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Q&A with the Authors of Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose

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Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee, the authors of Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose, answer our questions on the biggest mistake companies make with web content, how to get your customers to care, and advice for those who seek a career in writing for the web.
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Peachpit: Why did you write the book? How does your approach differ from other books on writing for the web?

Nicole Fenton: We wanted to write the book we wished we had 10 years ago. There’s a huge gap between what we learned in school and what it takes to be a web writer in practice. There are plenty of great style guides and books on writing out there, but they don’t talk about the mindset of a web writer and they don’t give you exercises to actually get down into the work. So we wanted to do that.

We also wanted to convey that voice and tone and style are choices, not rules. Instead of outlining a list of what’s right and wrong, we wanted to teach other writers how to make those style decisions and share them other people, whether they’re clients, colleagues, or contributing writers. There are some guidelines that can help every web writer—like using simple sentences, avoiding jargon, and adding headings so people can scan—but developing useful web content is not something you can sum up in a top ten list.

Peachpit: What are the most important lessons that someone will learn from reading your book?

Nicole: To be true to yourself and your company. To write in an honest, clear, and kind way. And to see writing as an ongoing process and practice, not a step in a project or a one-time deliverable.

Peachpit: How did each of you get involved with writing for the web? What was your career path?

Nicole: I knew I wanted to be a writer at an early age, but I wasn’t sure where to start. As a teenager, I published poems, music reviews, and blog posts online, but I wasn’t doing that professionally. I studied English in college and decided I wanted to work at Apple after that, because I wanted to work on something I believed in. They were hiring customer service reps—not inexperienced web writers—so I took a call center job and worked my way up from answering the phone and writing canned responses to developing training, help center content, and interface copy. After five years, we had launched the iPhone and iPad, and I was editing communications for the global online store. While you don’t need a degree to write for the web, it helped me in some ways. I do think you need to be willing to help people with problems they’re trying to solve, and working at Apple taught me that. Since then, I’ve worked with nonprofits, agencies, startups, and small businesses as a writer, editor, and consultant.

Kate Kiefer Lee: I always wanted to be a writer. I studied media and communications, and an internship at a music and entertainment magazine turned into my first grownup job. I was an assistant editor, reviews editor, and then associate editor for several years. It was a wonderful and fun job, but the future was uncertain for print magazines, so I started doing some freelance marketing and copywriting projects. That eventually led me to MailChimp, where I’ve been for more than four years. There were only about 30 people at the company when I started as the first writer. Now we have about 250 people, and I lead a small team of writers and editors. I still love helping other companies with their content, so I write and teach whenever I can.

Peachpit: What’s the biggest mistake companies make with web content?

Kate: Companies get so focused on whatever it is they have to say, that they forget to think about the people at the other end of their content. This leads to writing that’s overly formal, confusing, and cold. You see a lot of companies talking about “us” and “we,” but they don’t take the time to learn about their audience and frame their content from the reader’s perspective. Thinking of your content as part of a conversation helps you communicate clearly and warms up your writing.

Peachpit: How can well-written web content get your customers to care about your products?

Nicole: In the book, we outline three guidelines for good content: it’s clear, useful, and friendly.

Clear content helps readers understand what they can do on your website and guides them through those tasks. For example, if I was preordering a book, clear content would explain how to order it, what it costs, and when to expect the book. Those details clear up confusion and help your customers feel comfortable. The web is full of mixed messages and bad content, but if you take the time to set clear expectations, that will help you stand out.

Useful content shows readers you’re paying attention to their needs. It solves problems. It supports your goals and your readers’ goals—and that builds trust, while supporting your broader mission. When content is useful, it gives people a reason to come back to your website or pass your content along to a friend.

Friendly content sets the tone for how you interact with customers. Being kind and showing your empathy is the best way to let readers know you’re not a creepy robot or an insensitive monolith. When you meet readers where they are, you show signs of being human and caring—and that makes difficult situations less frustrating.

Peachpit: You say that the writing process has four repeatable steps: research, clarify, write, and refine. Which step do most people skip, and why do they do this at their peril?

Nicole: Most people skip the first two steps and jump right into putting words together. But before you get caught up in the language, it’s important to figure out why you’re writing, who you’re writing for, what you want to convey, and how you want to talk about things publicly. That process of doing research, asking questions, defining your goals, and clarifying the plan with your team or your clients takes time and thoughtfulness. But it pays off, because it helps you avoid making useless content or getting into sticky situations with your readers. If you think about style and purpose, your content will support your business goals and hold up over time.

Peachpit: One of your guidelines for writing is “Write how you speak.” This seems to be a big challenge for many. What tips or tricks can you offer to make one’s writing sound more natural?

Kate: Read your work out loud. It helps you catch typos, improves your flow, and sound like a human. If you think to yourself, “That doesn’t sound like something I would say,” reword it. It’s also helpful to have a friend read your work out loud to you. Listen to their flow, and notice if they stumble over any words.

If you don’t know where to begin with a writing project, try recording yourself talking about the topic. It helps to pretend you’re having a conversation and answering someone else’s questions. Listen to the recording, and pay attention to how you phrase things so you can reflect that in your writing.

Peachpit: Which websites do you think do a great job of communicating in the right voice to their audiences?

Kate: There are a lot of companies out there who take the time to understand their audience and communicate to them clearly and kindly, and we share a bunch of examples in the book. One of the examples we share is Quinn Popcorn, a family-owned organic popcorn company who threads their story throughout their content. We also highlight Harvest, the invoicing and time tracking service, for their helpful and consistent technical documents. Gov.UK is a gold standard for clear and appropriate writing, and they have a set of style standards to support their content. Finally, we love NPR. They’re consistent, appropriate, and they have a wonderful ethics handbook that informs everything they publish.

Peachpit: You say that effective marketing is saying the right thing to the right people at the right time. What’s the best way for a web writer to practice and hone this skill?

Kate: Many companies mindlessly market at people instead of communicating with them like humans. Instead of only talking about what you want to say, take the time to think about what your readers need to hear from you. In the book, we go over some easy ways to find your audience and figure out what they need. This could include learning from customer interviews, or reading reviews and social media posts about you and considering the language people use. Choose your words carefully, and cut the fluff and marketing jargon.

It’s helpful to speak directly to people. Instead of saying, “We’re great, we’re awesome, we’re the best,” tell people what they can do with your product or service and what’s going to change for them. Check your “we” to “you” ratio, and cut straight to the verbs when you can.

Peachpit: What advice would you give to someone who wants a career in web writing?

Nicole: Read as much as possible. Find well-edited books and publications that inspire you. Practice writing something every day, even if it’s as small as an email.

Try new things. Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. There’s writing involved in almost any job, especially in customer service. Go to meetups and conferences near you. Seek out other people working on content, digital products, blogs, and the web. Practice being an extrovert and asking other writers how they work. There are lots of presentations and videos about content and web writing online too.

Learn enough about the web to understand how it works. Be proficient in HTML and Markdown. Also pay attention to what your colleagues do and why it matters for your readers and your business. For example, if you’re working with a designer, developer, or researcher, make time to understand how their work fits into making a website and how it affects your writing and publishing process.

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