Have you ever looked at a website that is so filled with fluff wording that you’re not sure what the company actually does?
When the wording is so generic the company could be not only any part of any industry, but it could also be located and serving customers anywhere in the English speaking world?
The first thing we tell any of our customers who are wondering about what to put on the front page of their website:
“Say what you do, for who and where, and what makes you unique from the competition.”
So many websites leave some or all of this information out!
Or how about this one: “At so-and-so company we have over 87 years of combined service and dedication…”.
Why is that interesting or impressive?
I think about a big company with a few hundred customer service employees where most have worked for only a few years. Would their combined experience of 1,642 years of customer service and dedication sound impressive to anyone?
It is really just a waste of everybody’s time – both for the people who wrote it and especially for the people reading it.
It reminds me of the strange but very common habit of writing a job application cover letter in some sort of imagined Victorian English, filled with the most awkward, formal wording.
I see this sort of thing all the time: “Distinguished Hiring Manager, I would like to present myself humbly in response to the fore referenced advertisement (pronounced in my head ad-VERTIS-m’nt) on the Craig’s List…”.
Even before texts and tweets shortened attention spans, the pros were telling writers to get to the point, be direct, avoid fluff, and try to write in a conversational style.
In this guide, I’ve created a Cole’s Notes from some of the most influential books on writing.
The Art Of Readable Writing
The Art of Readable Writing was first published by Rudolf Flesch in 1949. I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that it is very readable.
Partly because English was not his first language, Flesch was forced to figure out the clearest way to communicate with plain speaking.
Here are some of his best tips about Style, Rules, Principles, and Editing.
Forget the rules of grammar and usage you learned in school. Learn to write the way you talk. Go out of your way to write informal, conversational English.
Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.
All writing of the instruction-sheet type should address the reader directly, and should tell him step by step what to do.
Each affix (prefix or suffix) burdens the mind with two jobs: first you have to split up the word into its parts and second, you have to rebuild the word from these parts. These split seconds add up.
Human interest makes reading easier – use personal references.
Two short sentences are easier to understand than one long one.
Don’t comment but describe what happens; report, don’t analyze.
Colorful words tend to blot out the others and add emphasis to text that shouldn’t be there.
(in order of importance)
Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract or empty (use ‘like’ instead of ‘along the lines of’, use ‘to’ instead of ‘in order to’, use ‘so’ instead of ‘accordingly’).
Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
Prefer the short word to the long.
Make the organization of your writing clear.
Use short paragraphs, short sentences – and short words.
Make your writing active – and personal (It is recommended vs. We recommend).
Be precise – and specific.
Use conversational language.
Come to the point.
Keep in mind what the reader doesn’t know.
Write so that you cannot be misunderstood.
We often overestimate the stock of information readers have, and underestimate their intelligence.
The first rule of style is to have something to say. The second rule of style is to control yourself when, by chance, you have two things to say; say first one, then the other, not both at the same time.
Use contractions. If it doesn’t feel right, go by feel, not by rule.
Stick to a short average sentence, but vary the pattern as much as you can.
Start with something interesting and promising; wind up with something the reader will remember.
Everything which is written is meant either to please or to instruct. This second object is difficult to effect without attending to the first.
See your words as your reader will see them. Italicize for emphasis and parentheses to deemphasize.
To most people, readability means ease of reading plus interest. They want to make as little effort as possible while they are reading, and they also want something built in that will automatically carry them forward.
All writing gets off to a false start. Editing is achieving smoothness by scraping off roughness.
Probably the most practical method of simplifying your language is to write and speak as if you were talking to a foreigner – to someone who may be just as smart as you are but who has grown up in another language and hasn’t had a chance yet to become fully at home in English.
When self-editing, look for words and sentences that can be sped up.
- Sharpen and clarify
- Check for accuracy and precision
- Improve order and logic
- Make sure nothing is left out
- Review tone
- Improve appearance
- Examine everything from the reader’s point of view
- Cut out all unnecessary words and phrases. Don’t repeat names and specific references that aren’t needed or can be replaced by pronouns.
- Use more contractions
- Cut out unnecessary uses of ‘that’
- If it isn’t critical, cut it out (What can I get rid of?)
- Are you mumbling – Be less abstract, make sure that your verbs and adjectives express your meaning precisely. Scrutinize every important thought.
- Have you got things in the best order?
