Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Empathy again, hitting the nail on the head

I've recently been reading a blog titled Captain Picard's journal. Don't run away, I am no Star Trek geek (no offence intended to the writer of this blog). I have watched Star Trek, however, and the reason I like this blog so much is that if you know what these characters are like on television, you'll see how perfectly the writing gets inside their heads. It is a brilliant example of empathy being used to bring a character to life, to speak to the reader and to guide the tone and flow of the text.

The point of my rambling here is that if you really know who you are writing for and about, everything seems to just fall into place: 'oh, they wouldn't say that in this way, they'd use this word here and it would sound like this'. It makes things so much easier, and has been the cure for a few nasty bouts of editing/writing block which I have experienced. Think like your audience and you can experience some very enlightening 'oh yeah!' moments.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Don't miss the wood for the trees

I get stuck writing all the time. If I didn't I'd figure something was wrong. Somtimes it is easy to get lost in the detail and suddenly start worrying about tenses, verbs, minor points of grammar, headings, paragraph size, all sorts of stuff. I occasionally have panic attacks and start reading my Penguin guide to grammar, thinking I have suddenly forgotten how to write properly.

Sit back, think big. I get through these 'blocks' by always keeping the big picture in mind: what am I writing this for? WHO am I writing this for? What's the overall message I am trying to communicate? These important issues help you stay focused and you can craft your piece of writing (whether it be a web page, email, newsletter, whatever) around them, tidying up the bits and pieces later.

If you don't have your reader and the message you want to communicate at the forefront of your thinking all the time, instead getting lost in the detail, you'll be off the beaten track and will lose focus, resulting in an unfocused piece which doesn't do its job.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Talk to your reader, even especially when you make a mistake

How many times have you seen an error message and actually understood what is going on?

'Error 6214, server supercalifragilisticexpialidocious database restart, please report this 6214 error to rumplestiltskin immediately'

Was that my fault, did I click on something I shouldn't have? Is it their fault, what is going on, I feel scared, I'm off to the BBC site where I feel much happier because they TELL me what is going on, and what's more I understand what they are saying to me!'.

Game over, they've gone. The article linked in the title of this post is from Jakob Nielsen's site. It is 5 years old but still totally relevant. He also links to another article of his, Improving the Dreaded 404 Error Message, which is great advice because if something does go wrong then you really need to avoid losing people by telling them:

  • What happened (in plain language)
  • Constructive steps to take to correct the problem.

Golden Rules of Copywriting

Amrit Hallan has a great article about the elements of good copy on his site . The first rule he mentions, Keep It Simple, is one I whole-heartedly agree with for all forms of writing. Overblown language and complicated constructions stick out like a sore thumb and simply turn people off, and this rule is particularly relevant on the Web. If you're not talking your readers' language there's always another site that is...and it's just a few clicks away.

His rules are as follows:
  • Keep it simple
  • Cut to the chase (don't waste your reader's time)
  • Indulge in conversation (talk to your reader!)
  • Study your market (know who you are talking to)
  • Make your message customer-centric ('I, me, you' instead of 'we and us')
  • Be perceptive
  • Sincerity gives you strength
  • Avoid superlatives (If you write like a pompous ass, your readers will probably think you are one!)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Web writing mistakes: 'We'll leave that bit to the IT guys'

A frequent error in web writing, as pointed out by this excellent (again) article from Webcredible, written by one of my favourite experts, Nick Usborne.

Every bit of 'written' content on your site is important and this includes the page title and meta description. Here, you're putting up your hand and showing the searcher/reader/potential customer that you are there, and that your site content is relevant to what they are looking for. I have been misled countless times by poor titles and descriptions appearing in search engine results. Indeed, sometimes they don't appear at all, because the webmaster/web team have left that bit to the programmer, who forgot to add it or figured it was not important, or added something that just won't do.

These elements are important and the point made by the article highlights one of my favourite topics: page title and meta descriptions help BOTH of your main content targets. They help your readers/customers AND they help the search engines - too many websites concentrate on one or the other of these; very few consider both human and 'non-human' users when writing content.