Here’s a hot tip for writing digital copy for the web: pretend you’re writing for the radio. This Radio News Style Guide from the BBC is a swift and witty guide to writing better copy. It makes the case for good English, clarity, tone, brevity, and why clichés are OK but you should never, ever use jargon.
The radio and the web aren’t that different. Your audience is distracted, permanently. They’re doing a hundred other things, and you have one chance to capture their attention: miss it and they switch channel.
Like when The Archers comes on and everybody has to switch to Radio 2.
Anyway, here are the points that are particularly important for web copy:
'Clarity and accessibility are fundamentals. We must say what we have to say in as simple and direct a way as possible.'
So much of what we do is making things simpler. Shorter sentences and simpler constructions. We’re always looking for a simpler way to say something – for example, you should get rid of extra verbs. You shouldn’t ‘endeavour to get rid of extra verbs.’ Nor should you ‘enable the getting rid of extra verbs.’ Just get rid of them. Bosh.
The Beeb's prescription for dealing with lazy writers who don't care about clarity? ‘Such people deserve to be roasted over coals.’
If you can’t say it in three short sentences, try harder. The guide suggests you ‘...think carefully before bleating that a story is too complicated...'. Just quit whining, and cut it down. Start by making sure you understand a story before you summarise it.
The spoken word
Be faithful to it. If what you’ve written doesn’t sound like something you would say, rewrite it. And then check it again: read what you’ve written out loud. If you sound like an idiot while you’re doing it, then rewrite. Repeat until you arrive at smooth, natural copy.
Clichés and Jargon
Going to the ends of the earth (ahem) to avoid clichés can hobble your copy. You're writing a web page, not classic literature. Get over it and move on.
Jargon, on the other hand, is inexcusable. You have to be vigilant about this, because jargon is everywhere. Everything has its own vocabulary of jargon – from businesses through to sports. It’s not useful for the wider world, so just get rid of it.
I could go on, but I’m doing our best to be clear, short, and natural – so I’ll stop there. Go read the BBC Radio News Style Guide.