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Mining for (Source) Content Gold

by Amy Wallace

As a writer or editor, it’s ideal to get solid content strategy and background information before you start creating content. But sometimes you need to fend for yourself.

The scenario plays out like this: You’ve been assigned to write the content for a website, and you’re ready to get started (hooray!). Even if there is no strategy, you hope there’s loads of source material. Or at least enough to support the proposed site structure and objectives.

Then, you’re presented with one measly PDF. Good luck!

Not exactly enough to create a website with, is it? If your source content is non-existent, then you’re going to have to find it. You can do it. Here’s how.

gus chiggins

Old prospectors found gold. And you can, too!
(Will Ferrell as Gus Chiggins on Saturday Night Live)

Identify subject matter experts (SMEs)

Whether you’re working with a client or an internal team, you’ll need to identify your project’s key players. And they aren’t necessarily the ones that give sign-offs and approvals. You’re looking for the people that know the product or service inside and out—researchers, product developers, customer service representatives, marketing folks. People who spend their days immersed in the very stuff you need to write about.

Sit down with your project sponsor and talk about who these people might be. Get a list of names and job titles. Then schedule some time to chat with each one of them.

Create a discussion guide

Once you’ve determined who you’ll be interviewing, it’s a good idea to create a discussion guide. Nothing too rigid or overdeveloped—think outline or talking points. Something that will help you keep the conversation on track, and get to the heart of the information you really need: content priorities for both users and the business, as well as tangible knowledge about the product or service.

Ask simple, open-ended questions like:

  • What is the <product or service>?
  • What are the benefits to consumers? How is this <product or service> different from similar offerings in the market?
  • What is some typical feedback (positive or negative) that you hear from consumers about the <product or service>?
  • If you could convey one key message, what would it be?
  • Are there any existing written materials or other information about <product or service> that you could share with me?

Whether it’s a module, a few web pages, or an entire site, the content needs to exist for a reason (this, of course, in an ideal world where pet projects and knee-jerk reactions to competitors don’t exist). It’s your job to find out why—and why users should care.

Talk … and listen

You’ll be leading the discussion, but let your SME do the talking. Ask questions—and let the silence sit. Give them time to process and think. Count to 10 in your head. This may feel a little awkward (OK, it does feel awkward), but you’ll get better, more thoughtful answers in the end.  

However, sometimes, you’ll find that people need a little coaxing. This often happens when they’re unsure about their own knowledge. Many times, we’ve come across situations where people are hesitant to answer certain questions because they don’t think they’re the “expert” on the topic. And each time, we assure the person that any perspective they offer can be helpful.

In fact, it’s often those “non-expert” interpretations that help us develop the most user-focused copy—because they’re free of details that are too specific, complicated, or just plain unnecessary for the average consumer. Wherever your SME may reside on the corporate or organizational totem pole, their opinion matters. Make sure they know that, and encourage them to share.

Begin writing and reevaluating

Once you’ve gathered all of your source content, it’s time to get to work. And once you begin writing, you’ll quickly realize what’s possible and what’s not, in terms of initial priorities and site structure.

For instance, maybe the proposed sitemap doesn’t really support the content you’ve gathered. Maybe the priorities are different, now that you’ve heard from the actual people in the trenches.

Don’t be afraid to recommend structural changes. Just as your SMEs understand the product or service, you understand the content and what it needs to do to be the most effective, for users and the business. If you see an opportunity to make the content (and user experience) better, don’t ignore it.

So, eureka! There you have it. With a little initiative, nurturing, and planning, you can create relevant, focused source content. And that’s pure gold.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Web Writing

Style Guide Pep Talk: Rah! Rah! Rah!

by Angie Halama

Finally! I just published the latest updates to the internal Brain Traffic editorial style guide—and it took nearly five whole months. Gasp! I’m a content professional! You’d think maintaining a set of guidelines about stuff like grammar and word choice would be at the top of the fun list for a word nerd like me.

But, it’s not.

Like most people responsible for a style guide, I find making updates seems to be a task always languishing at the bottom of my to-do list. After all, updates are rarely urgent. And collecting all those changes, deciding which ones to make … it all seems so exhausting.

Still, a useful style guide is an updated style guide. And, organizations need useful style guides. So, here, especially for you (and a little bit for me), is a pep talk about keeping your style guide in tip-top shape.

Got spirit?

See what can happen when you don’t use a style guide?

