For most websites, a great user experience doesn’t mean intuitive user flows, delightful interactions, or even an eye-popping design. It means delivering the right information, in the right place, at the right time.
So, for most websites, great UX means great content. Or copy, like we used to call it.
With that in mind, here are 10 ways you can write better content, and ensure your message comes through loud and clear.
(Note: If any of these tips ring a bell, it might be because you read my original — and far less comprehensive — post on the topic for the InVision blog. Or maybe you read one of the several plagiarized versions that have popped up around the web. Who knows?! Either way, this post dives much deeper. Oh, also — please don’t plagiarize content you find on the web. It’s just not classy.)
1. Be you-centric
If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded.
User-centric design means building what your customers need, so they’ll love your product. Modern content strategists focus on the same thing, which is why we’re such big fans of the word you.
The thing is, you want to build engaging experiences, right? Experiences that draw people in and make them feel involved. And that’s exactly the power of you.
Just remember the last time you were hanging out with friends. Maybe you zoned out a bit. But then someone looked your way and said you (or your name). Didn’t you snap right out of your zone and back into the moment, eager to re-engage?
Too often, websites forget the power of this simple word. They fall back on passive phrasings. Stuff like, “Updates can be viewed in the Notifications panel.”
Sure, that kind of sentence is clear and concise. But does it feel engaging? Does it feel like a human being speaking not to or at but with you?
No, it doesn’t. So what if instead of:
Updates can be viewed in the Notifications panel.
Check out your updates in the Notifications panel!
Doesn’t that feel less like a robot, and more like a person giving you a tip? Sure does!
See how the possessive pronoun your builds a sense of ownership into the copy? How it involves the reader, giving them a sense of belonging?
In a sense, this simple change transforms how the product is framed for people. Now these aren’t just updates that “can be viewed,” they’re your updates. The updates meant for you. The events that make this app or website meaningful to you.
Isn’t that why we visit websites and use products? To see how they’ll help us?
Practice being you-centric
Search your site for instances of “can be” and “can’t be,” then see if you can rewrite them to use “you” instead.
2. Don’t be we-centric
Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.
All too often, businesses announcing a new product or feature start with “We’re excited to ...” or some other sentence opening with we.
Check out this example from the fictitious, but totally blow-hard Hooli, from HBO’s Silicon Valley.
Scrolling through their microsite, every single section is about Hooli. Not what people get out of using Hooli, but what Hooli does for people.
It’s an immediate turn-off, right?
Believe me: I get it. You’ve been slaving away over a hot laptop to build an amazing website, app, or whatever. It’s tough to not focus on all your hard work.
But why should I care about your hard work and excitement? I want to know what all your hard work means to me — how it’ll make my life a thousand times better. After all, you’re trying to sell me on your product, not your team. Your team’s hard work means nothing if your site or product aren’t useful to me.
Web and product design require setting your ego aside. After all, you’re building something for other people to love, right?
So instead, focus on the benefits your hard work have created for others. They’ll thank you for it!
Pro tip: Obviously, you’ll focus on yourself or your team sometimes. But even then, it pays to ask yourself why the reader should care.
Practice not being we-centric
Take a look at old feature releases, tweets, and blogs and see if you led with the benefit, or with something about your company. Then, try rephrasing in an audience-centric way instead.
3. Don’t sound smart. Be smart.
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
–Ernest Hemingway, responding to criticism from William Faulkner
There’s no need to break out the big words to make a big statement. In fact, the smartest way to say something is almost always the simplest way.
Don’t buy it? Well, Albert Einstein himself once said that all theories in physics should be so simple to explain “that even a child could understand them.”
Physics, people. If a physicist can explain string theory to a child, surely you can explain your analytics app to anybody.
“Big” words can alienate and confuse readers. Alienation and confusion don’t figure in a good UX. Plus, “$10 words” tend to be abstract, which can make it hard for people to empathize with and understand their intended message.
For example, I could tell you that I’m an disestablishmentarian. Or I could just tell you that I support the separation of church and state.
The first might make me sound smart and sophisticated. But it could also make me sound snooty and arrogant, like I don’t actually want people to understand me. The second skips the jargon and focuses on my meaning, which makes it a lot more helpful.
Even if your audience is eloquent and well-educated, it pays to write like everyone’s a beginner. After all, the people who understand you can skip the explanations — but the rest will have to look elsewhere.
Pro tip: The average American adult reads at a 7th to 8th grade level. And if your audience has studied English as a second language, their English comprehension levels may be even lower. It never hurts to write for a global audience, people.
Practice being smarter than you sound
Test your copy’s reading level in Word or Hemingway Editor. If your reading level comes back higher than 8, you may be scaring off a lot of people. Try simplifying your sentence structures and word choices and see if you can get it down.
4. Read your content out loud
Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.
We first fall in love with reading when we hear it out loud: as read to us by our parents. Words that move us, words that keep us reading, are those that sound lovely out loud.
Warning: this will feel odd. If you work in an office with others, you’ll want to find a private place for it.
But good copy always sounds good when read out loud. And when I say “good,” I mean natural and conversational. Like a human being would sound when talking to another human being.
Above all else, aim to sound like a human being.
The qualities that make a person pleasant also apply to websites and apps. Don’t you want your websites to be easy to use, approachable, and friendly? Sure you do. And making its voice sound that way will help reinforce its user-friendliness.
A word on copy in bots
If you haven’t heard yet, bots — simple programs you interact with via text, usually within messaging apps — are all the rage these days.
In the age of the bot (patent pending), conversational copy will only become more important. After all, the core idea of the bot is to make interacting with your apps more like interacting with humans.
And we all know how unpleasant that could be if the bots aren’t good conversationalists.
5. Kill your darlings — ruthlessly
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
If you can cut a word, cut it.
