Tag Archives: Web writing

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 3 rules for web content

OK, FDR probably never met the Internet, but he would give three rules for public speaking that also apply to creating web content: “Be brief. Be sincere. Be seated.” (Note: This has also been ascribed to Winston Churchill, but the same rules apply.)


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Be brief. Be succinct. Omit needless words. Say what you need to say (in a conversational manner) and keep moving. Users scan the web more than they read anyway because they’re pressed for time. If you need to send readers elsewhere for more information, give them a phrased link. (Don’t say “CLICK HERE!!!!” Ever.)

Be sincere. Say what you mean; mean what you say. Use a friendly, encouraging tone. Be honest. Don’t exaggerate, overpromise or mislead. (“Several Oswego physics students earned internships at NASA, some with job offers.” = good. “Getting a physics degree will get you a job at NASA!” = not.)

Be seated. Even for people who’ve created hundreds of webpages, it isn’t always easy to know when you’ve finished a page. But you don’t want to get caught in the 90/10 trap where you spend 90 percent of your time trying to figure out the last 10 percent of your task. Don’t let indecision lead you to just adding more images, more links, more needless words just because you feel you need to do more. It’s often a good idea to set a webpage aside and come back to it later to see if it needs anything.

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admissions page makeover: less talk, more action.

A few weeks ago, our admission folks asked me to design a new landing page for a marketing push they were working on. Apparently the direction went so well, they asked if I could adapt it into the new admissions home page. Or they were trying to soften me up to get to the bigger project. In any event, the new page went live on Monday and shows the continuing evolution in how we handle web content.

As a writer, it’s hard for me to let go of graceful, compelling sentences full of descriptive adjectives, active verbs and strong nouns. Yet in high-level pages, it seems users have been more likely to click buttons, play videos, follow left-navigation links than click on inline links. And as Mary Beth Kurilko, one of the brighter minds in web writing, likes to say: If the opposite is ridiculous, why write it? Do any of our competitor schools NOT have outstanding professors, a range of academic programs and a desire to help students succeed? So perhaps this writing has always been cliche.

Here was our previous admissions page; I never thought of it as that bad, but always had room for improvement:

Even though it was less than a year old, you can see the incrementalism in it, as we kept adding one thing, then another, then another. The buttons were a nice addition at the time, but they ended up looking kind of strewn around the page. The virtual tour promotion came later. See all those contextual links? Our analytics found they weren’t terribly effective. Say, is that a July event still in our upcoming events list in September? Oh dear.

The new page is much simpler and more streamlined:

The incremental redesign’s new central emphasis is a two-minute admissions video. Below sit links for related videos, including an extended (~12 minute) version and introductions to our four colleges and schools. The buttons on the side emphasize actions that enrollment management would want to drive — take a virtual tour, schedule a campus visit, apply — and I also recommended a link to majors/minors since statistics show this is a popular link on any page it appears and since one of a student’s first questions is whether we have their program.

We generate the buttons via this site, which eases some crunch of not having a dedicated designer for our office. I’m on the fence as to whether six buttons is a lot; streamlining options is generally a good thing but if Admissions wants to start with six buttons and they all serve valid functions, I can’t argue. What we can do is look at the analytics after the initial push and see where people click and don’t click — and adjust accordingly.

I’m still trying to adjust to less writing, but short directive phrases (Update Status, Add Photo, Write Post) seem to work for Facebook, right? In any event, we’ll see how a new direction of less talk, more action works for us.


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users don’t want to “click here.” they want to take an action.

image of Pantene bottles on Wegmans shelves

If you want to be reminded about good web writing and usability, sometimes a trip to the supermarket helps.

While browsing the aisles of Wegmans over the weekend, I saw that Pantene (the official shampoo of TimsHead) was on sale. Being a fan of convenience (and cheapness), I gravitate toward their combined shampoo/conditioner options. You can tell this clearly by a 2-for-1 logo on these offerings. And I thought about that differentiation in comparison to web content.

One of the most outdated, but alas persistent, web phrases is “click here.” It predates when researchers knew anything about how users employ the web and what motivates them. Remember that people don’t read as much as they scan, looking for actions they want to take. They’re scanning for actions or phrases of interest like “apply,” “course information,” “schedule a tour,” “financial aid” or “student organizations.” So a “click here” phrase is superfluous and countervenes their hunt for information. I prefer phrasing desired actions into a contextual link: “Apply to SUNY Oswego,” “Schedule a visit,” “Browse our majors and minors,” etc.

