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When to write your web content

2010 December 6
by Helen Keevy

About to develop a website and wondering where to start? Avoid making a common but costly mistake.

A not-so-potential client recently gave me a sob story about investing a year and £50,000 in developing a new web-based system. He’d now run out of money, but needed instructions, FAQs and some content to convince people to sign up and use his services. Without this content he couldn’t launch the site. All he wanted was a few tens of thousands of words for a couple of hundred quid. He didn’t have the money to pay any more.

Sorry, but bad planning does not win my sympathy. Or my writing services. Even at current interest rates, he may as well have put his 50 grand in a savings account, because if we’re honest, a website without content is about as useful as condom vending machine in the Vatican.

A website is about communication. And although images can go a long way in communicating, chances are you’re also going to need written words, and quite a few of them. Yet every day thousands of people kick-start the design of a new website, willing to throw thousands of pounds at it, believing that written content is something to ‘fill the gaps’ at the end of the process.

It sounds a bit too farcical to be fact, but for businesses with small to medium-sized websites, that’s usually the way it goes. And it’s a helluva inefficient way of working for everyone: you, your web developer and your web designer. That’s why it’s crucial to either plan and write your own web content before you’ve even built a web page, or get a web copywriter involved at the beginning of the project.

Of course I’m biased, but I’d suggest you call a web copywriter before you even call the web developers.

What’s wrong with leaving the writing to the end?

It delays website launches.

A lot of website launches are delayed significantly, not because of web developers not working to schedule, but because the clients don’t provide the web content in time.

I know this from frustrating experiences as a web development project manager: a complex website built under stressful conditions to meet a tight deadline, and it can’t be launched because the pages are blank. Everybody loses – the web developer because they can’t get final payment until the site launches and you because your new investment is languishing under dust covers.

It creates unnecessary work all round.

If you don’t know exactly what content you want on your website then you’re going to have to guess. Why guess when you don’t need to? Why run the risk of creating a more complex website with more pages than you need? Or not enough pages.

A good web copywriter understands the principles of information architecture, website usability, content strategy and search engine optimisation. They can work with you or your web development team to map out what writing and graphics your site will need. If you’re revamping an existing website, some web copywriters also offer content auditing, to evaluate the web content you already have and help you plan your content for the new site.

Ideally you want your web copywriter to at least work with your web development team from the very beginning. This will save everybody time and make sure you’re all working towards the same goals for your website. It’s efficient too.

It results in mediocre content.

Leaving writing to the last minute forces web copywriters to compromise. When we’re called in to replace ‘lorum ipsum’ dummy text with something meaningful in a final website design, we often have no choice but to write content to fit design, rather than writing content to fit website visitors and marketing goals.

On an information website, design is a vehicle for information. It makes information better. How can you expect optimally functional web design if your designer doesn’t know what information they’re designing for? Designing without web content also has the potential to cause a clash between design style and writing style, resulting in wishy-washy branding.

So get your content written before the website designs are finalised, at least for the key web pages.

It diminishes the value of your investment.

Businesses spend money on website development. Usually quite a lot of money. When they’re considering quotes from web companies, clients often don’t register that those quotes rarely include content. And caught up in the excitement of a new website, any contingency in terms of time or money for paying someone to write your content or writing it yourself is forgotten. After all, how hard or expensive can filling blank spaces be?

Good website development does not come cheap, and it shouldn’t. But even though your business will benefit from having a beautifully designed and well-built site, all your website visitors are going to care about is if they find what they came looking for quickly and easily. They’ll see the pictures and they’ll scan the words. They’re going to be looking at those ‘blank spaces’.

If you budget for copywriting up front you won’t be caught short and left with a fantastically well-built website that is unable to serve a purpose.

So to sum up, and put a positive copywriterly spin on it…

Call your web copywriter early because:

  1. You’ll improve your chances of launching your website on schedule
  2. You’ll save everybody work
  3. You’ll get better web content
  4. You’ll get better value-for-money from your website.

Oh yes, and it’ll be less stressful for everyone.

Need help with your web content? Want to know why a web content audit could save you time and money in the long run? Get in touch.

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Eliminating the obviously

2010 November 9
by Helen Keevy

Identifying your weed words

About two months ago I failed the communication component of a mock sports massage assessment. I did fine on the practical side, but not so fine on speaking to my client. Now for some people that might not be so important, but as someone who works with communications daily it felt like a total disaster. Especially when I thought I’d been pretty chatty and done OK.

My exam client was very honest in his appraisal. The treatment was fine, but my use of the word obviously was a problem. He stressed that what for me was obvious might not be for him. My use of the word had created a barrier. It had stopped him from asking questions and at the same time he’d felt patronised.

I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. Am I such an abysmal communicator? Had I really said obviously enough times for it to be such a problem? And then I realised that yes, I most probably had. I just had to listen to myself for a few minutes to realise that.

A single word had been responsible for total communication breakdown.

Obviously is an adverb, a part of speech that some writers condemn as being lazy and unnecessary if care is taken to write thoughtfully. I know that in my writing I have a tendency to overuse it. I consider it one of my weed words – words that I let crop up as I’m writing because I know I’ll go back and strip them out later. I let myself get away with them because they ‘help with the flow’.

But when I’m talking I don’t have the luxury of word weeding. I’d let a lazy writing habit become a damaging spoken tic. I’d used obviously without thought.

On reflection, obviously is just as irritating as the basically, like or I know that many of us use as fillers. And just like these words, I initally assumed that although obviously may be irritating, that my use of it was essentially meaningless. Why would someone get so upset by a filler?

Because it wasn’t meaningless.

I noted that when speaking I used obviously at the beginning of a sentence, as a linking word. When I first tried to understand why I did it, I concluded that it was to try to put people at ease; make them understand that I know that they know what I’m talking about. I used it to avoid being patronising.

Or so I thought.

But was there another reason I had used it? Because I was nervous and slightly unsure in an exam situation, had I used it as stated in a comment on the blog post Obviously. It doesn’t go without sayingto convince my listener of the authenticity of what I was saying and accept it unquestioningly?

Letting my geeky side loose and getting slightly more technical, I discovered that obviously is classified as an adverb of certainty – in the same category as definitely, probably or clearly. And it’s best used in the middle of a sentence according to Swan’s Practical English Usage (e.g. The losing team were obviously unhappy.) I realised that by using it at the beginning of a sentence I’d tried to transform it into a ‘meaningless’ connecting adverb while still trying to hang on to its association with certainty.  Had I tried to be subconsciously cunning and failed? Could I give myself credit for that level of unintentional linguistic manipulation? Either way, it was lazy word usage and it had a very negative impact.  Luckily I  received constructive criticism to alert me to it.

So I’m chalking this event up as a helpful and educational failure. As a writer I know that a sentence can be undermined by a single word. I weigh my words carefully and I consider other options. And I’m now trying to word weed as I’m writing. I’m also trying to take equal care to listen to myself , to slow down and try to edit at least slightly before I speak in professional situations.  If you hear me stating a thoughtless obviously though, please call me on it.

This incident has reminded me the value of constructive criticism, the importance of self-evaluation, and that, as a communications professional, it is crucial to seek honest feedback on your work in all formats.

Anyone else have any examples of weed words that you think fuzzy or sabotage your communications? Or words that you think other writers or speakers use thoughtlessly or for a subconscious reason?

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