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January 08, 2008

A web designer’s guide to writing well

Photo credit: Arquera

Writing with greater impact means tidying up our text so that it’s

  • Crisp and fresh
  • Easier to read
  • Less confusing

Funnily enough those are just some of the descriptions I’ve heard about the new design at Confident Writing.   

Now I’m no designer so I’m not going to attempt a post at the design work that created this effect (you’d have to ask Cat Morley about that, she did the work). 

But it did occur to me that there are important writing lessons that we can learn from the principles of web design. These were the 10 lessons that I learned:

10 writing lessons learned from web design

  • Love white space We love sites that offer white space – readers love it on the written page too.  It makes your work easier to read, easier on the eye, and is the perfect backdrop for your words.
  • Create movement There’s a ton of research going into eye-tracking on web-sites, including the way readers scan text on a screen.  You want to create hooks and anchors that allow readers to zig-zag quickly and easily over the page, that draw their eye down.
  • Cut the clutter I had way too much stuff on my sidebar.  Many people have way too much stuff in their writing – too many ideas, too many words, too much clutter.  Cut it out and your message will come over louder, clearer, less confusing.
  • Drop your attachment Cutting the clutter whether sidebars, words or physical stuff means letting go of your attachment to it.  Words are easier to cut than real stuff because you can still store them some place digital for a rainy day.  Just make sure you cut what’s excess from the piece you’re working on now.
  • Structure your work A website redesign forces you to think about the order that things should come in, what your readers should come across first, where you want them to go next, and where they should end up.  Accepting what’s redundant material (and what you’d prefer well hidden!)  Apply the same discipline to your writing and your readers will thank you.
  • Frame your words I only know a little bit of code but it's enough to know there’s something deeply satisfying about opening a bracket to create an effect, then closing it again.  Something rewarding about going on the hunt for the bit of code grammar you’ve missed, fixing it, and seeing the immediate impact.  It’s less of a science in writing but we should still be framing - opening, closing, leading -  all the time.  Contain your words in <frames> for a more powerful impact.
  • Use signposts You’re thinking navigation all the time in a web design – making the most of that navigation bar at the top, the space at the side, using all the tools at your disposal to help your reader navigate with ease.  The same principle works in your writing – from the physical signposts (headers, numbers, bullet points) to words, phrases and expressions that signal a shift from one section to another.
  • Know your purpose Maybe you’d call this meta-design, it’s what Ben Yoskovitz talks about in a piece on his recent blog design – knowing your own brand, boiling it down to a bunch of words that describe what your blog is about.  It’s worth doing the same thing with your writing – it’ll help you to be more focused, sharper, crisper.
  • Know your blind spots I was quite startled to realize how hard it was for me to ‘see’ what Cat could see on a web-page, whether mine or another site we were learning from.  She could spot white space, eye movement, clutter, clarity, confusion whereas I was drawn instinctively to the writing: the pattern of the words, the sound of the author’s voice.  This was a powerful reminder of the way we filter differently – I can see clutter in writing, not in design.  You might be the other way round.  It’s worth knowing where your blind spots are.
  • Get help when you need it There’s no way I could have changed the design without help – it wasn’t just a question of needing the design skills, experience and expertise, I couldn’t even ‘see’ what needed to be done (though I can admire the end result).  A second opinion, a fresh perspective, a critique of your work can open your eyes to what’s good and what needs to change – to create the impact your words warrant.

If you’re a designer who writes or a writer who designs… how could we add to this list?  Are there are other design principles we could adopt for more powerful writing?

This post was inspired by the recent redesign of Confident Writing, with grateful thanks to Cat Morley who forgave my blind spots, helped me let go of the clutter and transformed the look of this site.

It’s a contribution to the month long focus on writing for greater impact – subscribe to the feed for future updates.

I enjoyed working out the writing lessons I’d learned from the experience – if you liked it too maybe you could give it a Stumble? Thanks :-

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count


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It seems like everywhere I turn, I see fresh new looks at familiar sites. It only serves to reinforce my own dawning awareness of a need for change at MZM as well.

I knew it would take time to figure just what the Middle Zone should stand for, so to speak; not to mention finding out "who I am", too. But now that I've got a better answer for both of those questions, I can see it's time to begin the establishment of a unique MZM "brand".

Thanks for the list, Joanna; it's yet another good "checklist" of considerations for when I really begin to rework the Zone - hopefully this year sometime.


What a great writeup on the process of a redesign. Very well written (of course). And thank you for the kind words. TP was a learning experience for me too (understatement). Thank goodness it's a slick package or I'd be spitten a blue streak even now :-)

My website isn't ready to go live yet. It's finished bar last minute tweaking and sitting quietly there till needed. It took me four attempts to get it ready and I learned a lot in the process.