Back to the Wegmans example — could you imagine if, instead of pertinent information, all the bottles simply said “buy me!” Sure, that — like “click here!” — is the desired outcome, but it’s irrelevant to my selection process. And remember it’s less about what you (the web writer, the college, the supermarket) want a user to do; it’s ultimately about what the user wants to do, and cues you can offer to help.

Or consider that moderately successful website known as The Facebook. There’s no “click here!” polluting the content; it’s almost all about driving action. You’ll see phrased links saying “Add as Friend,” “View Photos of Tim,” “What’s on your mind?” Navigation is self-explanatory: Messages, Events, Friends, etc. Nary a “click here!” used — because the phrase is, quite simply, not necessary. Users have moved past being treated like Pavlovian dogs … they know, and look for, the actions they want.


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do teens know academic jargon?

OK, it is possible someone somewhere will come to your Web site looking for buzzwords that mainly make sense to a well-studied insider. Or maybe there’s a mysterious Prize Patrol that hands out grants to schools with the biggest helping of academic jargon and highest Gunning Fog Index.

But, if you work at a college, it’s much more likely that teens (and parents) will come looking at your Web content. They will seek more prosaic, if practical, answers to questions like: 1) How is your college right for me? 2) How will it get me a job (or, if you prefer, provide a better life) after I graduate? and 3) How much does it cost?

While much ink and bandwidth is burned in an overhyped pondering of whether teens don’t tweet, of greater interest should be ensuring our own Web pages meet the needs of potential students. This means speaking the language they use, not the cant of conferences and symposia. (And, for God’s sake, please don’t expect teens to know or care what symposia are.) Put your mission and vision statements on your office wall if you want to remind yourself of their importance; but don’t put them at the top of your page until we find someone who’s actually chosen a college or major because of a mission or vision statement.

Your college should not be, for the most part, crafting Web copy to be read by professors and academics. They are an important part of your campus community, and colleges everywhere are filled with brilliant, dedicated, caring faculty doing work beyond most of our abilities. It takes great talent to teach people about complex scientific principles, intricate historic events, foreign languages, sublime social-science sequences or how to reach at-risk children.

But colleges also should remember that they’ve hired writers, Web and otherwise, because they provide a certain skill set. Writers need to be trusted in their abilities to craft concise, clear, compelling copy that speaks to an important target audience. The importance of well-done Web content can not be discounted or overstated. Teens may or may not tweet, but they certainly do read college Web sites … and we need to ensure that what they find will keep them interested.


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: )

Dale Carnegie provided, albeit unknowingly, an important lesson for Web writing long before we were born. In his classic 1936 book How To Win Friends and Influence People, he titled one chapter A Simple Way To Make A Good First Impression. His advice, put simply: Smile. Actions speak louder than words and a smile says: “I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you,” Carnegie wrote.

Think about it. Let’s say you’re one of the first people to arrive at a cocktail party. Two people who are otherwise fairly similar look up as you enter. One smiles at you; the other offers a blank expression. Who are you more likely to talk to? And when you’re talking with someone on the phone, you can sometimes tell if they’re smiling on the other end. Doesn’t that make you feel better than if they sound frustrated or unenthusiastic?

I always preach the importance of writing Web pages in conversational, not institutional, style. For the most part, pages should read like a friendly chat, not a stern lecture. Consider the differences:


At Random University, students pursue rigorous curricula that construct relevant components of knowledge. The college’s mission statement is to use time-honored pedagogy, best practices and benchmarks to provide intellectual growth and authentic learning.


All of our 8,000 students could tell you interesting stories. Read their blogs, watch their videos or follow their Twitter streams to learn about just some of our bright community members. … You can make friends and enjoy the activities available in our more than 150 student organizations and 24 sports. But seeing is believing. Schedule a visit to start building your success story today!

OK, perhaps extreme examples, but note how the latter uses compact sentences, lively verbs and positive words to read as if the Web page itself is smiling and enthusiastic. It’s also about the reader (you) NOT the institution. When we visit pages that make us feel welcome, engaged and excited, we’re more likely to stay for a while. If that’s what you want, why not write with a smile?


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i gave a webinar and lived to tell.

As if trying to prove Andy Warhol’s old quip that we’d all be famous for 15 minutes, I recently found myself in the unlikely position of giving a Webinar on writing for the Web to an audience of hundreds from nearly 50 colleges. And learned that presenting virtually seems more difficult than doing so in person.

Things did go well for Web Writing 360, a Higher Ed Experts presentation on writing for Web sites and social media, but the first Webinar is probably always the toughest. When I present in person, I can scan the crowd and see how I’m doing — are they engaged or bored, attentive or asleep? Ever wary of technology, I even wondered at times if I were still connected or just speaking to myself.

