Writing short bits is hard

“Rugby Union World Cup pull-out”, the Evening Standard poster said a few days ago. Oh no, I thought, which team has pulled out before the World Cup has even started?

An easy mistake to make, and not much of a problem. I had several seconds to think again and realise that the “pull-out” was part of the newspaper, not a real event.

On a website, however, several seconds – I know I keep saying it – can be the difference between success and failure of whatever you’re offering. The vital bits of text on your website are the short bits: the summaries, headlines and links. These are the bits that enable people to use your website and find what they want quickly, and these are the most difficult to write.

As with the “pull-out”, it’s so easy for insiders, those producing the newspaper, to assume that their understanding is the same as that of the outsiders, such as me. And the same goes for websites: so many are produced by people who know what their words mean and how the site works. They find it hard to put themselves in the position of users, who may not.

How do we solve this? First, try always to put yourself in the mind of your reader or the user of your website. Think how they may react to what you say and in particular think what they want, rather than what you would like to tell them.

Second, test what you’ve written on people at random. It’s amazing how often people take things to mean something quite different from what you intended. It’s no good saying “But it’s obvious”, if it isn’t.

Third, work up to your short bits. By this I mean, delay writing the short bits until you’ve written the bulk of the information you want to convey. Plan a website from the bottom up. Rather than thinking what you’re going to say on your home page, think of all information you need to include on the site. Then break it into sections, then write the headings, and last of all, write the home page and links to those sections.

I go into these ideas in more detail in my article “Ten tips for building a better website“. Don’t be put off by the date: the ideas are still relevant.

If you think I could help you with writing your short bits, do contact me.

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