Writing is a battlefield. Our new column, ‘From the Trenches’, brings you tales from the front line. In our first instalment, ex-copywriter Liz Chomiak recalls her attempts to help the lonely find love online.
Writing for the web is not a lot of fun for someone who likes language. The emphasis is on ‘findability’ and boosting a website’s search engine rating, often at the expense of good, or even coherent, writing. During my time as a copywriter, I found that web writing quite often involves working with pale programmers and web geeks who would probably rather do away with text altogether.
Once, when writing for a search engine optimisation company, I found myself trying to make inflatable airbeds the must-buy item of the decade and promoting physiolates (physiotherapy combined with pilates) as the solution to post-natal floppiness. The primacy of keywords, which make the pages appear high in search engine results, is truly the antithesis of creativity. Write 450–500 words on utility vehicle camshafts, using the key phrases ‘Doug’s Nifty Camshafts’, ‘camshafts’ and ‘camshafts for utes’ 20 times each. My time as an SEO copywriter did not last long.
I knew someone whose tiny IT company’s main project was a start-up dating website. I looked at the website and shuddered to see the awful copy on the home page: several sections of unconnected rambling, full of grammatical errors; an attempt to convince lonely souls to part with their money and privacy.
When you’re trying to convince shy, perhaps emotionally vulnerable people to lay themselves open to judgment and possible ridicule by joining a dating site, the copy is important. It’s as important as what you say on a first date. You do not want to be the sleazy drunk guy clinging to the bar, making vulgar suggestions. You do not want to be the loud, blokey obnoxious idiot. You do not want to be the babbling geek explaining why perpetual-motion machines do not exist.
The effect of bad writing on a website can be devastating. Someone browsing dating websites, looking for something credible, might read a few lines of bad text on a website and dismiss it as spam or a front for sex-traffickers.
Copy for a dating website should be sincere and appeal to the inner romantic. Red wine and jazz. Lying in the sun-kissed grass. The love of your life is waiting just behind this ‘Join Now’ button. So I tried to spin a story – spotting an attractive woman on the train reading your favourite novel, or keeping an eye out for the cute guy you see in the coffee queue every morning.
It wasn’t literature, but it was simple and subtle. It wasn’t embarrassing. And thankfully, did not mention the word ‘stalker’, as one version of the text did. The programmers didn’t like my copy enough to run with it; they are continuing to test different versions, including one where an exciting new feature is described as being ‘just the tip of a new iceberg’.
I am in no hurry to return to writing for websites, unless their creators have an interest in using compelling writing to promote their business. Nevertheless, I have learnt a lot about online communications – particularly that some people cannot write to save their blue LED-lit titanium cooling fans.
Liz Chomiak has just finished a Masters in Publishing and Communications and wants to use her writing powers for good.