of the players who are going to weigh in on the project weigh in early and have all that information available up front.
The overall goals for the project need to be worked out so that you are not in development and someone decides to change the messaging and the goals and the purpose of the site.
The hardest part of building a website is not actually writing or designing or coding a site; it’s rewriting and re-designing and re-coding a site when everything is shifting except the timeline.

Q: Can companies incorporate a voice into their web writing? Is the idea of a voice applicable for the web, or is it harder to do that online?
A: You can and you should. If you don’t have a point-of-view when it comes to tone, it won’t be interesting to read. It’s hard enough to get people to read web copy. To get them to read lifeless web copy is a battle you will lose.

Q: When you look at sites that you haven’t written, what are some of your pet peeves with the way language is used?
A: My biggest pet peeve is poor punctuation. I rarely visit a website where I don’t see it.
Everyone makes mistakes. I certainly do. It’s rare to visit a website—especially if it’s a large site—and not find a typo somewhere. But when you’re using hyphens instead of em dashes, or using commas where there should be semicolons—that’s a problem.
If you can’t effectively or accurately communicate what you’re promising, or the way in which you’re communicating reflects an inattention to detail, it undercuts the idea that you can deliver on said promises.
People arrive at sites already armed with reasons to leave. Don’t provide them with more.

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