How to Write Great Web Copy? Mind Your Strunk & White

There are some great online resources for how to write excellent web copy. But the best guide was published nearly 100 years ago.

That’s right, I’m talking about The Elements of Style, that writer’s bible first published by William Strunk, Jr., in 1918 as a handbook for his Cornell students and revised in 1959 by one of his most notable former pupils, E.B. White (he of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little fame).

Strunk & White, as it’s fondly referred to by writers who love to write, nailed all the basics in this slim book. Here are six rules worth committing to memory when you write for the web (or any other genre, for that matter):

Use the active voice.
Your sentences read faster and sound more forceful with the active voice; the sentence’s subject performs the action instead of being acted upon (it’s even clunky to explain passive voice):

Our sales team listens closely to our customers. (active)

NOT

Our customers are closely listened to by our sales team. (passive)

Put statements in positive form.
Don’t waffle. Make clear, firm assertions about your product or service. The more certain you are about what you do for your clients, the more your clients will trust you (just be sure you can deliver):

We match you with your dream home.

NOT

We try our very best to find you a home that fits your lifestyle.

Use definite, specific, concrete language.
This is one of my favorites. The more clear and precise your word choices, the better. All too often, you run across language that’s convoluted for the sake of sounding intelligent. Bureaucratic prose comes to mind, as well as legal documents. For the web, in particular, you need to catch your reader’s attention in the first few seconds. Choose strong, active verbs and precise nouns, be direct and clear in your writing, and you’ll hook them.

Omit needless words.
For web content, this is essential. Most readers skim; make every word count. You can still include detail. To quote S&W, just make “every word tell.”

A few quick fixes that can help you trim words:

  • Turn “of the ____” prepositional phrases into possessives (“the customer’s” rather than “of the customer”).
  • Use active verbs instead of forms of to be. (“We work with you to find a solution.” NOT “Our goal is to help you find a solution.”)
  • Trim phrases who is, which was, and other similar padding (“Bob Cratchit, our accountant” instead of “Bob Cratchit, who is our accountant”).

Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
Another way to say this is vary your sentence structure. Nothing bores more quickly than a long paragraph of clunky sentences that are all the same length, especially if they also violate the first four rules, above. Be careful not to go on and on in one sentence, then another and another, without furthering your point, as I’m doing here. Use connectives—and, but—selectively. End with a short, punchy thought.

Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.
Follow this principle of parallel construction, especially when constructing lists or bullets.  This is a qualification of the previous rule: don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you have to vary your sentences for the sake of variety. When lists, bullets or subheads have a similar form, your reader will see the connections more readily. Notice how each of the six rules I’m borrowing here from S&W are all short commands. You can skim them as headings and see how they build a basic set of skills.

You’ll find more clear, timeless guidance about excellent writing in Strunk & White, on correct usage (grammar and punctuation), composition and form. The entire, concise manual is viewable online, but I prefer my battered copy that I’ve had for decades.

Whichever form you choose, refer to it often. Whether you’re just beginning to write web content for your own site or are an experienced content developer, I guarantee you’ll find it helpful.

What about you? What are your favorite writing resources?

Marketing consultant Evelyn Herwitz loves to help you tell a great story about your good work. She specializes in search-optimized web content that positions you as an approachable expert in your field and helps you grow your business. Contact Evelyn for a free half-hour consult for new clients.

 

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