–John Moore Williams, gettin' a little snarky
Here’s the one “trick” every editor uses to make solid content great: cutting everything unnecessary.
Every word you write needs to help tell your story. Every word that isn’t helping to tell the story is hurting it.
So cut every word that isn’t 100% necessary. (Before you comment to this effect, yes, I recognize the “irony” of saying this in a 3,000-word blog post.)
First, cut adjectives and adverbs. Like the buttons on the waitress uniform in Office Space, they may add “flare,” but they really just clutter things up.
In fact, sentences tend to gain power when they’re shorter! So give it a try. The worst that can happen is that you end up reverting the change.
You can often cut or replace the conjugations of “to be” (am, are, is, was, and were) and the word of. Replace instances of “to be” with a more dynamic verb to add a lot more punch than any adjective or adverb, and tighten your sentences. Or just try removing the versions of “to be” altogether.
Remember when your English teacher told you to avoid the passive voice? This is totally what she was talking about.
Here’s an example:
Avoid content that is overly negative, or, if you must include it, make sure that you are ending on a positive note that is actionable.
Avoid overly negative content, but if you can’t, be sure to end on a positive, actionable note.
Practice: Cut 50% of your word count with every pass
Many editors suggest aiming to cut 50% of your original word count. You won’t always reach that goal, but it will keep you trying.
Doing this repeatedly with the same content can also help you come up with useful variations of a phrase. Handy if you need to spin off tweets, ads, and other formats where brevity wins.
Here’s an example:
Webflow lets you build dynamic, responsive websites without writing code.
Build dynamic, responsive websites without coding.
Build responsive websites, code-free.
Build responsive websites visually.
Now, this progressive cutting won’t turn up content gold with every repetition. But it will almost always help you turn up something interesting!
Practice: Write the f*$% out of it
Once upon a time, a junior reporter submitted his first article to the senior editor. Within minutes, the editor sent the story back with a note that went something like:
I’ve replaced all instances of am, are, is, was, and were with the word f*$%. Now write the f*$% out of it.
Might be worth a try. : )
There’s an app for that
Hemingway Editor highlights adjectives, adverbs, and complex sentences for you, simplifying the editing process.
And, awesomely, there’s a font for that
Designers Ryan McLeod and Rich Cahill have just created a lovely sans-serif font called Apple Sans Adjective. Inspired by Apple’s overuse of adjectives, the font automatically censors adjectives you use in your own writing. I’d love to see them add adverbs to the blacklist!
6. Write first, edit later
First thought, best thought
While many scoff at Ginsberg’s famous dictum, it definitely applies to first drafts.
When you sit down to write your first draft, it’s helpful to not be critical. Try to just let the thoughts flow out onto the page and see where they take you. You can always come back to edit later. If you’re busy perfecting your content before it’s even done, you’ll lose some bits of genius.
Waiting to edit also lets you take a step back from your initial thinking and approach a revision from a more objective place. That’ll make it a lot easier to kill those darlings that sprang up in yesterday’s writing, but don’t really have a place in your current work.
7. Label liberally
When you’re several days into working on a responsive design driven by dynamic content, it can be easy to forget that while you know exactly what that grid of images and headlines means, the people you’re building it for might not.
Take, for example, this design for our marketing site’s footer:
Individually, the links mostly make sense. But there’s no immediate sense of why they’re grouped in this way. Plus, it takes a bit of time to scan through all those links if you’re looking for something specific.
And what about that stuff on the right, with the thumbnails and lines of copy? After a moment’s thought, those look like blog post titles — but it took a moment to make that decision, right?
Now compare that to the actual design:
Now it’s a lot easier to see the organizational logic, and faster to find what you might be looking for. Plus, that stuff on the right is obviously blog links.
8. Link clearly
If you’ve ever built or managed a WordPress blog, you’re familiar with those “Read more” links repeating over and over as scroll you down the page.
You might even have those links on your own blog, right now.
And you need to stop.
Why? Because it’s bad for SEO. It’s bad for usability. And it’s bad for accessibility.
Generic links are bad for SEO
A “search-optimized” page is a focused page. It discusses a key word or phrase in depth and detail. So links pointing to that page should use the key words/phrases it focuses on, not “read more.”
Generic links are bad for usability
Have you ever visited a website looking for that one link that takes you to that page that has all the info you need right now?
Chances are, you were scanning the page, skipping from heading to link to heading to link, all in search of a particular word or phrase that you know the page is about.
Good luck finding that in a sea of “read more.”
Generic links are bad for accessibility
The situation only gets worse if you’re using a screen reader to scan that page. See, people can use their screen reader to literally skip from link to link, ignoring all the intervening content. So people using that feature will just hear:
And have 0 idea where any of those links go.
So when you’re linking, be clear. Be specific. And do it in as few words as possible. Both the human beings and the bots will thank you.
9. Design for content’s sake
Design is the method of putting form and content together.
Most website’s primary purpose is to present content and enable people to act on it.
That’s why content-first design just makes sense. Every design decision you make should be driven by the desire to better present your content.
If you’re not doing that, you’re designing in a vacuum.
Imagine you’re building a hero section for your website’s homepage. You want a full-bleed lifestyle shot in the background and a bold headline set on top. You pick Helvetica Neue and set it at, oh, say, 18em to make sure it’s dramatic on every device.
And then your client sees it, and says, “I can’t describe our product in 3 words.”
Who do you think is in the wrong here?
Writing better web content
In the end, creating killer web content is a lot like creating a killer website or app. It’s all about being clear, accessible, easy to “use,” and focused not on you, but on the reader.
Do all that with your content, and you’ll be set up for success.
Of course, web content is a huge subject — and we’d love to know what else you’d like to read about. So let us know in the comments below!