It’s Not About the Words

[December 8, 2009] 

During the execution phase of any Web site project, there’s a common expectation that, from a copy standpoint, “we just need to write it.” I suspect most people assume it’s a process akin to playing Mad Libs.

Even within the Creative team, this process is often misunderstood. It’s not unusual to hear a digital Art Director say “I need a 50-word intro, five two-line lead-ins and a three-word teaser for the marquee.”

But as Copy creatives know, it just doesn’t work like that. Sure, we can work within word limits and even character counts. At a fundamental level, however, language needs room to breathe. It can’t be laid down like bricks, one word at a time to build a prefab module.

Analog synesthesia…
That’s because what communicates in language isn’t words, but meaning, which can’t be constructed. Instead, meaning emerges from the interplay of different factors, including context, tone, and the intricate web of associations enveloping every topic. To see what I mean, say the following words aloud:

• Wedding
• Baby
• Love
• War

Memory quickly floods your consciousness with thousands of sense impressions. Add just one word to each:

• Society Wedding
• Border Baby
• Puppy Love
• Bidding War

…and everything changes. Now try to grasp the challenge of writing unmistakably clear prose about a complex topic, limited by brand guidelines, audience data and buzz-word avoidance parameters. On top of that are the wildly unpredictable strictures imposed by lawyers.

You’ll notice I’ve talked about the mechanics of writing well without mentioning grammar, a relative value having more to do with editorial style, and the decade you were born, in than with any absolute standard.

…builds a network of connections…
Regardless, the need to make a direct, emotionally grounded connection to the reader is far more important than writing mechanics. As much as you may wish to believe otherwise, the exact amount of copy required to make that connection is not quantifiable.

…in which content and design are one.
Now, I wouldn’t dream of saying that Web sites should be built entirely around the demands of language. I mean, I’d feel terrible if the sheer shock and horror of that thought made someone spend the night in an ICU.

What I would like to suggest is that Web design and architecture needs to be handled more flexibly. Not all topics lend themselves to the same treatment. Not all audiences absorb information in the same way. The more your process resembles what’s going on at Snappages, the farther you are from creating a motivating and emotionally engaging experience.

Even at that, I’m not saying Copy necessarily needs more physical space. What’s needed is better integration of so-called content with so-called design. That only makes sense, since the difference between the two is a flat-out semantic illusion. In reality, a great Web site channels all the meaning emerging from it—through its associative network of data, memory, visual and auditory output.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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