Tell me about writing for the commercial web!
November 15, 2008 7:04 AM   Subscribe

What do I need to know about writing for the web?

I'm talking to some people who run a wonderful, small, independent web-development and design firm. They have had great success doing websites for regional and national companies and local businesses, updating image as they go with fresh design and new messaging. They do everything from toy stores and book stores to hospitals, advocacy groups, professional service firms, etc. Their business is increasing rapidly and they will probably be asking me to do some writing for them soon, on contract. They've seen my writing, which at this point is a very occasional moonlighting activity for me, in local newspapers (features, reviews) and magazines (food writing for the city mag). So they're confident I can put words together and deliver clean copy on a deadline.

However, I feel like there are some real specifics about writing for commercial web sites that I could stand to learn, and having some guiding principles going in would be really helpful.

So I'm asking a very, very open-ended question: what would you tell someone who has written for print, on mostly arts and culture topics, and for professional reasons (grant applications and museum labels and training manuals) about writing for the web on contract for a client who is trying to convey a specific image and message?

What jargon will I hear? What basic questions would I, as a content writer, need to ask at the beginning of a project?

What web resources would you direct a content writer to?

What is the range of fees for this service? How should I start the negotiations? I honestly have no idea what to offer here - print pays by the publication, usually a flat fee in a fee structure giving a range of compensation for type of article and word count. With web projects, do writers charge by the hour? By word count? By type of feature? By package? I have absolutely no idea what to ask. Of course I'm sure the range goes from 'peanuts/free' to 'sky high for the best companies,' but this company is doing very well and growing, they intend to pay, and I am a professional writer looking at this as an income source, not a hobby. So I would love some examples of fees and fee structures that web writers use for different situations and different levels. What are the industry standards?

What other advice do you have that I don't know enough to ask yet?

Thanks a lot. Writing/developing websites could be a really wonderful skill to add to my career bag-of-tricks, so I'm eager to be successful at it.
posted by Miko to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The writers and editors at the newspaper I work for say that for the web getting to the point or heart of the story is easier. They don't have x number of inches to fill, which they might pad out with anecdotal or background stories.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:21 AM on November 15, 2008

Tell them to keep it brief. People have short attention spans, and are only one click away from youtube or gmail.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:46 AM on November 15, 2008

the grand old man: Jakob Nielsen which a lot of people hate just for the sake of it but still have much better points than the naysayers
posted by flif at 9:09 AM on November 15, 2008

The standard technique taught for web writing is inverted pyramid style which your newspaper background is definitely helpful.

I would suggest taking a look at the eye tracking studies at the Poynter Institute. This site has some good advice with research here.

There are books by Reddish and others on writing for the web. I am still not sure that the inverted style is the only style. But it is the standard. I am in class now but should post more.
posted by jadepearl at 9:14 AM on November 15, 2008

I was about to add what jadepearl's linked... having written for web sites for awhile now, you have about 7 words to get your point across before the reader clicks something or abandons the page. That's the last study's finding, IIRC. I did a fellowship at the Poynter back in my reporter days, then went on to technical writing, advertising and now web site copywriting and editing, so I'm of the same background as you. Bottom line, if you don't get someone's attention within the first 7 words, forget it.

Imagine you're doing 2/3 technical writing, 1/3 marketing. When I first started, many times, the space provided dictated copy length. You want to get the point across quickly, but also make it sound appealing without being overly sales-pitchy. No exclamation points unless you're pointing out something new. Exclamation points on the web in a business or sales context = the equivalent of all caps.

Writing billboards helped me immensely in achieving brevity with purpose.

You'll want to compile a list of standard usages per client, too. Let's say you work for a web site that sells jewelry. All the buttons that take the user to the payment page will be standardized; they'll all say "buy now" or "Buy Now" or whatever variation you choose. The pages may have standardized text links, FAQs, that sort of thing. At the minimum, most clients should get directional copy for each page, some marketing (whether it's banner ads, email campaign copy--also referred to as CSM), FAQs, and you may have to work with the IA (information architect) to determine page flow and the corresponding navigational copy (click here, index, tabbed sections, etc.). The one thing you will most likely NOT be tasked with is legal copy. Especially starting out, I would refuse to do legal copy or Terms of Use (or Terms of Sale, yet another awful beast to tackle) if I were you. Those pages are horrible to write and there are too many liabilities involved.

It's pretty much the same as compiling an AP Style guide by client. Some have preferences they'll give you in advance; others will ask you to create one.

If you're just starting out, there's a good chance the client will have a list of standards and not even know it. They may be a sentence-case company, or always use animated .gif banners, that sort of thing. Ask before you write. If no guidelines are provided, assume you have carte blanche to standardize according to your vision of the company's site.