Everything I read pointed me to three things: keep it simple, keep it clean and check it in every browser you can lay your hands on. What looks beautiful in Explorer can look plain awful in Opera especially if they've turned off the graphics.

BTW I do like the new design since you asked.

Wow Joanna - what a shining redesign job you and Cat have done - it looks great. I'm guessing Cat, you used TP Advance Templates for this? That's so brave!! :o) but I'm sure you are more than happy that the results were worth the effort.

My BBA blogsite is in desperate need of a redesign too and there's some great reminders here... clutter is a real issue for me as my desire to show what's possible means there's way too much going on.

Taking the 'filtering', 'signposts' and 'knowing your purpose' points a little further, I would also add 'knowing your market'. So if the bulk of your readers are new to the whole blogging thing, you may need to do a little hand-holding when it comes to things like encouraging feed subscribers for example. What's a feed?, What's a feedreader?, What's that funny orange square thingy about?, What do I do with it?, etc. are all FAQs amongst both my own and my clients' readers so I like to include a few helpers here and there.

Anyway - I have to head off to Welsh class now, but I'll definitely be coming back later to check out your podcast... see you soon :o)

PS Stumbled as requested!! :D

Hi Robert, well I'll be interested to see where you take the Zone...

Don't forget to keep your eyes out for those little things that your commenters and readers say about you and your site - it might give you some ideas about the look and feel you want to create (or have already created...)


Thanks once again Cat. I wanted to try and explore how it was that you could see things that I was oblivious to - and the application of those design skills to the writing process - something that I know is dear to your heart


PS spitten a blue streak... is new to me, but it sounds scary, so I'm glad Typepad didn't make you too mad!

Thanks Jim, I look forward to seeing your new site once it's ready. Clean and simple are sound watchwords to work by - in writing too :-)


Hi Claire, thanks for the stumble - what a glowing review (blush) - I'm glad you persisted with stumbleupon!

Know your market is a good point - one for the writing application too - how much can you take as read, if you explain too much people will get bored but if you don't pace their current experience they'll switch off and go and read something else/visit another site

I struggled a fair bit with taking away some of the 'welcome' links and buttons (including things like what's a feed). I do have a link pointing to a 'welcome if you're new to blogs' page, but that still assumes that people are familiar with and confident about clicking links and seeing where they go (similar to our discussion on links opening in new windows)


PS Yes, we had to go advanced in order to get the navigation bar at the top but what a huge difference that makes - allows you to do so much and get rid of a lot of clutter. I'd have to leave Cat to say how hard/easy it was to go that step - all I can say is that now it's done it's a whole lot easier to manage (including tweaking sidebars and widgets) than I anticipated

Joanna, this list is brilliant. I am marking it for future use. Your advice and writing never fail to inform and inspire. Thank you so much for passionately sharing your knowledge with the blogosphere. Cat, the design is amazing. I like it more each time I visit. ;-)


I think the new design is just great.

@--Deb, thanks :-)

@ Karen, your comments are such a treat, thank you!


Hi Joanna,

Love the new design. Your words do count and the messages are as strong as ever.

Have a great 2008.


Hi Vern, thanks for the feedback. Your own site was one of the lots-of-white-space examples that inspired me to press on with the redesign... and with the words :-)

Best wishes to you for 2008 too, I look forward to following your progress!


Excellent advice, Joanna! It all makes sense - of course! :-) We want our readers to have the best possible experience while on our site. I have lots of things in mind for my own blog, but it will take a while to pull everything off. Just call me the cyber snail. ;-)

Consider this post stumbled!


Completely off-topic: thought of you over the last couple of days. I finished the Ian Rankin detective series of "Rebus", which as you know is situated in Edinburgh. Whenever I read these books I always want to re-visit Edinburgh.

Hi Michele, thanks for the feedback and the stumble :-)

There are always things we can improve and it's a constant learning journey - I'm sure there's a lot that you'll be picking up and absorbing as you read and visit other blogs, and you'll implement what's right for you and your readers all in your own good time :-)


Hi Sarah, I've just finished reading "One Good Turn" by Kate Atkinson, also set in Edinburgh, although her depiction of the place didn't really get below the tourist - visitor surface. Rankin is much better at exploring the murky underbelly!

Is it right that you're in Dunedin - I think they have some street names that are the same as Edinburgh there?


Joanna - I love this design. I'm also planning a redesign and you've given some great tips here. Thank you.

Catherine, glad you found them useful - they work for both writing and design :-)

Good luck with your own redesign


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