So where do you start? The dreaded blank screen with its blinking cursor might seem as if it’s mocking you. (It is.) What can you do to defeat it?
The good news is you’re not alone in this venture. Some of us have done this before. The writing tools I’ve listed below are meant to help you before, during, and after your web-content creation endeavor. They are not meant to be rabbit holes, but if you feel as if you’re spinning your wheels when you explore any of them, move onward. I have personally used all of them to some degree for my own copywriting adventures, and most were used (but not harmed) in the writing of this post.
If When you reach the bottom of this informational treasure, a content worksheet we use with our own clients is available for download. For free!
It’s rare that I start a writing project, no matter how big or small, without first firing up a mind map. I can’t count how many times I’ve been slapped for suggesting a mind map in a meeting, but they work! I swear! I’ve found that a tool like MindMup helps relieve the pressure of jumping straight into writing something worthy of readership.
Mind maps have been around for ages, so it’s likely that you’re already familiar with the concept of plopping ideas and random thoughts into these thought-bubble spiderwebs. Don’t fail to explore the organizational power they can offer, though. Before you dig into writing your About Our Mission Statement page, a mind map can help you lay out a sitemap and give you a visual representation of how visitors might traverse the pages of your site. To help our own clients plan and prioritize for their site launch, I’ll color code the pages within the map to highlight which copy has to be written prior to launch and which can wait for a rainy day in the Sahara.
There is no shortage of mind-map tools available online. I’ve dabbled with quite a few, and for a while now, I’ve been quite happy with MindMup, especially because it plays nicely with Google Drive. It boasts a few bells and whistles, such as a Notes feature that lets you add extra thoughts to each bubble (great for sitemaps!), but the quantity of features isn’t too overwhelming or distracting for the average website user.
Offline alternative: A large whiteboard or writing pad can certainly do the trick and is often more helpful if you’re collaborating with a team in person.
2. Freeter or Scrivener
Two tools for the price of one here!
Both of these suggestions are more applicable to larger writing projects, especially Scrivener, which was developed with book and screenwriters in mind. For websites with sitemaps that stretch on for miles, content organization is crucial, and these tools can help you maintain a bird’s-eye view of your project.
Scrivener has a bit of a learning curve, but the folder system and the “corkboard” for attaching notes and tracking research can come in handy. It’s not a free tool ($40 for PC or Mac versions of the software), but it does come with a 30-day trial that only expires once you’ve used the program on 30 separate days.
Freeter is a tool I use to manage both web development and writing projects. Like Scrivener, it can help you keep your website research and planning resources all in one place. With multiple boards, you can pin buttons or actual open windows to web pages and files.
Unlike Scrivener, though, it doesn’t come with a built-in word processor. For that, you’ll have to link to Google Docs or some other text-editing tool. I usually attach my Mindmup boards and Google Docs to a “Web Copy” board.
One other handy feature is Freeter’s built-in Pomodoro timer. It allows you to break up writing sessions into 25-minute chunks divided by five-minute break periods. If you’re not familiar with this productivity approach, it’s a great way to keep your butt in your seat while writing.
Freeter is free with a few limitations that can be removed via a PRO version for $29.
Offline Alternative: Pencil and paper, my friend! Sometimes good old-fashioned scribbling is the best cure for writer’s block. If you’re spending too much time kicking the tires of the latest and greatest writing aid, just simplify and get down to it. But for web-copy writing, make sure you have some file folders labeled for each page so it doesn’t become a jumbled mess. Eventually, you will have to make sense of it all and transcribe your scribbles into a digital format. You don’t want your web developer to fire you! (We wouldn’t do that…mostly.)
Once you’re happy with your copy, Grammarly is a great free tool that checks for potentially embarrassing mistakes. It can help you with web copy, as well as any other writing you do in a browser. It’s definitely a step up from your average spell-check tool, as it can examine your word choice preferences, sentence structure, and other grammatical issues.
There’s also a built-in text editor on the Grammarly website (also available as a downloadable app) that will reveal your punctuation and spelling mistakes in real time. As exhilarating as this might seem, don’t write your first draft in the editor. Rather, copy and paste your finished work into it. If you’re like me, the constant reminders in the sidebar that your writing is less than pristine can be rather debilitating.
