Achieving the perfect website copy can be like catching a mythical beast. Editing copy can be like being perched under a horse's arse. I did this illustration recently and I'm going to shoehorn it in this post, dammit, no matter how awkward it looks

(or, the difficulties of editing copy)

You know the bloated corpses they sometimes find floating in rivers? Well, that’s how I felt about the writing on my website. Disgusting to look at, unwieldy, past its sell-by date. I’d composed it in a fit of verbosity some time ago and knew it needed editing, but every time I thought about dealing with it my stomach turned and my gag reflex kicked in.

It started to haunt me, like in a B-movie (only one about website copy). I’d be washing the dishes and its putrid face would float up at me through the suds. I’d discover its festering limbs emerging from old boxes in the attic. In short, it became my nemesis. So, the other night, in a fit of spring-cleaning fury, I hacked at it until I could see its bones. There’s still flab to slash, but I feel I’m closer to the essence.

It’s easy to see when your writing has become a little monstrous, yet, as every Dr Frankenstein knows, it’s much more difficult to tame the beast than it is to create it in the first place. Where to start?

What you should be talking about

There’s a balance to be struck between describing in dirge-like detail and painting with too broad a brush. “WIN AT SUCCESS”-type books will tell you to SELL THE BENEFITS of your product or service, so in theory I should be rabbiting on about clearer communication, engaged audiences, and little else.

However, in my experience, there is a mist of mystery surrounding what exactly us designers actually do, and, as I like to think of myself as a friendly, helpful soul, I consider it appropriate to explain the process a little, if only to illustrate my friendly helpfulness. There are a bazillion designers out there, and people tell me that they work with me because they like working with me, so by showing my friendly helpfulness I sort of am selling the benefits of my service. Perhaps you might consider getting your personality to come across a little more in your copy. After all, people like to deal with other people rather than faceless corporations.

There’s a dilemma, though: my line of work is visual communication. It could reflect badly if I have to use a lot of words to describe stuff, rather than fancy graphics and that. So, for me it’s important to keep everything as close to the bone as possible without losing my friendly tone. I suspect the same is true of you, because you don’t want to be waffling on. You want people to think you’re efficient and things like that.

So, without further waffling on, here are four rules I’ve been using when re-writing my site:

  • the continual repetition of the holy trinity of mantras “is this bit necessary?”, “can it be better written?” and “what does it say about me?”
  • finding ways of breaking up pages into smaller chunks (“services” became three pages about print, web and illustration respectively)
  • remembering to illustrate the occasional point with a picture
  • hacking unwieldy paragraphs into submission with page-prettifying subheads and pull-quotes

The challenge, I find, is to give your audience enough of the right kind of information without boring the shit out of them. It pays to snoop around at competitors’ sites sometimes, though I rarely bother as basically I’m trying to sell myself, so what other people are talking about is frankly irrelevant. I continue to struggle with my testimonials page – I’ve cut swathes away but I want to maintain context as I don’t think a simple sentence like “Caroline isn’t a total arse” is really enough. My clients have taken the time to write some really lovely stuff about me and I want to honour that, but also I don’t want people who read the whole page to be vomiting all over their keyboards. So, there’s more to come. Or, rather, less. When I catch the mythical beast of perfect copy I’ll be sure to let you know.

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