(Image courtesy of Above the Law)

Why style guides are awesome

An editorial style guide provides standards for written content, typically on items such as grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Before we begin, we must first acknowledge the power of a good style guide:

  • It’s key to editorial consistency across your organization’s content (along with a good editor, copyeditor, and/or proofreader who enforces it).
  • It saves you from deciding style items on the fly. So when conversations flare-up over whether “email” should have a hyphen, you can simply respond, “Our style guide says no hyphen.” End of discussion. (Or, suggest dissenters submit a proposed change for the next style guide update—more on that later.)
  • It’s essential in helping new writers and content creators get familiar with your organization’s writing style. For the same reason, freelancers and contractors will adore you—we’re talking putting your picture up in their locker—for having an updated style guide.

What to put in your style guide

The first step to defining your internal, or “house,” style guide, is to choose your preferred external style source. This is going to answer the bulk of your users’ style questions. Old favorites are The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style. However, we use the incredible and amazing Yahoo! Style Guide. It’s specifically written for digital communications and includes great info like writing clear user-interface text and coding basics.

With your external style guide defined, your house style guide only needs to cover:

  • Style preferences that differ from the external style guide
    • Example: “Internet” has an initial cap per the Yahoo! Style Guide, but our house style uses “internet.”
  • Style items or topics that aren’t covered in the external style guide
    • Example: The Yahoo! Style Guide doesn’t include a preferred spelling for “wireframes,” so we’ve defined it as one word.
  • Items that people ask about frequently or often get tripped up by (meaning, it’s a frequent question or issue for more than just one person)
    • Example: We just added an entry on when to hyphenate a compound modifier.
    • Note: You don’t need to fully define these rules if they're explained well elsewhere. Our guide has some brief rules on hyphenating compound modifiers and then a link to an external site with more in-depth guidelines.

Consider adding these “guiding criteria” to your style guide so everyone understands what’s included in the guide. These criteria are essential to helping you evaluate proposed changes and updates.

You’ll also want to define clear sections of the style guide for different types of information. Common divisions include:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Terms (preferred spellings and usages)
  • Numbers
  • Capitalization

Other topics you could include:

  • Trademarks, and when to use them
  • Tone and voice guidelines
  • Web-specific items (for example, how to indicate a required field on a form)

To keep your style guide as simple as possible (both for users to use and you to update), only include topics or sections that your users really need. Think “need to have,” not “nice to have.”

Define the updating process

Here’s the first rule of updating your style guide: Do it as little as possible. Yep, I’m serious. It can be a lot of work. Besides, frequent updates can be hard for users to keep up with. At Brain Traffic, we aim for once a year.

Next, you need a style guide committee who will decide on changes and updates. Everyone on our style guide committee loves words, writing, and appreciates a good style rule—which makes them perfect. That said, keep your committee small, maybe five people at the most. Because wrangling lots of opinions about lots of changes is, well, an awful lot.

It’s also important to create an easy process for users to submit proposed changes. Our style guide is a wiki, so users can post their comments/questions/challenges in the document. At the start of an update cycle, I put these in a spreadsheet along with any other changes I’ve been collecting. Whatever your method, make sure your users know how to submit a proposed change—this can go directly in your style guide, too.

After you’ve collected these changes, get the committee together to decide what changes to make. There will be lots of opinions, and even lively discussions. But remember this:

  • Use your “guiding criteria” to evaluate every proposed change.
  • Consider the impact of the change. If you add a hyphen to “email,” how often does it already show up in your content hyphen-less? How much work will it be to change this across your organization and your communication channels—and is it worth it?

Announce the style guide changes to your users after you’ve updated the guide. This is essential. How will they know “e-mail” now has a hyphen if you don’t tell them?

The Keeper of the Style Guide

To keep the process running smoothly, you need one lucky soul to be the Keeper of the Style Guide. This person is in charge of everything:

  • Getting the update cycle started
  • Collecting the changes and getting the committee to discuss and decide on them
  • Making the actual changes to the style guide—or making sure the changes are made
  • Communicating the changes to all of your style guide users

Remember, the Keeper of the Style Guide gets to wield the Power of Style over a multitude of users. Exciting, yes? So: Go! Fight! Win! Let the style-guide updating begin!

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Posted in Web Writing

Don’t Use That Language With Me

by Angie Halama

Perhaps I’m distracted, maybe I’m tired. I’ve read this copy three times and I still don’t know what it’s talking about. I must not be focusing. Maybe I need more coffee …

Or maybe, the problem is the copy itself. Ah, yes. I see it now: jargon. Obscure, technical terms I think I should know, because the copy keeps using them, but I don’t (what’s a “drive-by download”?). Words that sound impressive, but may be uncommon, and therefore vague, to a general audience (think “erudite” instead of “well-read”). Buzzwords that have been used so much—and so badly—that their meaning is diluted (like “innovate”).

