By Susan Solomon
Got into an interesting discussion the other day. Apparently, there are those who think Web writing – the sort past the home page and deep into a site – should be boring. Maybe boring is not the right word. Let’s just say utilitarian.
There’s a school of thought out there (not mine, but we’ll get to that) insisting the user simply wants to grab information once she has dug deep enough into the site. Here, in the site’s depths, tantalizing leads annoy users. Clever turns of phrase fail to seduce. At this point in the user experience, there are those who advise to provide “just the facts,” Joe Friday-style.
Ages ago, I wrote a column entitled, “Bullets Beat Sentences? Not Always…” Call me a romantic.” Call me a starry-eyed English major. Call me a relentless marketer. Call me out of my mind. But I say every page of your site should be written to inform, entice, and keep the user lingering.
In an age when user visits and “time spent on the site” are brass ring metrics, why would you resort to anything but great copy, even deep in the nether regions? At a time when marketing is everything, why would we quit “pulling the user in” at any stage of the encounter?
Yes, I am all for writing simply. Yes, I understand the issue of “scannability.” Yes, I am all for eliminating corporate-speak and talking to the reader as if he is human being, not some drone. And yes, a bullet every once in a while helps to break things up and keep organized.
But for Heaven’s sake, does this mean Web writers should be chained to Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level checkers? Was I absent from Web Writing 101 when the lecturer refuted the concept copy should be digestible and compelling?
Anna Quindlen, the popular author, has a wonderfully descriptive style that would never cut it in a conventional Web-writing class. Consider this Quindlen line: “The house had a squat and stolid quality, as though it had lain down to rest in the valley and grown middle-aged.” Does that mean the Web version should be pared to seven words: “The house was ugly and getting old.” Loses something, doesn’t it?
I could go on railing against uninteresting, crudely truncated Web writing. Gustave Flaubert told us, “The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars.” Seems some Web writers would rather have a chorus line of dancing bears than even attempt any star-moving.
I’m not a big proponent of doing things halfway. Maybe that’s why I believe one should never surrender when it comes to writing well, even if it means enduring soul-crushing rewrites. Maybe that’s why I think there is room for mastery, even when following basic rules of Web writing (write in chunks, use subheads, write tightly, write to the individual, and don’t use Americanisms, Britishisms, or anything else smacking of regionalism).
Granted I’ve yet to see the site where, to quote Dylan, “every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal.” But you know, it could happen. It’s worth a try.
Maybe I’m completely out of my mind when I dispute the theory that Web writing should not be as painstaking as other forms of expression. Maybe. But I doubt it.
Susan Solomon is the executive director of marketing and public relations for Memorial Health Services, a five-hospital health system in Southern California. In this capacity, she manages promotional activities for both traditional and new media. Susan is also a marketing communications instructor at the University of California, Irvine; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California, Los Angeles.