Creative masterclass on ... writing copy for the web

The internet is now a well established medium, but there are still certain rules to help you produce a well written and informative site, says Lu Dixon

Remember when the web was new? When creatives suddenly had a whole new medium to play with - and not a clue how to go about it? Pop-ups, banners, Flash, interstitials ... To me, these were phrases used by people who wore anoraks and had VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) at home. I was convinced the internet was a flash in the pan and would be dead in the water within months.

But not long after I'd turned my nose up at the internet I was asked by my creative director, in a neat bit of buck-passing, to produce a training course on writing for the web. Bearing in mind that I still wrote copy long hand and turned my computer on only to prove that I knew how, I was probably the least appropriate person for the job. In my ignorance, I put chunks of Jakob Nielsen's Designing Web Usability into a PowerPoint presentation and hoped for the best. And I got away with it because a) nobody else at the time new any better; and b) nobody in the agency had heard of Jakob Nielsen.

It's fortunate for me, and the agency, that we subsequently merged with a company called Realtime and I met a load of people who did know what they were doing. And I learned fast that I'd got it all very wrong.

Isn't it just like writing a mail pack?

People don't read on screen, they scan, so the web is a short copy medium.

You must write in small chunks. As a general rule of thumb, never more than five lines per paragraph and bear in mind the column width on your layout. Always do listings as bullet points, not narrative. And don't forget to use the bold key every now and then - it helps to highlight certain words of importance.

People read about 40 per cent slower on screen, so you should try to write at least 40 per cent less. In the immortal words of American writer on style, William Strunk Jr, 'omit needless words'. Every word should have meaning. Above all, don't confuse the user - make sure your navigational directions do what they say. Also, make sure the user knows at all times where they are on your site, and how to get back to the previous page.

Make it stick

Obviously your main objective is to keep people on your site for as long as possible - or at least as long as it takes to get them to do whatever it is you want them to do. Therefore you need to make your content 'sticky'.

Whether it's some superbly written copy, a game, a quiz or pictures, you want people to be engaged and interacting with your site. You also want them to have enjoyed themselves so much that they'll come back and visit again.

Slippery when wet

Then there are the times when you want your content to be the very opposite of sticky. Or slippery, as the techie people call it. Two points where this is necessary spring to mind - at the point of entry, and then the all-important money shot. Therefore, registration forms should be short, simple and as speedy to get through as possible - sliding your visitor swiftly into your sticky content. Then, once they've stuck around long enough to decide they want to purchase, you'd better make sure they slip straight through the checkout before they've had a chance to question their decision.

In a few short years, the web has come a very long way. According to Forrester Research, it has already become the second most used channel after TV. The teething troubles are over, confidence is building and creatives are breaking the rules. If the idea's strong enough, Neilsen's rather rigid rules on usability can - and should - be thrown away. But just make sure you know them first. Then go and have some fun.

- Lu Dixon is creative director at EHS Brann

MY FAVOURITE CAMPAIGN: DIESEL

The Diesel Society of Nature Lovers is the home of Diesel's spring/summer collection. Planning the copy is actually quite a rational process for such emotional content, and the simplest tools tend to be Post-It notes, a big wall on which to stick them and a pencil for writing our ideas.

With these basic implements we can plan the journey, work out all the connecting points as well as the points of entry and exit. It helps to know the role of each page to enable us to determine the tone of the copy for each subject. For first-time visitors, our intro screen asks the question: 'Are you ready to love nature while there are still trees to climb?' The internet is an immersive medium, and the first page of a website that you visit is a door just waiting to be pushed open. Asking questions creates intrigue of what will be found inside. Think of an outer you can immediately open. No paper cuts. No moistened flaps.

Much of the rest of the copy summarises the qualities of the collection and extends the idea. Once in the site, if you click on the egg that reads 'Join the Society', you reach a data capture page where the copy becomes functional but not po-faced. The language is also active - entirely right for a 'doing' medium.

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