Nothing kills content like jargon. Here are three ways you can make sure it doesn’t end up in your content.

  1. Speak your audience’s language

    Before you start writing, stop and deliberately consider what words your audience does and doesn’t use in their daily language. If your audience is IT professionals, it makes sense to use IT terms with them. But if you’re talking to small business owners who need IT services, using IT terms is confusing, meaningless, and inconsiderate.

    When in doubt, remember: Simple, common words cover a lot of ground with any audience, because everyone immediately knows what they mean. And they’re especially important to low-literacy readers, who are more common than you may think. Learn more about them in Angela Colter’s article, “The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had.”

  2. Get specific

    It can be easy to fall into using buzzwords or words with vague meanings. Let’s take an article about writing training, for example. I could start by saying, “Optimize your writing skills and leverage your business.” But what does that mean? Could a reader even guess at what I’m saying?

    It would be better if I was more specific, like “Learn to write concise copy that customers read and respond to.” Language that’s precise gives readers a clear idea about what they’re going to read next. This is especially important when you’re writing high-level information that leads to more detail.

  3. Know what you’re talking about

    The jargon problem can be about more than just word choice. To write clear and useful copy for readers, you need to be an expert on the audience, and on what you’re selling. Or at least have expert-level information.

    Vague language can be the result of vague ideas, so before you start writing, make sure your expert information includes:

    • Who the customer is
    • Their hopes and desires
    • The problems they want to solve (goals)
    • How this product/service/idea meets their needs

    If I’m struggling to write clear and convincing copy, I sometimes find I don’t know enough. Sure, I may have product specs and a customer profile, but if I stop and listen, I hear questions nagging at the back of my mind. What’s so special about this product? Aren’t there a dozen others like it? What’s driving my audience to seek this information? What questions do they have in their minds?

Show your readers you know who they are

Stick your feet in the reader’s shoes. It really is the real purpose of your copy: to show the audience you took their shoes (OK, borrowed), you’ve got them on, and you did a 5K in them. Because if you understand their needs, and exactly how your product/service/idea meets those needs, then that’s all you need to tell them—in concise, simple terms. And that is far more compelling to your readers than a thousand fancy words.

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Posted in Web Writing

When Words Fail

by Tenessa Gemelke

People who work with content are often word nerds, and we love to guffaw at poor word choices. In fact, the Brain Traffic staff recently had a good laugh when we nearly recommended “killer headings” in the style guide for … a hospital. Oops.

The truth is, word choice can make or break your content. Take this example: last year, I edited a book by a researcher who studies youth development. His goal was to inspire adults to reach out and offer more emotional support to children and teenagers. He saw it as a civic duty—a series of individual acts that could transform our society. This was his working title:

A Citizen’s Guide to Touching Kids

You can probably see why the title made me wince. While he meant “touching kids” in the Hallmark sense, I knew readers might associate the phrase with child predators. I removed what I perceived to be the offending words and sent the manuscript out for review, asking reviewers what they thought of his new working title:

A Citizen’s Guide to Changing Kids’ Lives

As it turned out, we had missed another negative association. Reviewers raised questions such as, “Are you saying I have to be a legal citizen to have a positive influence on kids?” and “Do you want people to think about immigration problems when they read this title?”

The word citizen was loaded with meaning we hadn’t intended. We had dodged one landmine but stepped squarely on another. Just as the book wasn’t about pedophiles, it wasn’t exactly about citizenship, either. So we changed the title again:

Parent, Teacher, Mentor, Friend: How Every Adult Can Change Kids’ Lives

A few little words had almost sabotaged the author’s intentions by distracting the audience. Through careful word choice, we ultimately reached a much stronger title—one that better communicates who the book is for and what it is about.

Readers bring their own context

As content creators, it’s our job to choose words carefully, and many of us like to think we’re pretty good at anticipating user needs. But once we’ve established what readers want, it’s just as important to filter our content for the little things that may drive them away.

I recently worked on content aimed at patients considering weight-loss surgery. I learned through interviews that this audience is very sensitive. They’ve spent years feeling trapped or possibly embarrassed by their obesity, but their condition is often caused by factors beyond their control. They need information they can trust, and they are deeply afraid of being ridiculed. Bearing this sensitivity in mind, I cringed when I found this description in the source material:

After surgery, you’ll attend classes to support your continued growth.

The copywriter meant emotional growth, of course. At first I chuckled at the gaffe, but I quickly realized that the double meaning could come across as an inconsiderate joke. When I sat down to write new copy, I found myself making similar mistakes. Previously harmless phrases such as “a huge decision” and “a wide range of options” were now complicated by what I knew about my audience.