In keeping with tradition, a decent performance came after a rocky dress rehearsal. I’d bought a new headset mic — quite possibly the only one in Staples that said on the box it was Mac-compatible — and at the beginning of the rehearsal I couldn’t hear Karine Joly, the Webinar organizer. Unplugging and replugging later, it was A-OK. Karine thought at times the rehearsal seemed distracted, which was probably when my cat Fiona kept jumping in my lap; that’s what I get for trying it from the couch. For the actual presentation I moved to my home office and technology and cats cooperated.

Attendees asked many great questions — one college had a room of 20 people with a lot of good thoughts — and I was pleased with the feedback on the #hee backchat channel on Twitter (I also had an exercise where I asked participants to describe their institutions in 140 characters or less). I also noticed retweets of an ad lib comment I made in response to a question about finding time to handle the college’s social media responsibilities: Some people go on a smoke break or a coffee break, I said, I go on a social media break. Glad anyone found that amusing or apt.

And while it was nerve-wracking at times, and a lot of work, I’m glad I did it. It’s good to get outside of the comfort zone and push yourself to try new things. Moreover, we are all experts at something and should look for opportunities to share any knowledge.


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web writing webinar ahead.

Of all the things I have to promote, I’m most reticent about promoting myself. But I’ve been asked (nicely) to make sure everyone knows that I’m presenting a Webinar titled Web Writing 360: How To Write Right For All Online Media on May 5.

The valuable Higher Ed Experts service presents the Webinar, and it’s the first of a two-part series that also features the wonderful Mary Beth Kurilko presenting Web Writer Coaching 101: How To Find, Train and Nurture Web Contributors On Campus on May 6. Since content is king (or queen) on the Web, I welcomed the opportunity when HEE’s Karine Joly contacted me to do this session. To preview a stat I use in the Webinar, did you know there are an estimated 182 billion sites on the Web across 106 million active domains? How can you be seen and heard among that crowd? Simple.

That’s part of the answer: Simple. As in, keep it simple. Get to the point, make it easy to read, give ’em what they want. The Webinar also will touch on effective content for blogs, Facebook and Twitter, since social media continues to become a larger slice of the pie consumed by the estimated 1.6 billion people surfing the Web.

For more information, visit the Higher Ed Experts event page. I hope to talk to you! And we now return you to your regular programming.

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follow the reader.

It is an ancient Mariner and he stoppeth one of three. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

In a way, I envy that ancient Mariner. Stopping one of three, especially in today’s go-go world, is a herculean task. And engaging them? What an albatross!

Links followed from the Visit Oswego page.

Fig. 1: Links followed from the Visit SUNY Oswego page.

After my Pondering the Point (.0) of Web Writing post, Rick the Indispensable Tech Guy sent the above bit of analytics showing where those landing on the Visit SUNY Oswego page go. My beloved body copy fails to stoppeth even one of three.

The most effective link, the one that reads Visit Us and sends people to the admissions visit page, nets 13 percent of readers. Another 11 percent proceed to the campus tour page. Four percent pursue the open houses link. And a big fat zero percent go to schedule your visit online from this page. Wow! Or, perhaps, ow!

The analytics don’t tell all, as we aren’t sure if readers follow the inline links or the related links of the same name. A bit more than a quarter — 27.3 percent — do follow the sibling links under Visit SUNY Oswego on the leftnav. It’s nice to see 5.8 percent check out the Fast Facts feature I sweat over. And while 1.2 percent go straight to the search box instead of navigating by this page, the overall dropoff rate — those who leave the site entirely — looks daunting at first (math is hard).

Since this is a high-level oft-visited page, these are humbling figures indeed. But what’s a Web content creator to do?

Actually, this — analyzing what readers do — is a good start. In a perfect world, you have the time and resources to assemble a focus group of future students to say what they’d like to see on the page. (In this perfect world, chocolate also grows on trees and it never rains til after sundown.) Failing that, you could ask current students their opinions. You could also look at the links people most follow and see if the links most accessed from those pages would make sense on this one.

But also remember that people can only click one link at a time. More than 3 out of 4 (75.7 percent) of visitors at any time click the top 10 links — all contextual, structural or related — so we must be doing something right.

One should also avoid overreacting, just summarily dumping links with lower clickthrough. Sure, only 1 percent click the structural College Offices link, but given the high volume of traffic, that means a significant number of readers jump from this page to find a specific office. That represents an audience being served in seeking more information.

