The overall design of a website will influence a visitor’s split-second decision whether to stay or leave a particular URL. Design includes items such as the layout, font style and color, as well as the choice of graphics and pictures. However, once the visitor is drawn in by the design, the quality of a site’s written text will have a lasting effect on both whether a visitor will remain for a longer period of time, as well as whether or not the visitor will return sometime in the future. For this reason, with the exception of basic site design, nothing impacts the quality of a website more than its written text. Ensuring that great text is written is therefore a critical step that requires a structured approach to accomplish efficiently.
Most readers will know that high quality text employs proper grammar and is void of spelling errors. It is also well known that website writing must be concise, should be in an active rather than a passive voice, and use sub-headlines and bolding effectively to help the reader scan material. This is stating the obvious. The real question is how to actually create superbly crafted content from a blank screen and a blinking cursor.
Website Writing in 5 Phases
When attempting to write excellent website text, it is best to keep in mind that all web writing goes through 5 specific and discreet steps or phases. These are 1) creating an overall plan, 2) writing an outline, 3) composing a rough draft, 4) revising the draft and finally 5) proof-reading.
Step 1 | Creating an Overall Plan
The key to any design process whether graphics or text, is to have a clear plan. In the case of writing, the planning phase includes each person in the writing team discussing and agreeing upon key points. To use a website design parallel, this can be thought of as a brainstorming session from which a statement of work (SOW) will emerge. The typical questions that are answered in this phase include making content decisions, determining who the main audience will be, and putting together a timeline.
It will also include determining how long each section, including articles, should be. For example, a home page might be written in short paragraphs, single teaser sentences, or even bullet points. The secondary and tertiary pages however will probably be somewhat longer and more detailed. All this has to be planned out in advance.
Some time should also be set aside in this step towards coordinating with the website designers to ensure that there is alignment between the graphic designers and the writers. This is particularly important on the homepage as it is the page that will have the largest impact on bounce rate.
Step 2 | Writing An Outline
Once the project is properly planned, an outline can be completed. An outline is a list of the key points that will be made in each section or page of the site. Bullet points are certainly appropriate here as the goal in this phase is to get a general outline of the text. For longer passages or individual articles, the outline should be structured as an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. This is a fundamental writing technique, but one that is all too often forgotten. It is surprising how many website articles do not follow this formula.
Step 3 | Composing a Rough Draft
The rough draft is the first time that full and complete sentences are put together. The most important thing to mention with regards to the rough draft is that the better the outline is, the faster the rough draft will be written and usually, the better its quality will be. If multiple individuals are writing the rough draft, it is usually a good idea to assign a single individual with the responsibility of pulling all the content together. In addition to the mundane tasks of formatting the text into a single coherent document, this individual can also be tasked with comparing the draft with the outline to make sure that nothing is accidently missed.
Step 4 | Revising the Draft
Nobody writes a perfect text after only a single draft. All text should be revised until it meets the quality requirements of the website’s owner. Indeed, even Pulitzer Prize winners revise their work. Any written text, even the one you are reading right now, requires revision to make sure that it is perfect and includes the intended content.
Revision includes checking for proper content, verifying spelling and grammar, examining the style, and reviewing references if applicable. There are several tricks to revision. For example, reading the text backwards is an effective method to finding spelling mistakes. Another tip is to read the text out loud. By reading it out loud, a reader can often pick out awkward passages and improve upon them. A third trick is to put the text down for a few hours, or even overnight. Often looking at a text with fresh eyes will allow the proof-reader to find additional mistakes.
If deleting any text, especially large sections, it is recommend that this information be saved in a separate file. One never knows when a piece of deleted text might come in handy for future work.
Step 5 | Proof Reading
Finally, the written text goes into a final revision or a proof-reading stage. Here every last detail is double checked for items such as accuracy, formatting and styling. This person fills the role of editor and does not necessarily have to be the person who compledted the draft revision step. In fact, it can often be helpful if this is a different person with fresh eyes. Also, the same document can be proof-read by several people.
To review, the real secret of great website writing is to have a clear and systematic process. This provides structure and allows the project manager to measure how the team is performing vis a vis a schedule. If each step of the writing process is completed thoroughly, the final product will be of high quality and be achieved in a relatively short amount of time.