You may need to know preferred font and size (example: Verdana 11 is mine), color, copyrighted verbiage associated with the brand, that sort of thing. If you are tasked with creating it, keep a master version and update as necessary to distribute to the graphic design/marketing team.

Since you can't charge by the page any more, charge by the hour. This page may be of help to you.

I URGE you not to charge by the project. Too many times you get with a client who edits constantly (it IS the Internet... therefore, things can change over and over again, because it never goes to print) and you may lowball yourself into making less than you need due to the endless corrections. Defend your copy. You're the writer! Don't let stuff like "well, my 6th grader didn't like it" ruffle you. People can be very critical; don't take it personally.

Be prepared to write copy you absolutely love that doesn't get used. Also be prepared for the graphic artists, HTML/code people and/or database guys to put your copy in wrong, leave a word out, or transpose letters. Insist that you get to proof the final site in QA before it goes live. DO NOT simply read the links and buttons, TEST them. They may go to the wrong page. Become friendly with the tech people who do the background work, they're more important than you think (say, if you notice something typo'd on the live site and want to request a fix at 4 a.m.).

You may want to learn Dreamweaver and Visio. Dreamweaver allows you to write your content in the page template given and see how the copy will lay out before you send it; Visio allows you to build the page components yourself out of the common design elements the designers will use and show them how the copy should look once it's finalized. Both are a pain but extremely useful. You'll probably still deliver content in Word files, though. It's just extremely helpful to agree on everything visually ahead of time, or you may be editing stuff down over and over again before it's finalized because it's too long.

For the most part, online copy is AP style with a dash of creativity thrown in. Best of luck to you, this can be very lucrative. Try going to and typing in "web content writer" for your area and see what comes up salary-wise. I would never charge less than $25/hour.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:23 AM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

More writing tips here.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:31 AM on November 15, 2008

There are different kinds of writing for the Web and different ways of setting prices.

One is very old fashioned: it's about writing words for static pages, kind of presenting a business, its history, presenting goods or services, profiles of people, etc. This is classic writing and could be invoiced the old fashion way: from .50$ to 2$ a word or more.

The other is dynamic, like blog writing with links and interaction with customers, clients, commenters, crowdsourcing, etc. I have seen this kind of deal beginning with and hourly rate with a set output, for example: minimum 2 hours a day, 1 hour for researching and writing 2 short posts with one or 2 referenced links each or one longer post with 2 or more links; another hour for posting comments in 2 or 3 related blogs (in the same market, same service, same clients, etc.). The hourly rate can vary from 50$ to 100$. Generally, the work and the rate can expand in different ways (more research, more writing, more posting, more interaction, etc.).

Those two can work if you are dealing directly with a client.

The other way of setting prices is to work it out with the firm you are working for, if you know them well enough: generally, they already have a relationship with their clients and a rate card. So you could find an understanding with them where you charge (hourly rate or word count) 50% or 70% of what they end up charging to the client.

And from what you are writing in MeFi, I can tell that you won't have any difficulty to make the jump into the market. :-) Good luck!
posted by bru at 11:24 AM on November 15, 2008

I've been a writer offline and online for more than 25 years and have written web copy for design firms. I suspect your writing style will need to be much closer to the marketing end of the spectrum than the technical end. I agree that your journalism background will be helpful.

I think of $50/hr as minimum wage for business writing (or any business service). The more experience you get, the more you charge. Moderately experienced writers I recently contacted for creative online copy charge $75/hr. While there are certainly writers who charge less, a fee below $50 suggests that you don't have much business experience, so a low fee could actually make you less desirable.

As you set your rates, consider what the design firm probably charges for their time. A small firm in my town charges $125/hr, so a writer's fee of $75/hr won't be shocking to them.

You might be given a "wireframe," which is a mockup of the site design. It will give you an idea of how much copy space you'll have. You'll be writing to fill specific spots, and you'll need to know what positioning the client is using.

If you can get in on the conversations about positioning, style, etc. it will be easier for you to write what they want the first time without rewriting it for eternity. It's much more efficient for you to talk directly with the client rather than to rely on what the design firm thinks the client told them.

Unfortunately, an alarming number of firms have no real positioning beyond something like "It's powerful but so easy to use!" or "We're your one-stop shop." The more you learn about marketing, the better, because if you can help these clients stand out, you can become indispensable and highly paid.

Congratulations, and have fun!
posted by PatoPata at 11:53 AM on November 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is all terrific help -- I'll start gradually digesting it tomorrow. I'm encouraged and interested in learning more. Thank you all so much.
posted by Miko at 9:02 PM on November 15, 2008

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