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Fix My Website: Copy is Copy is Copy?

By Stefene Russell
Posted Thursday, December 2, 2004

Gertrude Stein insisted that a rose was a rose was a rose. And I will proclaim, right here, that boring is boring is boring. You've probably heard (ad nauseum) that writing for the web is completely different than writing for print. Keep your copy as short as possible. Don't use italics. Use shorter, simpler sentences. However, this relatively sound advice won't help you if your content is a snooze, or just plain confusing.

Good writing is good writing. If a user is given the choice between long and interesting, or short and dull, they will probably read half of the interesting piece, and skip the dull content altogether. Neither is ideal, my point is that too much emphasis is placed on length these days, rather than the very nature of the content itself.

What keeps people reading?

1. Stories. "Story" can mean lots of different things. It can be a testimonial. It can be your first-person account as entrepreneur. You can make up a goofy little character and have him guide users through the site. The fact of the matter is, we respond to stories. The best TV writers know this-and so do the best ad copywriters. Watch the CLEO awards some year. Every award-winning commercial I've seen has a narrative. It may be overt, it may be subtle, but it's still there. Even the most buttoned-down business site can use story to good effect-TV ads for swanky, expensive cars are a great example.

2. Content-in its original sense. I actually find the word "content" profoundly irritating, because it gives the impression that you can fill your site with anything, as long as it takes up visual space. I think the original use of that word-that is, table of "content-s"-is much more helpful. No one's going to read a book full of junk text; and they won't read it on a site, either. Avoid filling your pages with "fluff" - that is, cheesy sales rhetoric that doesn't really say anything at all. Use details. Get specific. Be as accurate as you can. Think of yourself as a reporter, writing an article. A detailed, objective description is far more compelling that pie-in-the-sky Carnival barking.

3. Pay attention to language. Word choices make all the difference in the world. What if Buzz Aldren had said, "I'm taking a small step here, it's just a man-sized step, but I can't help but think that this is a symbol that we, humanity as a whole, we're all taking a large step, like this little step, but bigger and more symbolic." The moon landing would not have been as poignant, not by a long shot. But because he was wise with his word choices, we have "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Much nicer, don't you think?

4. Technicalities. I've said it before, but you're shooting yourself in the foot if you allow spelling and punctuation errors to float around on your site. If you're not sure if you have any, find someone-anyone-with an English degree, and have them do a light edit. It's a good idea to get another pair of eyeballs on the site anyway, because if you've been looking at the copy for days and days, chances are you won't always spot your errors, no matter how sharp your editorial eye.

Well, that's the short version of perking up your copy, no matter what the length. Of course, once you've infused it with some sparkle, try to make it as economical as possible.

If you're interested in further resources to help you improve your copy, I suggest Editor Amy Gahran has a great eye for spotting "fluff," and does a great job keeping tabs on current content trends.

Contentious' sister site, Content Exchange, is also excellent. If you're getting a little woozy thinking about this writing stuff, Content Exchange features a classified ad system to match up content producers with folks in need of copy. If you're doing the copy yourself, I highly recommend their online writing content discussion list:

Anyone who undertakes writing for any professional purpose should pick up a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style, as well as one of the other excellent writing guides on the market. One of the best is Stephen Wilbers' "Keys to Great Writing." Wilbers guide includes the five keys to effective writing (economy, precision, action, music, and personality), the five elements of composition (purpose, point of view, organization, support, and coherence), grammatical terms, a checklist for writing with style, a checklist for proofreading, and a list of writing resources.

About the Author
Stefene Russell is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. She has worked as a print journalist and as Senior Content Producer for For a free website analysis, email her at or for a detailed analysis, visit (


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