These may seem like minor infractions, but the last thing you want is a reader who resents you and therefore doesn’t hear your message. Much more than a simple matter of political correctness, these blunders can cost you your audience.

Say what you mean—and nothing else

As you review new or existing content, examine it for unintended meaning. Carefully screen for the following:

  • Don’t hurt or anger the reader. Sometimes straightforward text can be littered with unforeseen insults. As I learned with my weight-loss audience, some phrases trigger emotional responses. Try not to give your reader a reason to stop reading.
  • Avoid sexual innuendo. It can be embarrassing to point out sexy language among colleagues, but someone has to keep her mind in the gutter. Respectfully see to it that nobody uses the word “bone” without plenty of clear context.
  • Make sure everyone is in on the joke. Sometimes it’s okay to be clever. Just make sure it’s on purpose. “Killer headings” aren’t helpful when they kill your message. If your verbal twists appear to be accidental, your reader may think you’re stupid—or worse, that you think they’re stupid.

Creating clear, user-centered content requires a delicate balance between your intended message and the reader’s context. If you don’t walk the line carefully, you might stumble or tip over. And what’s the double meaning in that last sentence? If I don’t revise it, you might think I’m implying that content strategists are often drunk.

(Dutch Wonderland Blunder photo by  Mr. Jay Yohe. (CC))

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Posted in Web Writing

Avoid this common error

by Meghan Casey

 I had an interesting twiscussion with my favorite grammar guru Grammar Girl the other day. Take a look:

(click to see full size image)
The error of our ways
Many people in the business of creating websites think of error messages (and other user interface copy) as back-end technology mumbo jumbo, and therefore somebody else’s job. Not true! Error messages are content, too.
As such, they deserve the same attention as any of the other user-facing words on your site. Grammar Girl’s puzzlement over her readers thinking she writes the error messages raises an interesting point. Especially because she goes on to say that “marketing” writes "a lot of the user-interface text."
Why interface copy but not error messages?
I put those two things in the same category: Content that’s often written with the back-end systems in mind, rather than the end users, and content that gets ignored until the last minute. In other words, content that leaves programmers scrambling to whip something up quickly before a site goes live. Left to scramble, programmers don’t have time to think about what would really help the user do whatever it is they came to your website to do.
I would like to amend my comment to Grammar Girl that suggests programmers shouldn’t be the ones writing error messages. I actually don’t think it matters who writes them as long as they are focused on users needs.
And I’ll be the first to admit planning for and writing error messages is not the sexiest of web writing tasks. But it can be one of the most important. A frustrating experience on your website just gives users an excuse to hit the black button or click on that red x.
Blast from the past
This brief exchange with Grammar Girl reminded me of this gem of a blog post that Brain Traffic’s Erin Anderson wrote last year showing the differences between bad and pretty awesome error messages. You’ll find tips like these to help ensure your error messages are carefully crafted with the user in mind:
  • Tell users what the problem is.
  • Follow up with what they can do to fix it (if anything).
  • Avoid alarmist phrases like “failure” and “fatal.”
Check it out!


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Posted in Content Strategy, Uncategorized, Web Writing

Clients say the darnedest things: How to deal with bad feedback

by Elizabeth Saloka

You spend weeks writing your client’s site. And it pays off. Your messaging is dead on. Your copy is fresh, clear, and active. Deliriously tired but satisfied, you email the document to your client.

Two days later you get the document back. You open it. 


She. Butchered. Your. Document. Butchered it! Using track changes, she reformatted your beautiful bulleted lists into gigantic paragraphs filled with run-on sentence after run-on sentence. She added “dynamic” and “synergism” to the home page intro. As an overall comment, she requested you please “change all the links to ‘click here’, so people know to click.”
This feedback is bad. Very bad. But she’s the client. What do you do?
First, let’s clarify something.
This article is about dealing with bad feedback. Not dealing with negative feedback. Bad feedback and negative feedback are two different things.
Negative refers to how the client perceives your work.
Bad refers to how the client expresses their perception (negative or positive) of your work.
For my fellow visual learners, a chart:   

Now let’s talk about types of bad feedback—and how to deal with them.
Below, a profile of four popular types of bad feedback accompanied by coping tips: 

1. Jargon-y feedback.   
Your client: “I’d like the copy to be more delightful.”

You: “Sure! No problem! I’ll make it more delightful!”

Wrong move, buddy.

