How to write compelling web copy even if you're not a copywriter
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Just because you’re not a copywriter doesn’t mean you can’t create engaging website content that converts prospects into loyal customers.
Whether you want to amp up your own site or make some meaningful changes to your company site, here are some simple UX writing best practices to put to use.
Usability 101: UX Principles to Keep in Mind
Usability as a discipline has been around since the 1980s. Since that time, certain user experience principles have emerged as fundamentals. Before we dive into UX writing best practices, let’s take a step back to consider some of these first principles — which apply to words just as much as they apply to visual design. Be sure to keep these in mind as you tackle the copy on your clients’ websites or your own.
The user always comes first. Put on your customer hat when creating and reviewing your web copy to make sure it will communicate to your target audience — after all, they’ll be the ones using your site, not you.
Testing is critical. There’s only one way to find out if your copy works — test it. Aim to run A/B tests on a consistent basis to see which calls to action, headlines, quote widgets, etc. yield the best results.
Less is more. Just as with design, it’s best not to overwhelm the user with copy when you can avoid it.
UX writing best practices that can transform your content
1. Do your research
The best UX writing starts with your target audience. After all, how can you tailor a web experience to your user if you don’t sufficiently understand them? Here are some steps to help you get to know who you’re writing for.
Use surveys and other data to create a detailed user persona, including everything from basic demographics and pain points to their shopping habits and favorite brands.
Do competitor analyses to find best-in-class examples. Test their website experiences yourself and note their use of language, brand tone, and other writing choices.
See what kind of content is ranking at the top of the SERPs in your niche.
2. Be conversational
In the effort to get brand messaging across or optimize content for search engines, it’s easy for readability to go by the wayside. But unless you’re dealing with a technical audience, write how you talk. That means avoiding jargon, using short, simple sentences, and sticking to natural language. Usability experts recommend writing for an eighth grade reading level to ensure your copy is easy for the average adult to read.
Relying on your ear by reading your copy aloud is a great way to catch readability issues. Another best practice is to run all your copy through a Flesch Reading Ease test, which can be found online for free or in Yoast’s SEO plugin. The Flesch Reading Ease test assigns a score between 1 and 100, with 100 being the highest readability (easiest to read) score. An eighth grade reading level is roughly equivalent to a score of 70 to 80. Aim for a score of 60 or higher to optimize engagement on your site.
3. Make the copy scannable
Use your design expertise to format the copy. Words in long text blocks are cumbersome and intimidating to users. Jakob Nielsen published a groundbreaking study in 1997 that still resonates today, which states that the majority of web users scan copy instead of reading every word.
Make sure the main points come across by:
Using attention-grabbing subheadlines to break copy into sections
Keeping paragraphs to no more than five lines
Using bulleted or numbered lists
Incorporating graphics and video
Linking to secondary pages
Highlighting words or phrases strategically
4. Be clear and concise
If someone reads your website, email, or blog post and needs an explanation afterwards, your content’s missed the mark. Copy should be clear from the moment it’s digested, leaving no room for misinterpretation. The best way to ensure this happens is to have someone review your content and tell you what they perceived to be the main takeaways.
Another way to ensure clear content is by being concise. Avoid long sentences and write in the active voice rather than passive (“The horse was ridden by Sarah” versus “Sarah rode the horse”).
5. Set the tone
Website copy is a great opportunity for brands to showcase their personality through their style of writing. This brand voice alone can help keep users engaged and moving through the buyer’s journey.
According to the Content Marketing Institute, you can establish consistent brand tone with the following five steps:
Gather a wide sampling of your content that you feel speaks to your brand’s personality.
Describe your brand voice in three words. Possible adjectives may include empathetic, quirky, genuine, irreverent, or passionate. After you’ve narrowed it down to three words, describe each one in detail. Another question that may help you nail down the way your brand “speaks”: “If your brand was a person, how would you describe its personality?”
Create a brand voice chart. Create a visual tool to help writers understand how to write for your brand — a chart containing three rows, one for each of your brand voice adjectives. For each row, create columns for: A detailed description of the brand voice adjective, Examples of “Do”s, Examples of “Don’t”s
Train your team. Walk your writers through your new brand voice chart and laminate it so they can post it near their desk for easy reference.
Revisit and revise as necessary. As your brand evolves, continue to tweak your brand voice chart on a regular basis.
6. Be consistent
One of the key principles of usability design, consistency allows users to navigate your website intuitively and swiftly without having to think.
For example, referring to your customer account portal in multiple ways — such as “your account”, “our online help center,” and “self-service portal” — can leave users confused and unable to take action.
A good way to ensure you’re using consistency in your content is to follow or develop a brand style guide. Most companies follow AP style when it comes to content creation but add their own style rules, too. In your brand style guide, aim to answer questions such as:
Should headlines be in sentence case or title case?
Are there products or services that need to be capitalized or require a registration mark?
When are disclaimers required and how should they be used?
Put these guidelines in a centralized place and make them available to all your content creators.
7. Don’t apply the inverted pyramid rule too broadly
The inverted pyramid rule is a journalism best practice that’s been around since Guttenberg. It states that the most important article details should be put at the top of a piece in case copy is cut for space or people fail to read past the few opening paragraphs.
While there’s nothing wrong with this rule, it’s sometimes applied too broadly when it comes to web copy. Some people believe you should keep your biggest selling points or conclusions at the top of your content, but, chances are, you want your users to scan the entire web page, email, or blog post to make it to the CTA.
Instead of leading with the flashiest details, find ways to strategically include attention-grabbing content throughout the piece. Have a strong headline, a gripping opening line, and compelling key points along the way.
Testing makes perfect
As you embark on your website copywriting adventures, revisit the best practices above on a regular basis. After all, making your web copy user-friendly is never a one-and-done thing. Just as with UX design, the best UX writers are always seeing how they can further improve their website experience.