How to Write Great Copy for the Web: Use An Authentic Voice

Chapter 3: Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy Chapter 5: Advice for Common Pages

Use An Authentic Voice

When someone speaks to you directly, you do three things: Stop, pay attention and listen.

This is a very common human attribute – we listen to each other when we speak. We can use this fact in our writing to help our readers pay attention to us.

Writing that sounds like it was written by a real person, is referred to as “authentic voice” – one that is true and genuine.

When we write with an authentic voice, our writing sounds like an edited version of the way we would speak in conversation. And when your writing sounds like a person is talking, then readers will listen.

Advantage of Authentic Voice

I mentioned above that writing in an authentic voice can make people pay attention to your writing. When you talk to people in a straightforward way, they listen.

The other advantage is that people can understand what you mean a lot more easily. Because authentic voice is written in a similar way to how we speak, it is usually made up of simple words, strong verbs and nouns, and short sentences. Authentic voice helps you get to the point.

Here’s an example that shows how an authentic voice can be much easier to understand.

I was looking for a car last year and was reading reviews for the one I wanted. Here’s a paragraph I found:

“The driver’s seat has sufficient travel; more reach adjustment for the wheel is necessary for tall drivers, who have to use the farthest seat position to gain adequate leg room, and are left with a locked arm driving position that is not conducive to good control”

Do you think people really talk like this? In a conversation, do most people ever really say: “not conducive to good control”? Can you even figure out what the writer is trying to say?

I figured it out eventually – it means that the seat slides back far enough for people with long legs, but they have to stretch out their arms to reach the wheel properly. That’s not a good position for driving.

Here’s a similar passage from the Top Gear website. This sounds much more like someone is talking to you:

“While headroom is adequate, legroom in the rear is poor and it’s almost impossible to squeeze three in side by side. The boot is also quite small for this class.” —topgear.com

Can you see that this second example gives you a much better picture? Do you get a feeling for how squashy that back seat must be? It works because it’s written like someone you know is speaking directly to you.

Does your writing sound like the way you speak? If not, you may need to go back over it again and loosen it up.

Voice and Writing Tone

It is important to note that authentic voice doesn’t have to be cute, chatty or informal. It just needs to sound like a human.

Many organizations have a particular tone for their communications. Some want to sound professional, some need to convey credibility and others want to sound friendly. You can write with an authentic voice and still meet the guidelines for tone, since tone is made up of the message you are communicating, the words you choose and how you put them together.

Here are some examples that demonstrate different tones, but are still written with an authentic voice. (Note: the first example is what not to do; and I made all of these up).

  • What Not To Do: A new world requires a new form of publishing, one that allows consumers to get a rapid response to their information needs. At Rockable Press, we recognise the importance of providing credible, accurate resources, resulting in our commitment to engaging specialists in a topic to author long and short- form publications.
  • Credible and Solid: Rockable Press is a new publishing company with a new model. We publish in e-book format to get resources to you quickly and at a reasonable price. We work with authors who are seen as leaders in their fields and have a team of writers around the world.
  • Friendly and Approachable: At Rockable Press, we produce simple, straight forward how-to guides and resources for web and creative professionals. We are a small web publishing outfit operated by Envato with authors based around the world.

No matter what tone you are writing in, you’ll need to be consistent. There is nothing more disconcerting than reading something that jumps from one voice to another.

Can you see the different voices in the following passage?

Company X has been looking after American citizens for more than 75 years. We provide health insurance to nearly five million members and are committed to helping them lead healthier lives. No wonder we are America’s number one privately owned and managed health insurer. In support of our core health business and broadening our appeal to our members, Company X has diversified into lifestyle management and financial services.

“One project, one voice” – this is the golden rule here. Pick a voice that suits your aims, and make sure your voice is consistent across multiple pages of copy.

How to Do It

When you start writing a piece, just write. Write from top to bottom, exactly as you would if you were talking to someone. If it helps, actually talk to someone or say your key points out loud to yourself before writing. This is a particularly useful exercise if you find yourself slipping into writing that is too formal or corporate.

I mentioned in the previous chapter that you should write to your readers, and call them “you”. When you write your first draft as if you are talking to them, this will happen naturally.

Imagine you’re having a conversation. In conversation, people will respond – nodding, agreeing and asking questions. Think about what someone might ask you as you are writing, and answer their questions (don’t write the questions in, just answer them). That will make the writing flow and sound like a conversation.

When you write your first draft, don’t worry about your grammar, spelling or sentence construction. You can fix those things later. Concentrate on getting your ideas down as if you’re talking to someone.

The best way to learn how to write with voice is to practice by writing more often. Start a blog, send more emails, or keep a journal if you’re determined to improve.

Summary

When you write in an authentic voice, it sounds like a human is speaking. And guess what: people listen when someone talks to them!

To write in an authentic voice:

  • Write your first draft as if you were talking to someone.
  • Call the reader “you”.
  • Anticipate questions and include them in the flow.
  • Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or correct language. Just write (for now).
  • Write more and your voice will become stronger.

Chapter 3: Writing Useful, Functional and Concise Copy Chapter 5: Advice for Common Pages