When a client uses subjective, vague terms in feedback, you MUST call her on it. Right away. Even if you know stopping to dissect and analyze her feedback is going to take extra time and effort. Even if you have to revise schedules.
In the long run, you will save time, the content will be better, and your client will be happier. Promise.
If you can, help your client see the flaw in her logic. If she wants the intro to be more “robust,” respond with an open-ended question such as, “What does ‘robust’ mean to you, exactly?”
Also, make sure you get examples—ask the client to email you “robust” copy samples. That way you have something tangible to work with. 
2. Vague feedback.
She says, “Looks great!!!” And that’s, like, it.
Your client read all 87 pages of your copy deck and had no changes? Riiiiiggghhht.
I’d bet my bellybutton this is what’s really going on: your client didn’tactually read your whole content doc. Or at least not thoroughly. She’s so busy worrying about the site’s design/other projects/her newborn octoplets she didn’t have time to read it.
So she’s cool with it. For now. That is, until her site is four hours from launch and she calls you for a boatload of last-minute revisions.

Do yourself and your client a big favor and make it very clear she needs to provide feedback now (remember, do so nicely!) or forever hold her peace.

Say something like, “I’m so tickled pink you went through ALL the content and you don’t haveANYrevisions. I’ll go ahead and send you the invoice and close out your project. It was great working with you!”

If she responds with, “Wait! Wait! I might still have some revisions!” you can firmly (but nicely!) remind her of the feedback process you agreed to when the project kicked off.

Tip: Include one or two questions using the comments feature in your document when you send it to the client. That way, if she gives you the ‘ol, “Looks great!” you can respond by asking if she had any further thoughts about your questions.

If she has no idea what you’re talking about, or if she responds with, “Oh, right. We’re going to have to change that,” you know she didn’t look it over thoroughly. Proceed with caution!

3. Contradictory feedback.

She says, “We only call ourselves ‘managers’ internally. Please don’t use that term in the copy.’”
You say, “Okay.”
What’s so contradictory about that, you ask? You’re right: It’s perfectly straightforward direction. Until you get your document back from your client and see she added ‘managers’ to the company tagline, home page headline, global navigation, footer, and image ALT tags.  

Clearly, you need to clarify what your client wants.

But, for the sake of your working relationship, you also need to be careful not to put her on the defensive or make her feel foolish. There are many ways to proceed. For instance, you could say …  

“Earlier you said I shouldn’t call you ‘managers.’ But throughout the document you inserted the word ‘managers.’ What exactly would you like me to do?”

There’s nothing wrong with that approach. I guess. But doesn’t this just seem friendlier …

“Hey! Thanks for the feedback. I had one quick question regarding the word ‘managers.’ I see you’ve added it in a few places—is it okay to use that term now? Thanks!”

See? Nicer. Generally, clients like it when you’re nice to them.


4. Nonsensical feedback.  
Maybe she’s high on coffee. Or she prefers expressing thoughts verbally. Or maybe she’s been up all night watching Lethal Weapon and its sequels. Whatever the reason, sometimes your client will give feedback that, well, makes absolutely no sense.

“Could you please add another future verb to this entire beginning of copy paragraph? Thanks!”


“I talked to Janice and she said Tom’s player copy doesn’t need any more action-oriented dropdowns (except maybe for twice?). Thanks!!”

Whazza who?

“Legal review. Stakeholders. Danny Glover. Thanks!!!”


If you have no clue in sweet heaven what she’s talking about (it does happen), schedule an in-person interview with her—over the phone works, too—so you can walk through her, um, “points.”

Start by reading a couple of her comments back to her. Hopefully, she’ll stop you after a couple minutes and say, “Geez. I wasn’t making any sense! I meant to say blah, blah, blah.” Or whatever. If she doesn’t, hopefully you’ll be able to glean some insight into her state of mind through verbal cues. 

Finally, a request.

It’s easy to roll your eyes when a client gives you slick, vague, contradictory, nonsensical feedback. But you know what? She’s likely juggling a billion things, from wireframes to babies to Lethal Weapon DVDs. Your copy is just one of them. Cut her some slack. And remember, she’s not a writer. If she were, she wouldn’t need you.

If you’re willing to have patience and put forth a little extra effort, you can help your client. You can educate her about content best practices. You can show her examples of successful websites with great content. You can take time to really understand where she’s coming from, so you can put her feedback in context.
In the end, your content will be better. And your client will be grateful. So, what do you say, ‘ol chum?

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Posted in Editorial Strategy, Uncategorized, User Experience, Web Content, Web Writing

Personal pronouns: It’s okay to own your web copy

by Angie King

Using personal pronouns may sound like a simple, common-sense web writing best practice. Speaking directly to users with the word “you” is something most companies get on board with easily enough. But those same clients often ask us to avoid self-referential pronouns like “we,” “our,” and “us” in their web copy. 