Again, Grammarly is free with premium add-ons.
Offline alternative: People proofreaders! AI might be the future, but for now, you still can’t beat another pair of humanoid eyes. If you value professionalism, never launch new copy on your website without the aid of a trustworthy wordsmith.
4. Hemingway App
Just about every website needs a good bit of selling copy. To achieve this, your writing should be free from as much jargon and academic language as possible. We’re going for concise phrasing here, and that means using only the words necessary for making your point. (This section is making me self-conscious!)
So it’s fitting that this next online tool is named after Ernest Hemingway, the early 20th Century master of journalistic writing. The Hemingway App might be bare bones in its design, but if you’re trying to write copy that’s reader-friendly, this tool is invaluable. Not only will it give your writing an overall grade-level readability score, but it will highlight long sentences/paragraphs (like this one), words that have simpler synonyms, annoying adverbs, and passive voice. You certainly don’t have to — and shouldn’t — follow all of its recommendations, but it can give you a sense of whether your web copy is going to live up to its promise.
Offline alternative:The Sun Also Rises, or the short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Some Cormac McCarthy or Elmore Leonard couldn’t hurt either. If less literary guidance is what you require, dig up a copy of Strunk’s Elements of Style. Then go find yourself a red pen and chop away.
5. Graph Words
Ah, the hunt for the perfect word. Maddening it is. Or infuriating. Maybe exasperating? Well, if you’re a visual person like me, a thesaurus is great, but a visual thesaurus is wicked awesome. There are multiple incarnations of this tool on the web, but Graph Words works well and better yet, it’s free. Type a word in the search box and a web of related words and meanings will appear in the display. Words are color-coded as parts of speech, and you can save word maps as images if you like.
Offline alternative: Obvious. Self-evident. Unmistakable. Duh.
Photo by Jean Lachat
6. The Chicago Manual of Style
So from the title I’ve chosen for this section, you might discern where I fall in the eternal question of AP vs. Chicago style. As enlightening as this must be, alas, it matters not. The choice is inconsequential as long as you make a company-wide decision to incorporate a language style guide into your messaging exploits. A guide will make your website more professional and prevent a nasty red-pen knife fight in the break room. People might pretend that they don’t care about the Oxford comma or the difference between “that” and “which,” but don’t let them fool you. They care. Truly.
We live in an age where grammar standards are plummeting daily with every Tweet (#covfefe) and Snapchat post, but you can rise above it. You have to. A single typo can create fault lines in your brand. Inconsistencies in grammar and usage are akin to a large mustard stain on your shirt during a new client meeting. (Never happened to me. Never.)
But don’t just stop with a subscription to AP or Chicago. Create your own internal style guide. Your company likely uses jargon and phrasing specific to your market and an outside reference can’t help with that much. At the very least, create a shared document that lists company word-choice preferences for common terms. Is it “web site” or “website”? “Internet” or “Internets”? You decide, but stick with one or the other.
Offline alternative: At this very moment, there’s a copy of Chicago causing distress to the sagging shelf above my desk. Nevertheless, it’s worth the investment.
“What? You’re listing a coding language as a writing tool?! Where’s the back button?”
Calm down. It’s not that bad. Markdown is very simple and will take you five minutes to learn tops. (Here’s a simple Markdown resource.) But it can save you and your web developer some frustration. Don’t know HTML? No problem. Markdown will let you stylize headings, bullet lists, links, and more in a way that’s easy to write and import into a web page.
You might be asking, “Why should I bother? Can’t I just copy and paste from Word into WordPress?” Oh, you can if you like, but you’ll also be importing all the extra code garbage those programs like to pass along with their copied text. You or your developer will then have to scrape that junk out, and quite frankly, who has time for such nonsense?
Even I, an old hand at HTML, still write copy in Markdown because it’s quick and easy to read. If you’re writing your own web copy, ask your developer if it’s okay for you to use Markdown and watch his/her jaw drop.
Offline Alternative: A series of clucks and whistles. No sorry, you gotta go digital with this one.
As promised, I’m attaching a downloadable Page Content Worksheet that we distribute to clients who are determined to go it alone with their web copy. We’ve been at this for awhile, so you’ll find some of the top questions you should ask yourself before you dig in to write each page.