Crap, Sucks, Turd, Puke!
Let me start by telling you that the language that you use on your Web site is dictated by the language that your users use. That is, the content of your Web site is determined by what your users want and need. Furthermore, the language (i.e., the writing) you use should reflect the way that your users present themselves to you and the world.
How do you know your users' language and writing style? You must collect the data. Ask your users what they want and need. Read what they write. Visit their Web sites. Closely read their email. Read their Usenet postings, and their other rants and raves. After you have collected this data, your job is to mimic the way they write. Spend a good amount of time analyzing the way that they write. Ask these kinds of questions:
Armed with this information, your job is to keep your writing about one step above theirs. This will always keep the level of professionalism of your site at an appropriate level. Think of it in another way: You are not likely to offend your readers if you keep the tone of your content and writing one step above theirs.
What exactly does good writing entail, that is, what must you be aware of as you write? Always be aware of your spelling, grammar, writing style, page formatting, and page layout. You really need to be on your toes. I'm not joking at all about this. If you slip up even once, you can lose the trust of your users.
Web users are notoriously fickle. If users see the smallest weakness they will let you know about it. Or worse, they will never visit your site again. This is a primary reason why you ought to invite criticism of your site. Indeed, elsewhere I advocate that you ask your users to destroy your site. I argue that mistakes can be good things, if you understand how to use them.
You might be wondering about how to grapple with the diversity of your users. At this point you might be thinking about how your users are a heterogeneous collection of folks and therefore, their writing and content is diverse. The best way to gear your Web site writing and content in this situation is to be as professional as possible. Do every thing that you can to ensure that your site is the best-in-class. Compare your site to your competitors and make yours better. Relentlessly pursue content that is at the top of stack. If you need to, hire the talent.
How often do you think that you'll be able to use words like crap, turd, puke, and sucks? The answer is all too simple: Almost never. Sure, you might sprinkle some "vomit" here and there, but you must try to limit the use of these kinds of (especially negative) emotional words. I occasionally violate this rule to stress a point. I realize that I risk losing readers because of it, but being on the radical side can really drive home important points. However, if you use words from the gutter on your Web site, or in person, it is probably because you lack the proper vocabulary to express yourself. Informally, with friends, use whatever language you want. With your Web site and with your clients, aim to be professional. Again, if you need help, hire it out.
Creating content and writing for the Web are things best left to writers, particularly writers that have experience with online writing. Web designers and information architects are often asked to write, and many do a fine job. However, a Webmaster, for example, should not be burdened with the Web site architecture, page layout, graphics design, and creation of content. It is the rare individual that can successfully perform all of these tasks. So, help the writers do their writing. Be a coach or mentor, and guide their work. Then, take that content and shape into some Web pages. Lastly, be sure to have other people proofread the work. Proofreaders can make all the difference.
(Read another popular article: Designing for an Audience of One)
(c)1998 by John S. Rhodes. All rights reserved.
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