Granted, sometimes there are legitimate legal considerations that keep companies from getting personal with their web copy. (I’ll get into these legalities later.) Other times, it’s simply a matter of being overly cautious or old-fashioned.
Why use personal pronouns in web copy?
In my experience, many larger corporations have trouble breaking free from the formal business communications style they’ve been using for years. But guidelines that limit the use of personal pronouns should be reconsidered now that we’re in the digital age. These days, content needs to speak to users clearly and directly. It needs to compete for their attention.
A simple way to grab your users’ attention is by using personal pronouns in your web copy. Why? Personal pronouns reflect the way real people write and speak.
For example, most of us don’t refer to ourselves in the third person. We use first-person (me, we, our, us) and second-person (you, your) pronouns in our email exchanges, Facebook statuses, and Twitter feeds—channels that compete for your users’ attention every day.
Using these first- and second-person pronouns on your corporate website will:
  • Help users connect with the content
  • Help users understand the content
  • Identify who owns the content
  • Make writing the content easier
What happens if you DON’T use personal pronouns in web copy?
Not using personal pronouns forces you to repeat your company’s name throughout your website. This approach creates awkward sentences that are tedious to read and to write. The repetition can also set off keyword stuffing alarms. At the very least, your website ends up sounding unnecessarily formal and stuffy.
Worse yet, the bland third-person pronoun “it” may creep into your web copy and force you into using awkward sentence constructions. For example, something simple like “Content strategy is all we do. And we do it well” becomes “Brain Traffic believes its focus on content strategy is an advantage.” Blech.
Coupled with company name repetition, “it” creates confusion around who is speaking. It’s hard to tell who owns the content when it’s written so generically. (Right?) And if you want your users to feel connected to your brand, it’s important they know you stand behind your content.   
When legal reasons prevent personal pronouns
Of course, sometimes there are legitimate legal grounds for not using personal pronouns. For example, we work with a few clients who sell cobranded products. Their legal departments strictly forbid the use of personal pronouns in order to avoid making sweeping statements about the collective “we.”
To illustrate what I mean, let’s say White Castle partnered with Holiday station stores on a special line of slider-scented gasoline. (Ok. That’s gross. But it’s the first thing I came up with from a quick glance out the office window.)
Anyway, if White Castle/Holiday created a website dedicated to this cobranded product, legal teams may advise against using “we/our/us” in the content. Value statements and “about us” sections get a bit more complex when cobranding. Maybe Holiday wouldn’t like being lumped together with White Castle on general statements about what “we” as a company believe in. Or, vice versa.
Large corporations with many divisions may also have legal concerns about using personal pronouns. Insurance companies are a good example. While Division A offers products similar to those of Division B, the products may have completely different rules and regulations restricting their features and use.
Let’s say Acme Insurance Company uses personal pronouns on their website when describing their products. If a Division B customer purchases a plan based on benefits they saw on a Division A product page, the customer may have grounds for a legal complaint. But by avoiding personal pronouns and only using the specific division name in product descriptions, Acme reduces their chances of getting sued.
So, to be safe, it’s better not to make broad “we/our/us” statements when there’s this type of product overlap.
How to prevent legal issues with personal pronouns
To avoid finding out the hard way, ask your client for any legal restrictions surrounding the use of personal pronouns at the start of the project. Because I can tell you from experience, going back and rewriting copy decks to eliminate all “we/our/us” statements is not fun.
When to use personal pronouns on your website
Unless legal guidelines prevent you from using personal pronouns, go ahead and get personal with your web copy. Using this type of plain language will make your web writing process easier. Even better, your users will more quickly connect and engage with your web content.
Personally, I think it’s a great style choice.


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Posted in Uncategorized, User Experience, Web Content, Web Writing

Anatomy of a web content document

by Amy Wallace

For anyone who works with content, knowing how to format a web content document—or simply how to read it—is a crucial step in successful content creation. 

