The content writer who knew too much

4 December 2015

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and wondered ‘What on earth are they on about?’

You heard every word they said, almost all of the words were in plain English and the sentences were grammatically correct, but at the end of it you were no more the wiser.

Fortunately you can ask them questions and get clarification. “That sounds fascinating, I’d like to know more. What was that bit about jelly sky scrapers?”

Imagine if you couldn’t ask questions. If you could only listen to what they wanted to tell you, with no way of letting them know that you were completely lost.

If you were a website visitor.

That is the exact situation our visitors are in when they come to our sites. All they can do is navigate around our sites and read what we write. They’re at our mercy.

It sounds kinda cool when I put it that way, doesn’t it – I am the web writer, you’re at my mercy!

Of course, they aren’t really at our mercy at all. They just have to click the Back button, or worse the Close button, and they’re gone. Off to a website that talks their language and makes thing clear.

While they’re on our sites, they can only have that one-sided conversation and we’re the ones talking. If we want them to hang around, we have to make sure we’re making sense.

Yes, I know, we have social media now. They can Tweet or comment or iMessage or send us a terse email. But none of those things will make what we’ve written any clearer.

Well, not without a serious time delay while we read what they’ve Tweeted, commented, iMessaged or emailed, thought about it, rewritten the content, had it approved and then (eventually) published it.

“Hold on”, you say “I’m a professional digital content writer, of course I make sense”.

OK, so making sense might not be the right phrase. We all know how to write concise, readable English. That’s not the problem.

So what am I on about?

Imagine if I started telling you about this amazing new present I’d bought myself.

It’s gorgeous. It’s a beautiful metallic blue, made from carbon fibre, goes like the clappers and it only cost me $7,500.

Plain English, the grammar’s not too bad. I think most people would understand what I’ve written.

But what on earth am I on about?

A bike? A car? A motorcycle. A jet ski?

At that price, it could be any of the above. I’m so keen to tell you all the positive features of my new toy, I’ve forgotten the most important feature – what it is.

It’s obvious to me what it is, I’ve been riding around on the thing all week. It doesn’t even occur to me that you might not know what I’m talking about.

OK, this is a fairly simple example and one we’re unlikely to replicate on a website, although I have seen product descriptions that aren’t that far off the mark.

But I think you get the point. When we write about something we know, and it’s really hard to write about stuff you don’t know, it’s easy to forget that your reader doesn’t know the things you do.

Steve Krug puts it this way “After you’ve worked on a site for even a few weeks, you can’t see it freshly anymore. You know too much.”

Another way to look at it is to cast yourself back to your geeky 12 year old self (or your geeky kid brother’s 12 year old self) when you played Dungeons and Dragons (or the ‘cooler’ equivalent you played because you weren’t a real geek).

Remember how that went? You’re in a maze. You don’t know how big the maze is or where it goes. The only information you have is the clues your Dungeon Master gives you. You get a little bit more information each time you make a move. You have try to remember where you’ve been, what you’ve picked up along the way and then figure out how to get to the ‘goal’ of the game.

Sound familiar?

Our website visitors have the same challenges. The only information they have is what we give them. They have to try to remember what they saw on previous pages and then figure out how to get to the page that will let them do what they came to our site to do.

It’s incredibly easy to forget that our visitors don’t know what we know. We spend all day, every day on our websites. We know where everything is, what it does and what it doesn’t do.

They don’t. All they know is what we show them on whichever pages they go to.

Steve Krug goes on to say that the only way to find out if your content works is to test it and I can’t say I disagree with him.

You’ll never see your site clearer than through the eyes of another – someone who knows nothing about your site or what it’s promoting.

As digital content writers, we have to know a lot about many things – how to write quality content, the ins and outs of website accessibility and design and every little detail and selling point of the products and services our site promotes – now and then it pays to turn to someone who knows nothing and ask them how you’re doing.