Web copywriting checklist

Writing for the Web isn’t much different from other kinds of writing, but the few differences make all the difference. They mostly involve remembering that online users are usually in a hurry, that they expect to easily interact with you and your site, and they’re reading your writing on computer screens and mobile devices that don’t have great resolution or fit many words on a page (or device screen). So of course you have to know the basics of good writing and know to how to explain and sell and promote things. But you also need to know how to help site visitors find the information they need and do what they want to do, how to clearly label navigation links and fields in online forms, and about search engine optimization–making your site as easy as possible to find. So here’s a checklist I’ve developed over the years to stay in shape as a Web copywriter:

Make conversation

  • Listen to what your customers and site visitors say, how they say it, then craft simple messages that genuinely touch their interests (and yours).
  • Make it objective, not obviously promotional.
  • Work for a unique voice, strong point of view, and warm, honest tone.
  • Avoid technical jargon, marketese, business insider lingo.
  • Do not overstate, boast, or make vague, general claims
  • Be there! Keep content fresh, respond personally!

Make it active, sturdy, clear

  • Design (outline, think through) before beginning to write.
  • “Omit needless words” (Strunk & White, “Elements of Style”).
  • Use simple, informal, every-day words (“help,” not “assist”; “use,” not “utilize”).
  • Use active (not passive) verbs so readers know who’s doing what.
  • Listen to what you write as you’re writing it. Read it out loud to notice dead spots, fuzziness, clumsiness.
  • Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite–always with a deadline in mind!

Make it alluring, catchy, different

  • Find a fresh way to say it.
  • Take readers by surprise (short sentence, sentence fragment, one-sentence paragraph, sudden question).
  • Trust your material to make its own point, so readers can bring their own emotions to the story–show, don’t tell.
  • Hunt down, destroy cliches and old, tired phrases.
  • Begin sentences w/ conjunctions (“But”, “And”) to grab attention.

Make it accurate

  • Print out documents and physically mark every fact that requires verification.
  • Avoid relying on secondary sources; confirm and double-check primary sources.
  • Check all spelling, especially proper names.
  • Proofread all text for typos, misspellings, punctuation, etc., before going live!
  • Copy URLs from digital documents rather than typing them out and risking typos.
  • Use a style guide–Associated Press or other standard guide for your industry. Supplement it with terms and communication practices unique to your business or organization.

Make it easy to scan

  • “Writing is visual. It catches the eye before it catches the brain” (W. Zinsser, “On Writing Well”).
  • Distill to the esssence, especially on pages where most users are just passing through (navigation pages)
  • Add simple, meaningful headlines and subheads
  • Turn a series of points into a bulleted or numbered list.
  • Use pull-quotes to keep interest in long documents
  • Move repeating categories of information into tables, charts, graphs.
  • Use punctuation that won’t be overlooked on typically low-resolution computer screens (for example–avoid colons, use em-dashes instead).

Make it findable by search engines – SEO is key!

  • For SEO, there’s no substitute for high-quality content–search engines are smart (get used to it)!
  • Plan, research, identify the best keywords (phrases) for your site before starting to write.
  • The best keywords balance a high number of search results with low competition from other sites in your business or non-profit sector.
  • Keywords in page titles are usually most effective for SEO, followed by URLs and meta descriptions, headers, anchor text and alt tags for clickable images.
  • Write alluring meta descriptions that display and communicate in  search engine results
  • Include keywords in body text if (and only if) they won’t detract too much from your primary task of communicating with you target users.
  • Yes, inbound links matter, but only if from high-authority, high-quality sites and blogs (NOT from links you insert in your own comments on external sites–most search engines now pretty much ignore that gambit)
  • Engage with social networks that fit your brand and business strategy.

Make hot links

  • Make clear what the user will get from a link via a pop up description, short link/big explanation, or relevance label (e.g. star ratings).
  • Within a sentence, make the link the emphatic element – typically move to end.
  • Shift focus from links or linked-to documents to the subject at hand – link label should emerge naturally from sentence flow.
  • Establish, increase credibility with outbound links.
  • Write URLs that humans can read and search engine users can find (include keywords, if appropriate).
  • Make links accessible to users w/ special needs – alt. text, links in text, CSS/XML, relative font sizes, avoid abbreviations + acronyms.
  • Tell people about a media object before they click to download it – file size, media type, subject matter, etc.

Make the sale

  • Get attention > show a need > satisfy the need > prove superiority and reliability compared to competition> ask for their order or other action.
  • Keep relationship (social) and closing sale (commercial) separate.
  • Make the pitch at the right time and place, in right tone.
  • Carefully organize your selling points–prioritize and present them in logical order.
  • Keep selling after sale! Bring ’em back for more!
  • Drive your “calls to action” – politely tell them what they should do!
  • Say just enough (not too much or too little) to make the sale.