Clear communication means avoiding embarrassing exposure – especially online

If you don’t want to confuse your customers, avoid ‘windbag writing’ on your site. Adam Christie minds his Ps and Qs.

WEBSITES display organisations’ weaknesses. Since the internet took off, every company is a publisher. Far more is exposed. It is generally good that far more information about an organisation is easily available but, in making it available, they are laying themselves open to close scrutiny. Like a model appearing in a studio without make-up there there is no flattering lighting and the photographer cannot use an air brush; even the most minute blemish is potentially exposed.

The internet is text-driven. It is the words that are prime. Even streaming video depends on a commentary or captions. Websites may look good but, in many cases, because little or no attention has been paid to the words, the design cosmetics cannot cover up the blemishes to an attentive reader.

The Department for Education and Employment site in UK Online provides a very good example of what not to do. The site opens with: ‘Welcome to the UK Online centres website. This website provides information in two main sections: Section 1: Information for centres who receive Capital Modernisation Fund (CMF) funding who are setting up, or improving on existing activities and provision, through the UK online centres application process. Section 2: Information on becoming recognised as a UK online centre. All existing IT centres in England can now apply for recognition as a UK online centre. There are two separate application processes to become a UK online centre.’

Apart from basic grammatical errors which really should not be on a site associated with a government department responsible for education, the entire page begs the question ‘what is this all about?’. Huge assumptions have been made about those reaching the site which are not only inappropriate but would deter many, including probably a significant number of those for whom the information is most appropriate and important.

Spend a few minutes online, following a search or chasing links, and example after example will appear. There are so many potential errors that can and do occur. With attention, and budgets that need not be huge, they can be avoided.

Metaphors should be use carefully. Not everyone has the same cultural reference points, and it takes time for them to become established. For example, the expression ‘Big Brother’ originates from George Orwell’s novel 1984. Its usage changed in many countries in late 2000, when the television series were broadcast, but this process is not instantaneous – it takes time.

One company that trades with ‘worldwide’ in its name has a web page that refers to enjoying a drink on a Friday after work. Many cultures observe Fridays or Saturdays as their religious days of rest. Others may not approve of alcohol. The company’s site looks too western and ‘Christian’ for the individuals involved to have a truly global outlook.

Good writing means stretching one’s horizons. It is all too easy for writers in the UK or North America to talk about the ‘spring’ or ‘autumn/fall’, but those are not the same times of year in Australia or South Africa.

There are designers and design gurus who expound good advice, but that selfsame advice isn’t followed by their employers. And no organization looks good if it doesn’t follow its own guidance.

Practising what you preach is essential. It is easy to be hoist by one’s own petard. (That, in itself, could be seen as an example of what not to do. What is a ‘petard’? How many people still use the expression?)

There is no place for what Guardian journalist Simon Hoggart has eloquently described as ‘windbag writing’. Some of his ‘plain’ writing was rejected by managers working for a major international airline because, he said, ‘the people we were writing for would have felt their own important job was demeaned if they had to use the kind of language spoken at home, in the street or at the pub.’

Hoggart offers strong advice: ‘Lots of convoluted jargon is designed to exclude and confuse the very people it’s normally written for. Frequently,’ he says, ‘it’s just a form of laziness; it’s easier to build sequences out of prefabricated blocks even when they are incomprehensible.’

His writing for the airline was rejected as journalese. ‘It wasn’t,’ Hoggart says. ‘It was just the way people usually talk.’

Hoggart’s comments come from a wider linguistic battle that has trapped those using the web. In his book Essential English for journalists, editors and writers, former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans acknowledges that ‘English is a battlefield’. The fight between ‘officialese’ and ‘journalese’ has put up a smokescreen that is making wider communication much more difficult.

‘English has no greater enemy than officialese,’ he says. ‘Daily the stream of language is polluted by viscous verbiage. Meaning is clouded by vague abstraction, euphemism conceals identity, and words, words, words weigh the mind down.’


On the buses

The ‘viscous verbiage’ of a memo is equally out of place on a website as copy from a brochure. Hoggart cites a man who teaches bus drivers. He rewrote the training manual, changing ‘ensure awareness and anticipation of other road users in the vicinity of the manoeuvre is maintained’ to ‘look where you’re going’. That is more the kind of language that should be on the web.

If a website is commercial – trying to part potential customers from their money – it cannot be anything other than inclusive. Good writing balances inclusiveness without being patronising or supercilious. When you don’t notice the writing, it’s likely to be good. If you do notice it, and you have to stop and think about something twice, the it’s not.

If is getting round or avoiding areas of potential confusion by using methods that don’t just serve to stop or inhibit readers that requires skill and attention.

With printed information, unlike a website, it is possible to target the content to a prospective audience. If you prepare an information leaflet for pregnant women in Manchester and distribute it through local hospitals and health centres, it is likely that all of those leaflets will remain with pregnant women in Greater Manchester. A website targeted at such a population group could well be read by women in Manchester, New Hampshire, or Manchester, Pennsylvania.

Data published in January 2001 showed that there was 10 percent more internet traffic outside the US than within it. More and more web users do not have English as their first language.

Writing for the web should be more, much more, than transcribing talk. English is a language that is used carelessly. Written text is deprived of the tome of voice, facial gestures or body language that make oral English understandable. Website text must convey the intended meaning without these.

There is a very old joke, probably dating from the 1850s. Statement: ‘She opened the door in her nightdress.’ Response: “What a funny place for a door!’

The first impression of a website may be wonderful but, unless the text is carefully checked, the second impression is likely to be ridicule – and that does no one any favours.


  • These basic questions are the most important: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? For most e-commerce purposes, these should be answered as quickly as possible.
  • Keep sentences short, with no more than one sub-clause.
  • Avoid metaphors and cultural references; they may not be understood.
  • Avoid humour. Humour is rooted in incongruity and often puns. There is no quicker way to cause offence.
  • Check, check, check and check again. There is an art to checking. Using spellcheck software is a start, but it is not enough. Good old-fashioned dictionaries are essential.

First published: March 12, 2001

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