Why? Because without a clearly structured web content document, you run the risk of confusing your content reviewers, designers, and developers. And that confusion can lead to mistakes and frustration—stuff that could end up manifesting itself on your website.
Remember, a web content document isn’t just used by web writers, even though they are often the people who create and manage it.
Content reviewers use it to make copy edits and review messaging/tone. Designers use it to get the right copy into their design mock-ups. Developers use it to determine which copy appears as links on the actual website, and when to display dynamic content—for example, content that goes live on a specific date.
Here are a few of the formatting essentials you’ll need to cover to make sure your web content document (commonly called a “copy deck”) works for everyone on your marketing and/or creative team(s):
Links and buttons
You can count on link and/or button copy to be in just about every web content document you work with. As you probably know, this is the content that takes the user to a new page, cross-references relevant information, or helps a user complete a task.
You’ll need to choose a style for representing links and buttons in your document. Our standard is to format this copy as blue, underlined text. This tends to be the industry standard, too.
Read the Brain Traffic blog
Submit your request
If you do decide to format the links and buttons in your document in a different style, make sure it’s clear—and that everyone on your team knows what it is. Keep in mind that straying from the norm might confuse reviewers, designers, and developers used to working with the standard blue, underlined text style convention.
Regardless of the style you choose, follow the link and button text in your content document with its destination, which will likely be based on a site map or an external URL.
                Site map page ID:
Submit your request <link to 2.2>
External URL:
Read the Brain Traffic blog <link to http://blog.braintraffic.com/>
 Descriptive content labels
If your copy isn’t properly labeled within your content document, designers and developers working with the document can have a difficult time figuring out which copy goes where.
So, make sure to identify all the content pieces on each page. For example, put the label "Heading" above your page headline, "Body copy" above the main content, and "Right column copy" above content that lives on this part of the web page. Or use whatever labeling convention your agency or organization may already have established.
The key is making sure the labels are clear and easy to understand for everyone referencing your document.
Dynamic content
Content that may change or is dependent on functionality conditions is often referred to as "dynamic" content. For instance, if you’re working on a project that includes content that launches on different dates or should only be displayed based on certain requirements (maybe after a user logs in, for example), your document will need to specifically state when to display that content.
I recommend writing a short note to the developer above the specific piece of dynamic content. Describe the rule for displaying it—for example, "only display this content for California residents."
I write these notes in gray text, so it’s easy for developers to skim and find them throughout the content document.

<Note to developers: Display this link on 1/1/2010>
See our 2010 plans<link to 3.4>
Meta data
Those of you well-versed in web content know what meta data is, but let’s do a quick review. It refers to specific information developers need to make your content searchable.
Meta data includes:
·         Meta title (the title of the content page, which appears in your internet browser)
·         Meta description (a keyword-loaded description of the content page)
·         Meta keywords (words that refer to specific topics on the content page and make it easily findable)
A web writer or SEO expert is usually responsible for creating this information. Whether or not you create ityourself, you’ll need to include meta data in your content document. Which means you might also need to format this content, especially if you receive the meta data in a different type of document, like Microsoft Excel.
It’s a good idea to place the meta data in a separate section of your content  document—say, at the top of each page—so it’s clearly distinguished from the actual web copy.

Remember, the web content document you create isn’t just black-and-white. Sometimes it’s blue. And underlined. With notes. Because that’s what works.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Style Guides and Such, Uncategorized, Web Content, Web Writing

Secret’s in the source: Gathering useful source content

by Elizabeth Saloka

We web writers like talking about bulleted lists. And keeping things short. And cake.  

But for whatever reason, we don’t talk much about source content. We should. Because no matter how short our paragraphs, or how bulleted our lists, or how cake-filled our mouths, if we don’t start with good source content, we’re screwed. 
Back up. Why’s source content so important?
Source content is to web content as marble is to the Venus de Milo. Or, more deliciously, as batter is to cake (mmm, cake). It’s the material you shape into your final product. If you want to create worthwhile content, you need to start with worthwhile source content.
What is “worthwhile” source content, exactly?
Source content comes in many forms—from your client’s current web content to print brochures to testimonials. Worthwhile source content gives you accurate facts and ideas relevant to your client and their users. Now, that’s not to say it doesn’t also contain outdated facts and irrelevant ideas. It probably does. That’s why you’re there—to separate the wheat from the chaff.
For example, if your client’s current print brochure says they work with Adobe, Apple, and Hall and Oates, that’s a fact. Arguably, a notable and powerful one. If your client’s current print brochure says they “work with many premier clients” that’s not really a fact. And it’s not a very powerful statement. Wheat. Chaff. See the difference?
Now, I know what you’re thinking …
But what if your client’s source content is all chaff? In that case, you’re going to have to do some digging. In other words, you’re going to have to ask for more source content. Or …
Interview ‘em!
Okay, so. You asked the client for more source content. Turns out, they don’t have any. Now it’s time to dust off the ol’ notepad, hop in your Dodge Stratus, and conduct interviews!
That’s right. You’re gonna have to put on your reporter hat. Before you do, read up on how to do so effectively and efficiently:
1. Exhaust your resources.
The great thing about being a web writer these days? We have a handy tool called the Internet. Not like when our great-grandmothers were web writers. Back then, web writers didn’t HAVE the Internet.

