Web writers: For every great performance, you need to rehearse.

web writing practiceWhen you watch a live performance of your favorite play in a theater, you are looking at a performance that has been preceded by weeks or months of rehearsals.

And those rehearsals take place without costumes, without scenery and without the pressure of an audience watching.

The rehearsals allow the actors to get things right, outside of the public eye. There are fewer constraints. There are no downsides to making mistakes, missing lines, and so on. No pressure.

OK. Now let’s consider how we go about writing interior pages on websites.

As an example, let’s assume we are working on the rewrite of an insurance company website. The company offers home insurance, auto insurance, commercial insurance and farm insurance. Each of these areas has an interior page of its own.

Our task today is to rewrite the second-level page on home insurance.

We look at the previous version. We consider the length of the headline and the total amount of body text we can write. Maybe we spend some time studying how the other second level pages are going to be written. Perhaps we have a company style guide we need to refer to. And we should read that stack of memos from the various stakeholders who are involved with the home insurance division. We might even have a page template we have to write within, with set limits on the number of characters allowed for the headline, and so on.

And then we freeze.

No surprise there. We are tasked with writing a great page of content, but before we can even put pen to paper, we are deluged with constraints – some are imposed from the outside, some are self-imposed.

Dutifully, we fill in the spaces on the web group’s content management system, writing the headline, the body text, with some subheads and links.

The outcome? Well, mediocre.

It’s like we are being asked to perform, on stage, with an audience, before we even have time to rehearse our part, or message. Without rehearsing, our performance would be pretty bad anyway, but the pressure and constraints of performing live make things even worse.

So here is what I do, and suggest that other writers do. I rehearse my message before I get “on stage”. Before I even consider the constraints I might face.

My favorite way to rehearse my message is to write it in the form of a letter. “Dear Jack…”

It’s like I’m writing in the rehearsal room…no costumes or scenery…no styled guide or content management system.

I just focus on getting the message right. Just words on paper, as if I were writing to a friend who wants to buy home insurance.

I may write a few drafts of the page in letter form. Then, little by little, I’ll take on board those memos from the company stakeholders, while at the same time protecting the flow and integrity of my message. Then I’ll look at how the page is going to fit in with other pages. Then I’ll take a peek at the constraints of the content management system.

Will I have to make some compromises? Almost certainly. Once it’s on the page, in its final form, will my message be as strong, clean and clear as it was in my letter version? Probably not.

But it will be better than if I had filled my head with all the pressures and constraints from the first moment, and struggled to create a final, live performance before I had even tried to rehearse my message.

As I come to the close of this post, I’m not sure the analogy of performing a play is as good as I had hoped. But if you take just one thing away from this, consider the value of rehearsing your message in the form of a simple letter, before you try writing within a content management system or any other set of constraints you might face.

If you take on the constraints from the first moment, you will feel too much pressure, and will never give yourself the chance to discover the best way to write your message.

About the author: Nick Usborne is an online writer, copywriter, author and coach.

5 thoughts on “Web writers: For every great performance, you need to rehearse.”

  1. Dear Mr. Usbourne,

    thanks for your nice “letter”. I enjoyed reading how to shelter what a copywriter has on mind. There are people who trample down everything before you develop half a thought. I also like to write where it pleases me, copy and paste is the rest.

    Wish you more good dives into your imagination, untroubled and bringing something exiting to surface.


  2. I think the idea of a stage was spot on. Most situations can be seen as actors in a time and place and remind us that like plays they don’t always work every time in every place. I imagine that’s why they tour the towns before launching in the big city. I suppose like copywriters they’re trying to find the words that resonate with their audience. At least – as with face-to-face salesmanship – they have that feedback.

  3. I love the “Dear Jack” technique. I think I’ve heard it from you before, but forgot about it and never actually used it. I’m working on a project now where the owners want the home page copy super short with very little room for typical copywriting messaging. I’m going to try a short “Dear Jane” … like a memo to a friend and see if that unlocks anything for us … Thanks!

  4. I was a professional musician for 20+ years before turning to writing full-time. I can attest hat your approach is spot on. There is something freeing about knowing your first attempt is one to allow your creative juices to flow. Further — musicians go back and practice and review a piece in subsequent rehearsals, just as good writers know that good writing is all about re-writing. Thanks, Nick, for the good metaphor!


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