Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Writing for the Web at Cancer Research UK

A few weeks ago at Cancer Research UK we had the 200th person attend our ‘Writing for the Web’ course. After celebrating with a ticker-tape parade and a commemorative Twix, it got me reflecting on the course, and why we started running it in the first place.

We’ve written a bunch of stuff about our digital devolution model, and how we aim to make digital a core part of everyone’s job at the charity. And a key part of this is how we communicate our brand online.

So my team started a 2 hour workshop for anyone who publishes content on our website. And, because we have the skills to deliver this internally, it means we can be flexible and run the course as often as needed - without spending money on external training providers.

So what’s covered?

Write the way your users read

Most people get that print and digital content are different. We understand that reading this blog on an iPhone is a fundamentally different experience than reading an article on copywriting in a magazine. 

But, what we sometimes don’t recognise is that as readers, we have fundamentally different attitudes to how we approach content in print and digital. 

Someone much smarter than me called Jakob Nielsen did a bunch of research using eye tracking software to record how people read content online.

He found that, whereas with traditional print content we (in European languages at least) read left to right and top to bottom, in digital we tend to scan around the page in more of an ‘F’ shape.

As users we go to websites with a specific problem, and we’re scanning the page to get the ‘gist’ of how well the page we’re on will solve that problem for us.

So our content needs to make it clear to users how we’re meeting their needs at a glance. They won’t take the time to wade through irrelevant or hard to understand information to get what they’re looking for. If they aren’t convinced our content will help them they’ll just leave.

Which is why we need to make it clear how our content will benefit our users.  

Write for your users, not for you

There’s an old saying in copywriting, “features tell, but benefits sell”. The idea is that just explaining what your product or service is won’t engage your users. Instead you need to explain how it will make your users’ lives better.

This is the most important thing about writing for digital. If you can relentlessly focus on how your content is going to help your users, rather than how your content is going to help your organisation, it’s the quickest way to improve its performance.

So what does this look like?

Well, imagine for a second you’re a humble pie maker, who wants to promote a competition on your website, www.piespiespies.com. 

You might use this as your opening line:

To celebrate 10 years in business, we’re running a competition to win free pie for a year.

Here, the focus is very much on your business. It’s a statement of fact, and it’s written from the perspective of your business. It’s feature-led.

Now imagine an alternative opening line:

Win free pie for a year with our anniversary competition.

Here the focus is on what the competition will do for your user. Does your user care that your business has been around for 10 years? Probably not. Do they care about free pie? Well, who doesn’t? So this sentence is more benefit-led.

Ok, great - but why is this important?

Well, think about it in context of scan reading. If a user’s quickly skimming your page, you’ll want to draw their attention to relevant content as quickly as possible. And they’re much more likely to engage if they can see, at a glance, what’s in it for them. 

Then, once we’ve got their attention, the next thing we need to do is make sure we express ourselves in a way that’s easy to understand. Which is where Plain English comes in. 

Write the way you talk 

Back when I started my career, I used to worry about how seriously people would take my writing. I used to think that to sound credible I needed to use lots of long, complicated words. After all, that would help me come across as smart and authoritative, right?

Well, actually, the opposite was true. By loading my writing with complicated phrases I wasn’t coming across as smart. I was coming across as confusing and difficult to understand.

Sarah Richards is another person much smarter than me, and she makes the point that writing in Plain English isn’t dumbing down content, it’s opening it up. Because if we know our users scan information online, and we know they react better to clear, benefit-led sentences, then why wouldn’t we try and make our writing as clear and concise as possible? 

At Cancer Research UK, our guidance on Plain English is pretty straightforward:
  • Keep your sentences short (20 words max) 
  • Use a maximum of 3 sentences per paragraph
  • Only discuss 1 thing per paragraph (it’s easier to scan that way)
  • If you have the choice between a long word, and a short word that means the same thing, then always pick the short word
If in doubt, a good rule of thumb is ‘write the way you speak’. This doesn’t mean talking the same way you would to your friends at Friday night drinks. Instead, think about how you’d explain your content to your users over a coffee and a Twix. What words would you use? How would you speak? 

I imagine you’d be friendly, straightforward and to the point. I also imagine you wouldn’t use phrases like ‘for further information please direct any inquiries to our helpline’. I mean, you might, but you’d come across as slightly robotic if you did.

A great tool you can use to check how clear your writing is, is Hemingway App. It’s a free, online word processor, so you can type straight into your browser window. And, as you type, Hemingway grades how easy your writing is to understand and suggests improvements. The lower the score the better, and if you aim for a score between 6 and 8 you’ll find your content is doing pretty well.

Write better by writing more often

This is just a snapshot of the content training we offer at Cancer Research UK, and as far as content strategy goes it’s one piece of the wider puzzle.

Before you sit down and create your content you’ll need to make sure it answers a clear user and business need. You’ll need to make sure it has appropriate governance so it doesn’t all fall apart once it’s been published. And you’ll need to make sure you regularly test it so you know it’s still doing the job it should.

However, what this training does give teams is a solid grounding in the skills they need for writing for the web. Will they create world class digital content straight away? Well, probably not – it’s kind of hard to after a 2 hour introduction course. 

But writing something that’s a solid base is a great first step. Then based on users’ feedback you can always improve, iterate and optimise your content over time. Plus, bear in mind the only way you’ll become a better writer is by writing. And if your content is in plain, straightforward English that speaks to your users’ needs, it’ll already be better than a lot of content online. 

Chris Flood
Content Strategy Lead

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