Good Writting Matters

December 3, 2010

Admit it. You’’re reading this because you spotted the headline and thought, “Who’’s the nitwit who doesn’’t know how to spell ‘writing’?”

Which underscores our point——people notice the quality of the writing on your website. If the writing is clear, informative, and engaging, prospects and customers are more likely to do business with you.

If the writing sucks, people will naturally wonder if your products and/or services suck, too. Your company’’s credibility can suffer——and so can its bottom line.

Yet from Mom and Pop merchants to multibillion-dollar corporations, some company websites include content that’’s full of verbosity, misspellings, bad grammar, typos, run-on sentences, errant punctuation, and even nonsensical statements. Consider this example from the home page of ProphetLine, a point-of-sale (POS) software vendor:

If your first question is “how much”, instead of what can your POS Software do for my business, you are setting yourself up for failure. Many software companies can give you a bunch of lists, but how do you sort those lists to give you business valuable information?

Or what about this passage from the home page of a software provider called Extools. This might be the poster child for bad content:

There are two free Microsoft Excel add-in downloads available, Extools for Excel 97, 2000, 2002, 2003 and Extools RX for Excel 2007. Both have the same features, with the difference only in the user interface(menu system). Extools RX is a TRUE Excel 2007 add-in as it utilizes the new Microsoft Office 2007 RibbonX user interface design and file format. Extools RX has it’s OWN tab in Excel 2007, not like older add-ins which are all inconveniently grouped under a generic Add-Ins tab in Excel 2007. Extools RX is the FIRST and only(as of June 2007) FREE general purpose utililies suite add-in for Excel 2007 using the new Ribbon interface and new file format.

With content like that, you’d have to wonder if Extools would add 2 plus 2 and get 5.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

How do such train wrecks end up on a company website? Some companies simply take web content for granted. Content may be written by a boss who’s an expert in a product, but who flunked English. But because he or she is the boss, the content gets posted verbatim without proofreading and wordsmithing.

Once a page is posted, companies often forget about it and remain oblivious to screaming typos and grammatical gaffes that may exist. It can especially be a problem for smaller businesses that haven’’t established a central person, or team, for content oversight and control.

On the other hand, some companies make high-caliber content a priority——and it pays off. Groupon, a collective buying service that offers coupons, is renowned for playful, provocative prose that gives it “a big advantage over competitors,” as noted by this interface design blog.

How does the writing quality on your website stack up? Are you losing customers because a critical page is riddled with bad writing? Does your content make a good impression on first-time visitors? Would it withstand the scrutiny of a language-savvy purchasing manager who researches products on your site? Or do your pages have a haphazard mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly?

Tips for Keeping Copy Fresh and Snappy

  • Engage a fresh pair of eyes. If you have on staff an employee or two with an eye for good writing, have them spend some time sizing up your content and highlighting weaknesses. Better yet, consider hiring a freelance writer or editor to assess your content from the perspective of a first-time website visitor.
  • Take a triage approach. A first objective should be to look for errors and fix them promptly. Start with the home page and progress through your most-visited pages. Keep this first review fairly high-level and don’’t get sidetracked into chasing your tail over serial commas and the like.
  • Establish or strengthen content quality processes. Writing that is consistently good across a website is usually the result of a systematic process. Look to establish a content owner or team, identify and use a talented writer or writers, and back it up with proofreading and copy editing.
  • Develop and promote a style guide. A style guide is an internal document that standardizes terminology, capitalization and punctuation rules, and more. It may also outline principles of good writing and brand promotion. Larger companies often develop their own style guides, while a third-party resource such as the new Yahoo! Style Guide can provide valuable guidance.
  • Consider engaging a freelancer. If your copy needs help, explore the market of freelance writers and editors. The web is full of talented individuals who can offer expertise and a fresh perspective on your content. Rates vary, but expect to invest at least $50 an hour, or negotiate a flat fee or per-word compensation.

There’s no better time than now to make an assessment and identify areas for improvement. Beyond obvious errors, two things to look for are:

Does your content speak like you speak? Would you introduce yourself to someone as working at a company that “delivers leading-edge, strategic solutions aimed at empowering best-in-class companies to maximize operational synergies?” Of course not. The best content speaks like people do.

Is paragraph and sentence size digestible? Less is more is a good rule of thumb for web writing. If your site has paragraphs the size of cinder blocks, you have a problem. Content doesn’’t need to be so short that it omits critical details, but it does need to be scannable. Use subtitles, bullets, bolding, and other visual devices to prompt readers along.

This post isn’’t intended to show you how to write well; plenty of books and websites offer guidance on crafting potent marketing prose. Rather, it’’s meant to encourage you to consider the impact that writing quality can have on your business, and to take a critical look at your web content.

We know. It's a lot to take in.

Sign up for our newsletter and read at your own pace

Please enter a valid email address
Please also send me occasional emails about Zendesk products and services. (You can unsubscribe at any time.)
Please select an option

Welcome to the club!

Oops! Sorry something went wrong, try again later?