Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose, a new manual of style, not only provides a process for creating good web writing, but makes a philosophical case for why writers need to set a higher standard for digital content. The book’s authors are Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. Fenton, an independent writer, has had a range of work experience in digital, from small design studios to such major operations as Facebook and Apple. Kiefer Lee is a writer at MailChimp, where she created the famous MailChimp style guide.
Nicely Said is a friendly read, with a conversational style. It’s full of case studies from prominent digital writers, like Margot Bloomstein and Etsy’s Randy J. Hunt, and it features plenty of tactics ready for daily use, like “mission statement madlibs” and sample deliverables. At first glance, the book presents itself as a manual for relative beginners. The authors’ goal is “to unravel the mysteries of the writing process and help [writers] create useful and meaningful web content.” For many of us the ‘mystery’ of web content has probably long faded, and the rigorous preparation methods laid out in the next chapters may seem like a rare luxury. (Reader interviews, mission statement documents, and content success metrics, for example, seem like solid ideas, but oftentimes in practice these fall away given an aggressive project schedule. In other words, we end up just writing the damn thing.)
But in its later sections, as the book builds it case, the chapters turn to the serious business of creating written experiences.
UX for the Written Word
One of the central concepts of Nicely Said is to include empathy in your writing process — to inhabit the mind of your audience. There is a strong parallel here between writing and UX design. “Think about the situation your readers are in,” they write. “What did they come here for?” This is exactly the kind of get-in-your-users’-heads empathy that makes for good UX, and probably a good starting point for cross over between writing and design disciplines. For whatever reason, sometimes it seems ok to be dense, jargon-y, or ungenerous in writing. When it comes to creating content that embodies a brand, it’s especially important to have the kind of empathy that Nicely Said is insisting upon.
I especially like the authors’ approach to user flows. This is a process I’ve done many times informally, and I think would be beneficial for many projects. “Take an inventory of the flows on your site. Write down the most important actions people can take. Choose one flow to start with….Go through the flow, step by step, and make notes about the language you see…” In other words, put together a UX-style user flow, with an eye for the words along the way.
Showing your Work(flow)
A second, indirect use of the book is equally important: it’s helpful not just for doing written work, but for explaining it to clients and team members. This will be especially useful to people trying to establish editorial teams, pitch new business, or deal with a skeptical account manager.
The book goes into useful detail about the many writing and editorial roles that are necessary for a healthy content operation, gives an easy to understand vocabulary for the writing process, and generally demystifies what goes on in a writers’ head. It can be difficult to explain why good writing takes time, and in Nicely Said we’re given a capable set of tools for explaining and quantifying the people and steps involved.
What Makes Writing Good
Nicely Said is basically a style manual, but it’s also a kind of a manifesto. It addresses some of the most important threats facing modern writing – the simultaneous pressures of corporate-speak on the one side, and link bait on the other – which push the written word to a point where it loses its authenticity.
So what can writers do to fight back? We talk all the time about the best experience for our “users”, and really we should treat readers with the same amount of care. Good writing is honest and approachable. To hold yourself to these standards, the authors recommend a few simple questions. “is it useful / is it true / is it nice?”
This book isn’t just about how to write for websites. It’s a manual that will move UX practitioners toward good writing practices, and writers toward user-focused design thinking.