That said, if you’re a perfectionist (as I am), anything less than 100 percent service just isn’t enough. There are readers, readers everywhere; let’s make many stop to link.

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web writing ii: this time it’s purposeful.

The previous post on writing for the Web brought a lot of thoughtful feedback and links, so I figured the topic was worth further discussion and contextualization.

I learned Web writing on the fly thanks to Steve Krug’s excellent Don’t Make Me Think (he’s @skrug on Twitter, for those who want to stalk, er, follow him). The title says it all: Good Web copy should be intuitive; users shouldn’t have to think too hard to understand or navigate. Clear, concise copy with phrased hyperlinks or obvious structural or related links make for pleasant trips through the tubes.

A few interesting Web sites, mentioned in or inspired by user comments, show different ways of treating Web content.


Fig. A: Wikipedia

Dr. Brad mentioned Wikipedia which, as opposed to what he termed scribbling on the Web (Twitter, Facebook), does indeed use complete sentences and narrative structure (questionable accuracy and mangled grammar notwithstanding). We navigate Wikipedia by typing a term into its search box, though sometimes disambiguation is required if you’re looking for the TV show House, not the synonym for dwelling or the Congressional body. The obvious links mean you can learn more about Hugh Laurie or the Fox Network or Sherlock Holmes. But if anything, Wikipedia sometimes overlinks; making every third word a link doesn’t make for eye-friendly reading and can look like just plain showing off.

The Jargon File

Fig. B: The Jargon File

Eric, one of my former students, cited The Jargon File as a facile site that organizes content in a treelike outline form. The main thinking required here, other than comprehending difficult slang, would be trying to figure out where a topic may fall in the tree or subtree. Definitely low frills.


Fig. C: collegehockeystats.net

Eric’s comment reminded me of my favorite no-frills Web site, collegehockeystats.net. Content is king here, as it should be, but it’s remarkable that other than the curiously spinning puck on the right, the site is virtually void of design. Yet countless hockey fans, myself included, visit regularly and compulsively hit refresh. Why? Because, to borrow an old Kentucky Fried Chicken tagline, this site does one thing and does it well: delivers college hockey scores/box scores faster than anyone else. With a simple list of scores, each with a link to a related box score, the only things you have to think about are questions like how bad must Worcester State be to lose 7-0 to Brockport?

In writing for the Web, like life, there are no clear answers. The Internet started with dendritic sites like The Jargon File constructed via logical outline. It evolved into narratives, even interactive ones, like Wikipedia. And the hyperinteractivity of Web 2.0 means that many people are mainly Web scribblers. But the important thing, after all, is that Web sites — in any written form — should provide some kind of informative, enriching experience, which is made easier with well-written and intuitive content.


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pondering the point (.0) of web writing.

I’m presenting yet another workshop on Writing for the Web next month, but starting to wonder if I’m using outdated information.

When I served as chief content editor for our campus-wide redesign in 2003-04, prevailing literature suggested using phrased hypertext linking in clear, concise sentences driving a listener to action. I think that’s all still important but, in a Web 2.0 world, it seems like the amount of content in actual sentence form on the ‘Net is shrinking.

Currently, our Web site incorporates three plans for linking within the body of any page:

A sample oswego.edu page.

Fig. 1: A sample oswego.edu page.

Left/red circle: Sibling or structural links = related within directory structure

Center/green circle: Contextual links = phrases sending reader to information that sparks their interest

Right/blue circle: Related links = other pages that may interest the reader

As a creator and reader, I mostly employ/look for contextual links, but then that’s the tendency of someone who’s wanted to be a writer since I was four years old. Some others prefer navigating by structural or related links. Yet others just go straight to the search box and type in their term. All are valid ways of finding information.

But when I look at something like Facebook, arguably the top social-media presence going, the main links are structural or related. And short. Its navigation is certainly intuitive — anyone knows what links that say view photos or send message or view friends mean — but it provides a challenge, if not a full-blown conundrum, for those trying to teach others to write Web copy.

I certainly don’t think colleges should ditch Web writing in complete and grammatically correct sentences. Our primary pages should contain what we would call marketing copy (much as those words make some academics bristle) to make the pitch … but are readers becoming more accustomed to just searching for links or Twitteristic 140-character communication?

But then I took a step back and remembered that Web 2.0 is about conversations. Those conversations tend to take place in sentences, not just through posting links or photos (though links and photos can start/continue conversations). And good Web copy, like good advertising copy, should be in a conversational tone. The rise of Web 2.0 doesn’t demolish Web 1.0 … in some ways, it actually helps us understand traditional Web sites better.


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