Is there a future in writing for websites?

This past week saw me being asked to contribute to an online feature looking at the perceived importance placed on writing for the web, mainly by companies looking to create a new website or improve an existing one.

It’s a subject that’s clearly close to my heart, as writing and editing, particularly for websites, is both my passion and how I earn my living, so I was keen to give my views. Whether or not my comments end up in the finished piece, I thought I’d elaborate on how I view the future of writing for websites and online.

Having worked in the online world since 2001, I’ve seen theories on how to write for the web fluctuate every few years. The early fondness for simply taking existing content from brochures or print documents and slapping it on a web page has, thankfully, been replaced by a recognition that reading online is different to print, and that it’s not always best to just copy and paste from one medium to another.

Those of us who spend time crafting copy for websites – it’s a bit more than the “take the original content, halve it and halve it again” rule that gets bandied about – are aware that we can lose readers quickly if we misjudge the tone or length of a piece of text and that a longer piece of writing isn’t always a bad thing.

Where  the problem often arises is that when the costing for a new website is totted up and all the factors such as design, build, testing and hosting are factored in, writing is often seen as a nice to have rather than a vital part of the mix.

My own theory is that because the majority of us have MS Word, or some variant, on our computers, but fewer of us have a need for Photoshop, there’s a mystery to the creative side of websites that just isn’t there when it comes to writing.

Most of us compile reports, write agendas or compose emails on a daily basis, so what’s so difficult about writing a few paragraphs of text for the new website? Surely it’s cheaper to get the student placement to draft up a few paragraphs than pay for a professional to do it?

Well, yes, doing anything in-house is usually going to be cheaper. I know of a large organisation who left the initial design of their logo to a girl in the secretarial team who was paid nothing for it, only for the redesign a few years later to cost a few thousands pounds when handed to an external agency.

While the original did the job but was never thought of that highly, the revised version became a well-respected – and much copied – brand that could be used across print and online and seen worldwide.

The fact that much of what we read online is free these days – The Times excluded – is another factor in the perceived lack of value attributed to writing. I have mixed views on paywalls and paying for content, and think that it’s going to be an exciting area for discussion over the next 12 months – I’d recommend this piece from The Guardian for more on the subject – but I do wonder if the free culture has led to online writers being devalued.

I understand that a website’s design is vital in making a good impression on its users, and that hiring an agency or freelancer to provide the look is a fact of life for most businesses. However, if the words on the website are riddled with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and the odd factual inaccuracy, what faith does the reader have that the organisation behind it is any better? Why would they bother to come back?

Investing in high quality writing for the web doesn’t have to cost a fortune but it is something that’s worth investing in right at the start of a project. A decent writer will be able to suggest ways to get the most from a tight budget that don’t compromise the finished product.

I also like to take the time to look behind the scenes of a website once the content has been written and published to see how users are responding to it, using free tools such as Google Analytics to find out what’s being read and for how long. Text can then be tweaked if necessary and for a website owner this could be a way to ensure their investment in writing isn’t just a one-off payment with no tangible results, but the start of a longer process.

Could bundling content creation and analysis into the final cost of a project be one way forward? Does an online copywriter owe it to their client to view the project as a longer term contract rather than just a one-off job, in a way that those writing for print don’t? Or should the writer’s job start and end with what’s on the page?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.