Here’s a universal principle that frames the experience of writing for the web: “Form ever follows function.” Those words were first written by Louis Sullivan early in the 20th Century. What does designing a department store or any large public building have to do with writing for the web? And what could an architect who lived so long ago have to say to us about writing web content? Or designing web sites? Everything.
Just as no building architect today would design a building without taking into account how people are going to use it, likewise, no web site architect should ever consider designing a web site without thinking about how visitors are going to use it.
We talk about usability—a word that would have seemed strange to Mr. Sullivan—but aren’t we talking about the form of the web site reflecting the way people use it? And when it comes to writing content, aren’t we likewise trying to make the content as readily available, as comprehensible and effortless to read as possible? I think so. That thought frames everything I know about writing for the web.
So, based on “Form ever follows function,” and the way people use web sites today, let me suggest three thoughts as a guide to web writing: chunk, light, tuna.
Chunk. People don’t read on the web, they scan. Break your story into bite-sized chunks. Make your writing compact and succinct. A few short paragraphs on one page and you’re done. Bullets and subheads improve readability. Keep it simple.
Light. Keep the writing light. Avoid self-serious or ponderous prose. Focus on benefits. Tell how a product or service improves peoples’ lives or adds value. Tackle serious subjects and be real, but do it in a highly readable way.
One example from a white paper I wrote: “Digital asset management systems can generate a healthy ROI, yet few do. Why? Three important reasons: Planning. Planning. Planning.”
Keep it light, but avoid humor which can easily backfire on the web.
Tuna. This is not a reference to a losing Cowboy coach. By tuna, I mean give people substance. Tell people what they want to know: What you’re going to do for them. Give them benefits. Tell how they’re going to feel after they’ve used your service or product. Most importantly, prove it with testimonials from real customers•statements that carry emotional impact.
Write “chunk light tuna,” and you’ll be writing the way people use the web today.If Louis Sullivan were alive, I bet he would agree.