Not funny? Let’s move on. My point is, the Internet obviously contains a lot of information. So, if you have holes in your source content, it can pay to do a quick Google search or two before approaching subject matter experts. If you get information from third-party sources, be sure to verify it with the client. 
2. Prepare yourself.
Don’t go in to interview clients without a basic idea of what you’re looking for. If you’re working with a content strategy, refer to that.
If you’re not working with a content strategy, make a list of common questions users will likely ask when they come to a website that the source content didn’t answer. Such as, “How do I contact the company?” Or, “What, exactly, does this company do?” Write these questions down.
Then, when you interview stakeholders and subject matter experts, you can be very specific about what information you need from them. By being prepared, you save yourself and your client time. And you increase the likelihood you’ll get exactly the source content you need.
3. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
Source content is a sensitive area for a lot of clients. Because, at some point—maybe even now—it wasn’t just their source content. It was their content. Their home page. Their brochure. They approved it. Maybe (though they might not cop to it) they even wrote it.
So, instead of saying, “Holy corn fritters your content’s horrendous!” say, “I’m SO thrilled to work with you. We’re gonna make your website super awesome.” When you show clients you’re on their side, they’ll open up. They’ll trust you. Which means they’ll be in a better position to answer your questions. And they are more likely to clearly, fairly judge your work once you start writing.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.
My kindergarten teacher used to say, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” What a liar!
But as a web writer—and, OK, just as a regular human—I ask dumb questions all the time. Questions like, “So, what do your customers do with your toasters after they buy them?” Or, “What do you mean by ‘good,’ exactly?”
Dumb questions can get you really far for two big reasons. First, dumb questions loosen clients up. They’re so blown away by your sheer stupidity, they forget to be self-conscious. Instead of saying, “We’re an experienced team of technologists,” they say, “We fix computers. We’re computer fixers. You do know what a computer is, right?” They break things down in plain, direct, unmistakable terms—the same thing you’re trying to do for users.
Dumb questions also shake things up. They make people really think. By doing this, they open up all kinds of potential avenues. “Hey, do we need an FAQ section?” And, “Why exactly do we have fourteen paragraphs about our CEO on the About Us page?”
You ask dumb questions. They start asking dumb questions. The content gods smile.
And there you have it, chief. You’re now a source content rock star. Please, use your skills for good. And to score free cake for yourself and your loved ones (hint: me).

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Posted in Content Strategy, Editorial Strategy, Uncategorized, Web Content, Web Writing

You Are Not Alone

by Kristina Halvorson

Every time I give a content strategy workshop, there are two things I hear from participants.
The first is this:
We’re still doing content wrong in our company, and I’m really embarrassed about it.
Even if these aren’t the exact words attendees use, it’s the message they’re sending loud and clear every time they raise their hand to ask a question. “Sorry my company is so behind the curve, but…” or “I realize everyone else knows what they’re doing, but…”
Let me tell you something: There are very, very few organizations that actually have their acts together when it comes to content. Furthermore, no one knows where to start fixing their content. Tools? People? Time? Nonexistent.
If you’re sitting in a content strategy workshop, you’re an early adopter. If you’re participating in the content strategy Google Group, attending (or starting) a Meetup, planning to come to the Content Strategy Forum in Paris … you are, quite literally, a pioneer in this field.
You’re not late to the party. The conversation has only begun.
Here’s the second thing I hear:
            This is hard.
Well, HELL YES, it’s hard. You’re not going to leave a workshop or a one-hour talk and go back to your company and suddenly find yourself with funding and staff and group hugs. (If that were the case, I would charge a lot more. Booyah.)
There’s a reason content strategy is The Next Big Thing, and it’s not because it’s easy or cheap. It’s because content is a huge, pain-in-the-ass, expensive, out-of-control problem. And, as with any big messy problem, getting to a solution is going to take time. Creating a smart plan for the creation, delivery, and governance of your web content means research and reflection. Trial and error. And selling your plan to The Powers that Be—winning attention, approval, and resources—is going to take even longer.
Be. Patient.
Ask smart questions. Be brave about sharing your insights. Don’t hesitate to point out what’s broken, or how your competition is doing it better. Use SEO results (or lack thereof) and content inventories and workflow analyses and anything else you can think of to frame your content problem.
Remember: While content strategy isn’t new, the conversation is. And it’s early. Don’t be in a huge rush, and don’t lose hope. 
Patience. Persistence. A sense of humor. You’ll need them all if you want content strategy. Now, get to it.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Web Content, Web Writing