Incredibly Useful Advice for Better Websites – from a Writing Pro

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[Photo credit: On writing well, by picassina, on Flickr]

My digital life has caused me to reevaluate my bookshelves, groaning with books I hardly look at. When my local library posted signs asking for donations, I decided to purge. As I was filling boxes, I found one little gem I haven’t seen in years: William Zinsser’s classic book On Writing Well.

Journalism students know this as required reading in an attempt to learn the principles of cleaning up prose for newsprint. In my years as a journalist, I found it inspiring and refreshing to dip into now and again for advice on how to de-clutter my writing and simplify my words.

As I was thumbing through my copy the other day, I realized that if I replaced “writing” with “creating websites” – especially in the first few chapters – Zinsser’s book is chock full of fantastic advice for anyone looking to plan or maintain their website, whether it be creating design elements, planning pages or writing copy.

The best sites are those that don’t make you think. They’ve been refined so much that you find just what the website owner wants you to find, and you never have to hunt. Few sites suffer from being too simple. That’s exactly what Zinsser preaches in his book.

I recommend you check out a copy of On Writing Well to learn how to write better (useful advice anyway for business documents, blog entries, e-mails and the like), but I’ve taken a few golden nuggets from Zinsser’s book and tweaked them slightly for web building. Follow this advice, and your website will serve you – and your visitors – better.

  • The secret of a good website is to strip it to its cleanest components. Remove every element that serves no function … these are the adulterants that weaken the strength of a website.
  • If the web visitor is lost, it’s usually because the web builder hasn’t been careful enough. Perhaps a website is so excessively cluttered that the visitor doesn’t know what it means.
  • Constantly ask yourself: What is my website trying to say? Surprisingly, often people don’t know. Then look at what you have done and ask: Have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the site for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery.
  • Web building is hard work. An easy-to-use website is no accident. Remember this in moments of despair.
  • Look for the clutter in your website and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?
  • Simplify, simplify.
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