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Five essential web and email writing tips for nonwriters

Dec 31, 2018

Maybe you realize that your business marketing and communications need to be better written, but you can’t afford a copywriter or communications staff. And perhaps you’re not confident about writing it yourself. Now what?

Here are five fundamental tips for non-writers to help make their writing cleaner and more effective.

1. Less is more

Your web and email copy compete with countless other distractions — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon.com, dozens of other emails — so never assume that anyone looking at your content will patiently savor and read everything you write. The typical website visitor comes and goes in fewer than 12 seconds. Most users won’t open your emails, and those who do will rarely read them in full. The majority of people who do visit your website or open your emails will do it on mobile devices, so they may be on the go, or skimming it on a small screen.

All of that means that your chance to grab their attention is shorter and smaller than you might hope.

If you take away nothing else from this article, make it this: always strive to keep your content short, focused, and clear. Every word counts.

What’s a good email length?  No hard rules, but anything over 200 words in an email is probably pushing the limits. Few emails can keep the attention of a typical user for more than a minute. Homepage copy length is more flexible, but a homepage should avoid long stretches of text. 150 words maximum is a safe rule of thumb. Save longer content for other pages on your website.

2. Avoid “throat clearing”

Don’t waste any first paragraph with a slow introduction to what you have to say. Don’t start with vague, general statements about business, your industry, or sweeping trends.

Always make sure your opening line is engaging and focused. Most people won’t get past your first sentences or two; so deliver key ideas there. Tell them what you do, what you offer, or how you can help them.

Quite often, after you write a first draft of anything, you’ll discover that the first line isn’t that useful. The second sentence is often where the good stuff starts. So do your reader a favor and get rid of that flabby first bit and get right into the meaningful ideas.

3. Big, complex words are usually the wrong ones

Big words don’t impress anyone. Don’t use “business-speak.” Use simple, clear language.

Write “use,” not “utilize.” 
Write “think,” not “ideate.”
Write “clarify,” not “disambiguate.”
Write “do,” not “execute.”
Write “motivate,” not “incentivize.”

Need more examples? Check out this list of 150 “business jargon fixes” by Straight North.  

4. When in doubt, avoid adjectives

As you likely remember from grade school, adjectives modify nouns. Sometimes they can be specific, like “red” or “warm” or “legal.” Those are fine. But often in business writing, we find fuzzy, subjective, or self-serving adjectives, like “unique” or “special” or “amazing.” In almost all cases, you should cut them. That may sound extreme, but in marketing writing, most often, adjectives come across as phony.

For example, here are some bad uses of adjectives:

  • “We provide an incredible tool to help you lose 30 pounds right away!”
  • “Our innovative, bleeding-edge application will save you hours of time every week.”
  • “Datafloss Incorporated’s patented, powerful, and pathbreaking tax software will help you file your taxes accurately and on-time.”

Those self-congratulatory adjectives aren’t wowing anybody. If anything, it makes you less believable or authentic It’s better and more effective to just write:

  • “Our tool will help you lose 30 pounds.”
  • “Our application will save you hours every week.”
  • “Our software will help you file your taxes accurately and on-time.”

What are exceptions to this rule? It’s fine to use adjectives that add actual useful and meaningful context to your writing. Stick to adjectives that are fact, not opinion. For example, if your product has won awards, it’s fine to talk about your “award-winning software.” Or if you offer a better value to customers than a competitor, it’s OK to describe your product as “affordable” or “inexpensive.” But if your sentence still works without the adjective, get rid of it.

5. Write like a human

Too often, the text you find on websites and marketing emails reads like something a robot spit out. It feels inauthentic, wordy, and calculated.

There’s an easy fix for this: read anything written for your organization or business out loud. Even better: read it to someone else out loud.

When you actually have to speak bad writing, it will become obvious because it doesn’t sound like something a real human would say in natural conversation. Once you find the stuff that sounds awkward or stiff when you say it out loud, you can go back, cut needless words, break long sentences into shorter ones, and get rid of jargon and cliche language.

 

Want to dig deeper? Here are two essential reads on good, clear writing:

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark

100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost

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