- Are there any holes in your argument?
- Are your facts right?
- Is the tone right?
Let time elapse between drafts and don’t be afraid to ask for the opinion of other people!
From The Art of Readable Writing by Rudolf Flesch
David Ogilvy: The Father Of Advertising
Now that you have the basics, let’s get a little more specific about what to write on your website.
David Ogilvy pretty much invented modern advertising in the 1950s and 60s. The television show Mad Men is based on him.
He didn’t just write great ads that sold well. He took a scientific approach to testing and measuring what works and doesn’t work, and thankfully he wrote it all down and shared it in two fantastic books:
Ogilvy on Advertising and Confessions of an Advertising Man
I’m sure you’ll recognize his rules being used all the time once you read about them. He was talking mostly about magazine advertisements, but everything he says works just as well on a web page.
The headline is the most important element in most advertisements. It is the telegram which decides the reader whether to read the copy. On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. A change in headline can make a difference of ten to one in sales.
The headline is the “ticket on the meat.” Use it to flag down the readers who are prospects for the kind of product you are advertising.
Every headline should appeal to the reader’s self-interest. It should promise a benefit.
Always try to inject news into your headlines. The two most powerful words you can use are free and new.
Other words and phrases which work wonders are HOW TO, SUDDENLY, NOW, ANNOUNCING, INTRODUCING, IT’S HERE, JUST ARRIVED, IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT, IMPROVEMENT, AMAZING, SENSATIONAL, REMARKABLE, REVOLUTIONARY, STARTLING, MIRACLE, MAGIC, OFFER, QUICK, EASY, WANTED, CHALLENGE, ADVICE TO, THE TRUTH ABOUT, COMPARE, BARGAIN, HURRY, LAST CHANCE. Don’t turn up your nose at these clichés. They may be shopworn, but they work. Headlines can be strengthened by the inclusion of emotional words, like DARLING, LOVE, FEAR, PROUD, FRIEND, and BABY.
Five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy, so it is important that these glancers should at least be told what brand is being advertised. This is why you should always include the brand name in your headlines.
Include your selling promise in your headline. Headlines of ten words or longer, containing news and information, consistently sold more merchandise than short headlines. Headlines containing six to twelve words pull more coupon returns than short headlines, and there is no significant difference between the readership of twelve-word headlines and the readership of three-word headlines.
People are more likely to read your body copy if your headline arouses their curiosity; so you should end your headline with a lure to read on.
Some copywriters write tricky headlines – puns, literary allusions, and other obscurities. This is a sin. Don’t play games with the reader.
Research shows that it is dangerous to use negatives in headlines. Many readers will miss the negative and go away with the opposite impression that you intend.
Avoid blind headlines – the kind which mean nothing unless you read the body copy underneath them; most people don’t.
From Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy
[for related tips, check out our article How To Write Engaging Headlines]
When you write your body copy, pretend that you are talking to the woman on your right at a dinner party. She has asked you, “I am thinking of buying a new car. Which would you recommend?” Write your copy as if you were answering that question.
Don’t beat about the bush – go straight to the point. Avoid analogies of the “just as, so too” variety. These two-stage arguments are generally misunderstood.
Avoid superlatives, generalizations, and platitudes. Be specific and factual. Be enthusiastic, friendly, and memorable. Don’t be a bore. Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.
The more facts you tell, the more you sell. There is a universal belief in lay circles that people won’t read long copy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Research shows that readership falls off rapidly up to fifty words of copy, but drops very little between fifty and 400 words.
Every advertisement should be a complete sales pitch for your product. It is unrealistic to assume that consumers will read a series of advertisement for the same product. You should shoot the works in every advertisement.
You should always include testimonials in your copy. The reader finds it easier to believe the endorsement of a fellow consumer than the puffery of an anonymous copywriter. Sometimes you can cast your entire copy in the form of a testimonial.
Another profitable gambit is to give the reader helpful advice, or service. It hooks about 75 per cent more readers than copy which deals entirely with the product.
Fine writing and a unique literary style take attention away from the subject.
Avoid bombast. “When a company boasts about its integrity, or a woman about her virtue, avoid the former and cultivate the latter.”
Unless you have some special reason to be solemn and pretentious, write your copy in the colloquial language which your customers use in everyday conversation. Advertisement writers may not be lyrical, or obscure, or in any way esoteric. They must be universally intelligible.
From Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy