Blog: Content writing and content strategy insights

"Write" (no) "Me" (no) "a Web Page" (no): all business writing is content

Business writing has changed into something unrecognisable: content. The ironic book title Write me a web page, Elsie! reflects a 20th century viewpoint and a world that has gone forever.

The manager who says, Write me a web page, Elsie! has no concept of the nature of the internet. As content strategy, Write me a web page is disastrous. It generates ROT, it undermines information architecture, it ignores accessibility, it stomps on customer service.

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Web writing tip: Use keywords in headlines

Use keywords in headlines (often called headings). That's a basic rule of writing for the Web—and all other business writing.

Here's why.

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E-government web content problems—in Arabic

E-government web content problems in Arab nations? Yes, there's quite an overlap with what we see in English language government web content!

In Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), one of the United Arab Emirates, Basem A. Shahin is fully involved in training government employees to produce usable web content. He is a consultant for IforU magazine and sometimes writes articles on Arabic content and government websites. He found my book, Write me a web page, Elsie!, highly relevant and useful for creating content in Arabic. This interested me, so I asked him about it.

Rachel: Please tell us a little about the magazine IforU: the publisher, goals, and audience.

Basem: The RAK eGovernment Authority issues IforU magazine to spread eTransformation awareness among RAK citizens and residents. The magazine publishes news, features and articles about the efforts of RAK eGovernment in that regard as well as its future projects and initiatives. Most of the magazine issues have something about content and web writing. The article which contained excerpts by Rachel was received with enthusiasm by the RAK management and the magazine chief editor.

Rachel: Why did you decide to include excerpts from Write me a web page, Elsie?
Basem: I have read the book, and found out that it is one of the most interesting books in web writing and content. I think that the book is an excellent eye opener for any content writer. It shows real examples and detailed explanation on how to create catchy copy. I was delighted to read it thoroughly and I recommended it to some of my friends who work in content management and web writing.

We would love to train Arab-speaking content authors, but to adapt Contented online courses for Arabic speakers would involve much more than simple translation. For starters, think about where the eyes travel over a page where text is aligned to the right: the F-pattern is reversed. Then imagine the complex variations between plain English and plain Arabic! So an Arabic version of the Contented online writing courses is a long, long way away. In the meantime, we're delighted that the Elsie-book can help with the training of RAK government writers, if only indirectly.

Order Write Me A Web Page, Elsie! online


Making videos on video: we're learning by doing

Video. It's so daunting. You make one, it's not very good, so you conveniently forget about video for weeks, or months, or years. Then you make another video, which is also not particularly good.

Alice and I have decided to take the bull by the horns and learn by doing. So we're launching into a series called Video on Video, in which we'll look at every barrier, every challenge we face. I've already noted 23 of these, from getting the audio loud enough to maintaining a consistent brand when the two principals, Alice and I, are so very different from each other. My experience is that I cannot learn more than one thing at a time, so that means making at least 23 videos on video.

We hope eventually to make some videos worth watching.

Meantime, this series will enable you to learn from us as we stumble along, getting better all the time—we hope.

I know there are at least 23 things wrong with this first video, but please give feedback anyway. That way we'll find out which mistakes annoy you the most, and attempt to tackle those first.

Why did you change the web content I wrote?

Recently Contented graduate Caitlin asked us for a short article about why web content had to be written a specific way. Her client truly couldn't understand why Caitlin wanted to rewrite what he had written. He couldn't see that his prose was long-winded, unfocused and difficult to read. His prose was a car going nowhere... except into a tree, perhaps. Or perhaps he thought that was OK on the Web, since he always wrote that way, and nobody had openly criticized his style until now.*

Well, I guess I've written books on that topic but possibly not a short article—not lately anyway. So what should you say to such a client?

Keep it simple or stun them with science. But whatever else you say, your trump card is the S-word: Search.

  1. Web readers decide within seconds whether to read or run away, so your main message has to jump right off the page and hit them in the eyeballs. Subtlety? Elaboration? Forget it, at least in the first 100 words.
  2. Search engines won't display your page unless it has enough of the right keywords in the right places. If it's not written by someone who understands how search engines work, nobody will read your web content because nobody will find it.

*This reminds me of certain terrifying drivers who claim smugly that they've never had an accident in 70 years... and take this as proof that their driving is safe.
Web writing skills: essential for career advancement

Is editing e-books more like editing books or editing web content?

Hello Rachel
I have been asked to edit and proofread e-books. Do the rules for web content writing have any bearing on e-book writing?
Kind regards
The Scribe
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Dear Scribe
My first question is: what format will the e-books be produced in? I see rather different rules for PDF-only e-books and those destined for other formats used on Kindle, Kobo, iPad and so forth.
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Hi Rachel
I have asked my client who produces the e-books about the format and it depends upon the author’s preference.   Mainly in PDF format to be viewed in a standard browser but may be formatted for an iPad, or other mobile device such as an iPhone. It would have to be a very short book to be read on a mobile phone, I should think!

The e-books may be marketing material or books written by people who will only produce their books in electronic form. I do proofreading and copy-editing and, since I did your web content course, I have also worked on content for web sites in accordance with the principles I learned from you.
I am wondering if those same principles apply to the e-books. I should think they do for marketing material, but in the case of a normal book in electronic form, should it be more like an ordinary book or more like web content?

Since I did the Contented Diploma in Web Writing, I tend to think that all documents should share the qualities of good web content.
Kind regards,
The Scribe
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Dear Scribe
It's counterintuitive, but long books on an iPhone are a pleasure to read. Try it! I'm reading Nicholas Nickleby on my iPhone right now. People used to cite the iPhone as their preferred reading device before the iPad came along. I love its portability, clear screen, touch page-turning and resizable text.

Now the nitty gritty.

E-books destined for multiple devices including mobile phones can be written any way. Novels should be written like novels, and annual reports like annual reports.

E-books about marketing should use ultra-plain English, and will benefit greatly from other web writing principles. For instance, clear, front-loaded chapter titles will make the e-book easy to search and follow.

The major variations in instructions concern formatting, believe it or not.

If you know you are certainly writing only for a PDF and no other format, then somebody needs to take pains with design and text formatting. People expect a commercial PDF to look beautiful. I assume your client has a good designer and wants you to do nothing but edit.

However, the e-books you edit will go into several different formats. Therefore your edited document needs to be extremely simple, so it can be easily converted. I'm oversimplifying, but in general the way is as follows. 

  • If you receive a document with inconsistent styles, dump it into plain text format and start again. (It's painful unpicking the writer's bad styles paragraph by paragraph.)
  • Ideally you'll be given a template that is self-explanatory.  If not, use Styles in Word and be utterly consistent.
  • Use a minimum of Styles, nothing fancy. The best starting point for the body of an e-book is plain text with just one or two levels of heading.
  • Don't 'design' the book. It doesn't matter what it looks like in your Word document, as long as Styles are simple and consistent.
  • Another reason for not fiddling with formatting: on an iPhone or iPad, readers can change every aspect of text design (font size, page colour etc), just as they can on the Web.
  • Don't do anything fancy: no tables, columns or images. (You can see this is very different from a PDF, where images and beautiful design come into their own.)

Smashwords free Style Guide is clear and useful

When I say 'try it!' — that's the very best advice I can give you. Try reading novels on a friend's iPhone and iPad. Check out tons of free PDF e-books on the internet, and compare the various experiences. Trust your own judgement about what works and why.

My other main tip is to ask your client every question that comes to mind. Ask to see the e-books he has published. The more questions you ask, the better you'll do.

Don't expect yourself to be a perfect e-book editor from Day One: practice makes perfect, and very very good is good enough. You are an experienced editor and proofreader, and you understand what happens to text on a screen, so your work will be very very good. Have fun.

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Thank you so much for your advice, Rachel. I will try reading e-books on my son’s iPhone very soon. A neighbour has just suggested I pop along and play with her iPad, which I will do; can’t wait to try one out actually.
The publisher has a clever designer so I can stick to my knitting. As you say, the main thing is to do it, particularly as the e-book he showed me desperately needed editorial help.
The Scribe

International business English on the Web: put it on your bucket list

You could put Contented online writing courses on your bucket list—but don't wait too long! We teach international business English on the Web: and you need those skills right now.

This year we've given presentations at conferences in three countries, for technical writers, government web site managers, local government web teams and community volunteers. Each time, we take along our little pink bucket.

So far, the little pink bucket has never been used to build sandcastles or put out a fire. Instead it's where people drop their business cards in the hope of winning a copy of Write me a web page, Elsie! and a chance do the Contented Diploma in Web Content courses free.

At the STC India conference last week, the lucky winner was Vinish Garg, President and CEO of Congratulations, Vinish!

Nice to win but why wait? Our next newsletter will announce an end-of-year holiday special. Watch for it and grab it.

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