With online journalism in a constant state of flux, it’s hard for freelancers to find credible resources that explain how to write well online. Sure there’s the Yahoo! Style Guide for any technical questions, and BuzzFeed just published their Editorial Standards and Ethics Guide, but these guides don’t address that all-important issue of how professional writers can improve their skills while writing copy specifically for the unique needs of digital readers.
Luckily for us, Kate Kiefer Lee and Nicole Fenton set out to do just that with their guidebook Nicely Said: Writing For The Web With Style and Purpose. In their day jobs, Kate Kiefer Lee runs content and communications at MailChimp and TinyLetter, while co-author Nicole Fenton is a content strategist who has worked for Facebook and Apple, where she served as communications lead and helped launch the original iPhone and iPad.
Together they decided to write the book they wish they had when they were starting their careers creating web content. The book focuses on helping writers understand what counts as clear and useful copy for the web, all the while providing valuable resources on every topic imaginable: from style guides and research methods to taking feedback from editors and getting “unstuck.”
We sat down for a conversation with Kiefer Lee and Fenton, who shared some of their wisdom for freelancer journalists looking to take their digital writing to the next level.
As co-authors, how did your relationship develop, and why did you decide to write Nicely Said together?
Nicole Fenton (NF): Kate and I met through the content strategy community. We read each other’s work online and got to know each other at conferences. At one point, Kate interviewed me about style guides because she was developing one for MailChimp. She’s also contributed to Born Hungry, a magazine I run for home cooks. I still love that piece!
In January of 2013, I started planning to leave my job at Facebook to write a book. I asked Erin Kissane for advice with the proposal process, and she recommended I talk to Kate before moving forward with an outline. We had a quick call (Kate lives in Atlanta and I live in New York City) and ended up deciding to collaborate right away; she was also working on an outline. The timing was great, and we have similar styles and philosophies, so it just made sense. We both wanted to write the book we needed when we started—and we knew it would be better if we teamed up on it.
What are the biggest difficulties writers have in regards to adhering to style guides when writing for their own company or for other publications?
Kate Kiefer Lee (KKL): When a company tries to cover too much information in their style guide, people won’t read it. That’s why I think it’s a good idea for editors and publishers to defer to an existing style guide like The Yahoo! Style Guide or The Chicago Manual of Style and then create a shorter supplemental guide to share across the company. Also make it accessible. If the style guide is hard to find, people will forget it exists.
NF: I would add that your style guide needs to have higher level principles that support your goals and your brand. Grammar and spelling are a small part of a useful style guide.
What can writers do to better adjust to the style requirements of different publications?
KKL: Sometimes it’s easier to write without style points in mind and do a “style check” afterwards. That way, you can get your draft on paper without feeling weighed down by the rules and regulations. Ask your editor for the house style guide and keep it handy to save yourself time on the line edit. And don’t feel pressured to remember every guideline for all the publications you write for—use the style guide as a reference.
It also helps to have a good relationship with your editor. You may have suggestions for the style guide or points you need clarified as you write. Keep talking about style with your team because these things change over time.
What are you favorite books on writing and why?
KKL: My favorite book about writing is Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. It’s inspirational, practical, and fun to read. I especially love what she says about “shitty first drafts.” Her writing advice has given me a lot of confidence over the years.
NF: Love that book. I am also a huge fan of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing and Carol Fisher Saller’s book, The Subversive Copy Editor, which is not just for editors.
Given your previous experience in editing and content strategy, what are some characteristics of the best writers you have worked with?
NF: I honestly love working with any kind of writer, but I think the best writers are curious, deliberate about who they’re trying to reach, and willing to experiment. Words are subjective, so you have to bring other people into the writing process from the beginning. Web writing doesn’t happen in a corner office or a cubicle. You need to be excited about getting coworkers involved in the conversations you’re having with customers.
What can writers do to develop good working relationships with their editors?
NF: Find an editor who genuinely cares about the project or the audience you’re writing for. Set clear expectations about the kinds of feedback you need and keep your editor updated during the process. Be open to feedback and talking through ideas and sentences together. Be willing to push back if your editor is overstepping or squashing your voice.
I love what Arthur Plotnik says about editing and style in The Elements of Editing. Your editor is there to advocate for the reader; it’s your job as a writer to know the material and think through it clearly. Much like writing, a healthy editing process requires a lot of trust, planning, and ongoing conversations.
What do you see for the future of writing for the web?
NF: I can’t predict the future, but here’s my dream: We will have better tools for writing and editing collaboratively. We will continue to see fragmentation in interfaces and content types, but we’ll have standard starting points for the obvious, basic templates—like 404 pages, email address confirmations, signup forms, terms, and unsubscribe notices.
We’ll stop treating text as something that needs to be written and published once, as an afterthought or part of a campaign, as something that is less important than code or visual design. We’ll actively be involved in the design process because writing is a huge part of design.
What do most people miss about the differences between voice and tone?
KKL: A lot of people use those words interchangeably, to mean “written personality.” Voice is about you, but tone is more about the reader. Your voice stays the same for the most part, while your tone is always changing depending on the situation.
When people forget to change their tone, it can create problems. For example, you might use a fun or playful tone on a marketing page, but that wouldn’t be appropriate in an error message or rejection letter.
How important is research to your writing process? Can you briefly describe your research process?
NF: I start every project with research, no matter how small it is. I have to understand the goals of the project and who I’m writing for. Depending on the situation, I may start with quick questions about what we want to say and why, or I may go into deeper questions, with months of interviews, reading, thinking, and organizing my thoughts (a.k.a. the discovery process).
I may need to write a pitch or project brief to summarize the goals and research I’ve gathered before moving into a draft. There are two whole chapters about research and planning in our book. We give special attention to behind-the-scenes documents because they’re a huge part of managing the communication process and getting copy approved.
One of the main points in the book is to make sure your copy is clear, useful, and friendly. What are some tactics writers can use to produce this type of writing?
KKL: My number-one tip is to read your work out loud. When you read a draft out loud, you’ll stumble over unclear parts, and you’ll notice if your writing isn’t friendly. To make sure your writing is useful, go in with a plan. Before you even start writing, ask yourself, “What does the reader need to know?”
What is one piece of advice you wish someone had given to you when you first started writing professionally?
KKL: I wish someone had said, “Stop worrying so much about the rules and just say what you mean.”
NF: I wish someone had told me to minor in design. I knew I wanted to write, and while I wasn’t sure how or where I’d write, my English degree didn’t prepare me for the multidisciplinary work we do. It did teach me to learn independently though, and that’s a huge part of the job.