Some quick thoughts on writing for the web

When we learn how to write, all that matters is the end product. The path to the finish is inconsequential. Taking on the characteristics of a Grail quest, the process becomes no more than a series of steps on the way to something we can submit to an audience.

The end product is all that matters.

Oh, man. Could we ever be more wrong.

The Process

Here’s a not-so-secret little secret: the decisions we make – and don’t make – during the writing process are pretty important. They inform not just the current project, but every project from here on out.

On the web, there is no such thing as a final product. Our grail quest becomes unending, a modern day Crusades. We can never finally nail down our copy. Why?

Because the goal is no longer to provide a finished, never changing piece of copy. Our goal is now to provide usable, adaptable content. The end product is a myth.

Albatross, lifted.

An Example

For a recent web project, I literally rewrote an entire site. Our client allowed us to pull apart, restructure and rewrite everything. They knew what they wanted, but they didn’t know how to get there.

So I wrote copy. Page by page, linking pages back to other pages, implementing a consistent voice, picking up key terms to be repeated, condensing ideas into small bites – the whole web writing kit and kaboodle.

The client took the copy, filtered through it, and changed a quarter of it.

My mind split.

Old self: MY BABY! MY BEAUTIFUL PROJECT! YOU’VE TAKEN IT AND RUINED IT! WHY DID YOU HURT MY BABY!

New self: I’m glad I could help.

A year ago, I would have grumbled. I’d have pouted. They changed my words! My craft! My art! How dare they!

In this life, though, I understood the nature of the project. On the web, we don’t write for one instance. We write for an ever-changing audience – one we probably will never understand as well as our client does – and we need to provide the structure for them to change along with it.

It turns out that I wasn’t really writing for the web. I was setting the tone and providing examples so the client could write for the web.

How We Help

Know that we don’t provide just copy. We provide a process and a guide. What we write now will, subconsciously, serve as a template for future site copy. And while we know not every client will be faithful to that template, we need to provide them with the right tools in the beginning.

So they can make their own changes.

We do this in a handful of ways.

We provide an example – When we’re asked to fill in content, we do it the right way. In doing this, we provide a clear example of how good – and important – content can be, enabling our client to see content in a new light.

We provide empowerment – Not to get all hippie on you, but it’s up to us to empower our clients toward their strengths. We provide the content, they provide the product expertise and context. Give them the tools, and let them run.

We provide encouragement – In our meeting, we let them know that we’re not tortured artists. We remind them that they know their business better than we do. We accept changes, and we provide empathy.

We provide examples – Still, though we know our clients are closer to an audience than we’ll ever be, we challenge them to accept certain standards and best practices. We don’t fight for art’s sake – we fight for common sense’s sake, and we do so with examples of why we’re so adamant about our position.

We provide an exit – No client wants to be tied to some web shop’s dependencies. So by accepting the positive changes – and explaining the consequences of ill-advised changes – we’re allowing a group to leave. Clean hands. No clinging ties. An atmosphere of collaboration without lockdown.

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